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Nurses unionize to improve patient care

Washington Times, 7/12/10

By Philip Dine
Washington Times
July 12, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

America's nurses are on the march — literally and figuratively.

Consider just two recent developments:

  • In Minnesota, 12,000 nurses from 14 hospitals walked off the job for a day last month, the largest such action in U.S. history, in a bid to improve staffing levels and to secure standardized nurse-patient ratios.
  • In Texas, almost 2,000 nurses at five hospitals voted to form unions in a two-week period ending in June. This was particularly notable because Texas has the third largest number of RNs in the country — after California and New York — but previously only one private hospital in Texas was organized.

What on earth is going on, you might ask. We're constantly told that the American labor movement is in decline. And a report by the Labor Department informed us last week that strikes are sharply down nationwide — only five major strikes or work stoppages in 2009, compared with an annual average of 83 during the 1980s.

Labor is indeed on the defensive these days. But nurses are among the nation's fastest-growing segment of union members. Twenty percent of nurses are organized, about twice the average for workers as a whole — and the figure is growing.

The story behind this is intriguing on several levels.

Nurses have been unionizing not to secure bigger salaries for themselves — but rather to improve patient care. They contend that a collective voice will help them advocate for patients while protecting their jobs as they do so.

This effort, they say, has become all the more important with the increasing corporatization and bottom-line orientation of the medical profession. Staff reductions aimed at cost-cutting have raised patient-to-nurse ratios even as greater demands are placed on remaining nurses, allowing them less time and flexibility to care for their patients.

If the push by nurses is gaining momentum, it's attributable to several factors, including the national focus on health care.

The galvanizing factor was the formation in December of the National Nurses Union by three organizations: the California Nurses Association, the Massachusetts Nurses Association and United American Nurses.

With 150,000 members at the outset, the NNU was instantly the largest union of registered nurses in U.S. history; 5,500 more have since joined in Texas and Nevada.

In May, 1,000 NNU nurses rallied in Washington to make patient "quality of care" part of health care reform and for whistleblower protection for nurses who expose unsafe hospital conditions. According to a recent University of Pennsylvania study, improving the nurse-patient ratio would sharply reduce post-surgical patient deaths.

The nurses also seek to establish safe patient-lifting policies. Currently, nurses suffer more back injuries than construction workers or truck drivers. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis says that more than 36,000 health care workers were injured in 2008 by lifting patients, and that 12 percent of nurses who plan to leave the profession cite back injuries as a factor — important in a time of nursing shortages.

The NNU appears to be benefiting from the cohesiveness of its organizational structure, membership and mission. It represents, is led by, and is all about one professional group: registered nurses.

Rose Ann DeMoro, who is NNU's executive director and also leads the California Nurses, calls the unifying of RN labor efforts "a new day in America [that is] 100 years overdue."

NNU has three co-presidents, an unusual power-sharing arrangement that just might work, given the union's unity of purpose. Karen Higgins, past president of the Massachusetts union and one of NNU's co-presidents, has been an RN for 35 years and still works full time in the intensive care unit at Boston Medical Center.

"It's great to be strong within your state, but we needed a strong voice across the country," she said. "We will take care of patient safety; that is a battle we are willing to take on. We will take the battle to the streets if we have to."

NNU also has a skillful communications effort, key to the success of any union in these difficult times but — as readers of this column know — not always the case within the labor movement. Whether journalists cover the unfolding story will be up to them, but one thing's certain: They'll be informed about the developments and why they matter.

Philip Dine, author of "State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence," is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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