2009 News

Timing is everything

08.15.2009

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
July/August 2009 Edition

Julie PinkhamExecutive Director's Column
By Julie Pinkham

Sometimes opportunity comes along at seemingly bad times. The challenge is finding a way to seize the opportunity even though the timing is not ideal. If you do, you may find that the timing wasn’t “bad” after all. It was, in fact, “opportune.” Those who can recognize such an opportunity, and then seize it, can enjoy a leap in progress.

There are two such examples facing MNA members today: 1) the long-sought opportunity to form a truly powerful national RN union and 2) the creation of a Taft-Hartley multi-employer pension providing a portable retirement security for MNA members.

Let’s look at the first opportunity: the national nurses union. When we left ANA the disaffiliation vote was followed by a motion to form a new national organization that represented the interests of our members. Over the years we’ve had loose alliances with like-minded organizations but the timing and the various nurse groups that we saw as allies were never in a position to move forward on creating a formal structure.

But in the last two years when the UAN (the former labor “arm” of the ANA) broke away from the ANA the stage was set. There were now three nurse organizations that had the requisite numbers and organization to do what had never been done before in the history of nursing and in the history of the United States: to create the largest direct care nurses union run by and for nurses.

Create is the operative word here. The MNA is not simply joining a pre-existing organization—the MNA is taking a lead role in the creation of an organization. It is being created by front-line nurses for front line nurses.

Finally the voice of the front-line nurses—the public’s most trusted professionals—can be heard loud and clear, without equivocation. It is not surprising that the health industry has characterized the new national as a “super union.” Indeed the industry is well aware that when nurses are provided with the power to raise their voice, the industry’s ability to pursue its own agenda is severely curtailed.

They have clearly seen that occurring here in Massachusetts, as well as in California and in states such as Minnesota and Michigan (members of the UAN). The possibility of these and other nursing groups coming together as a united front has sent shock waves through the industry and the labor movement. As much as the industry hopes our efforts fail, behind closed doors a number of unions also hope we fail. Nurses have long been fragmented as they have been organized by many different unions from different industries. With a number of the industries failing or going overseas in this economy, organizing the health care sector remains fertile ground—particularly with the debate in Congress over the Employee Free Choice Act and other changes in labor laws to ease the ability to organize a union. With the formation of the new national, we can capitalize on this new environment to both build and strengthen nurses’ voices in order to change health care forever.

So history is unfolding perfectly for the MNA. We have the unique opportunity to be part of a three-way effort to create the national nurses union—an opportunity that may never again present itself in terms of the MNA being a principal architect of this new organization in a manner we believe best reflects the desires of MNA members. It is up to all of us to seize this opportunity. I hope you agree and will take part in this history making event and vote in favor of or affiliation with the national nurses union at our Convention on Oct. 1.

The other opportunity before us to seize is for the creation of a multiemployer defined benefit pension plan that many other unions enjoy. Many of our bargaining units had single employer defined benefit pension plans, but during the 90s there was a push to move to define contribution plans (the 401k type plan). During this time, there was an organizational discussion at the MNA about the desirability of a multi-employer pension plan.

Under a multi-employer plan, a number of MNA bargaining units would participate in a single retirement trust fund and individual bargaining units would negotiate the rate their hospital would contribute to the plan. The plan would be jointly administered by MNA members and representatives from management for the benefit of all participants in the plan.

But MNA members had only a small appetite for this type of pension at the time, as most were seeing investments in the stock market through defined contribution plans as an effective, portable and independently controlled mechanism to deal with retirement. While there was effort to increase the contributions of employers to the plan, with the exception of a few, there was not a lot of focus on the weaknesses of the defined contribution plan. In large part with the market soaring—and the government even trying to push social security in the direction of the 401k—there was little discussion or willingness to listen about the downside of these plans.

Meanwhile the federal government, concerned about the trend of single employers accounting for funding the pension plans through market returns and inadequate contributions to the benefit plans should the market worsen, passed the Pension Protection Act in 2006. It took effect in 2008.

The most substantial of change was the requirement that single employer benefit plans ramp up their contributions to assure full funding within seven years. With the increased funding requirements coupled with a staggering drop in the market, employers were motivated to drop the defined pension plan and, in doing so, avoid future funding requirements.

Today we continue to see employers trying to eliminate their defined benefit plans and now we see employers trying to reduce their contributions to the defined contribution plans. Indeed retirement security for MNA nurses has never been a more front and center issue.

Clearly the veneer is off the defined contribution plans. If you retired with the market up it may have worked out well for you. But if you were due to retire now or in the next five years, it is looking frightening. As a result, folks are putting off retirement at the very time they should have been able to enjoy it. New nurses can’t get jobs now and older nurses who want to leave can’t get out.

Fortunately, the MNA has been working on this issue and we are on the verge of creating a multi-employer plan. We have worked with pension experts and designed a plan that can be introduced at the bargaining table for those folks who want to avoid the constant battle to keep their single employer defined benefit plan and for those nurses who may feel the defined contribution plan is not a sufficient mechanism to assure retirement security for members. As with any proposal at the bargaining table it requires the agreement of the employer and ratification by the members. If you are interested and want more information, speak to your associate director and the MNA will set up a time with your committee to review the plan with you. The creation of a national, multi-employer pension for nurses is also a key objective of the up-and-coming national nurses union with which we aim to be affiliated. In fact, it has already designated a committee to begin work on this issue immediately.

The current combination of circumstances has aligned for you, creating opportunity for progress that I do not think we will see again in my career or yours.

Seize it.

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