NNU Staff Nurse Assembly Gets Off to Rousing Start
Today, nearly 1,000 nurses from Massachusetts to California kicked off National Nurses United’s first Staff Nurse Assembly, which featured rousing speeches by the country’s leading labor leaders, moving presentations by frontline nurses concerning important victories throughout the country on behalf of nurses and patients, cutting edge education on different aspects of nurse and patient advocacy strategies, and all culminating with a massive picket outside Washington Hospital Center, a facility where nurses are preparing to go on strike to protect their union contract.
The day was punctuated with numerous standing ovations, as well as laughter and a sense of excitement, as nurses celebrated and shared their collective power. MNA’s own Karen Higgins of Boston Medical Center and Co-President of the NNU began the day with a warm welcome and a statement of where the new organization was headed. “This has been a long time coming, and seeing you all here today I am more convinced than ever before that all of us working together are going to take our profession back for our patients, and for ourselves.”
NNU Co-President Jean Ross underscored the reason for the assembly today, as well as for the NNU when she explained, “The health care industry is using the economic climate as an excuse to cut staffing, and take away benefits and protections we have worked years to achieve. In Minnesota, Michigan, California or Massachusetts, at Temple University Hospital, we are seeing the same proposals, with the exact same wording being placed on the table. They are coming after us, and it is only by uniting, by standing together, by working together, and by doing what we are doing today, sharing ideas, strategies and resources, that we can fight back these attacks and eventually win in this struggle. We are all nurses, we are all one, an injury to one of us is an injury to all of us.”
The day’s first speaker, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, pointed to the NNU as a visionary leader in the labor movement that will play a vital role in rebuilding the labor movement, and with it, the middle class in America. “You are the everyday heroes, not only in what you do for patients, but in how you are using your vision and your power to gain a seat at every table in fighting for better health care and better working conditions. And as you do, you lift up the standards not only for nurses, but for the entire health care industry.”
Trumka was followed by Hilda Solis, U.S. Secretary of Labor, who has rejuvenated the department of labor and restored it to its rightful place as a force to support workers in their right to organize a union, and to protect workers in doing their jobs. She highlighted her and the President’s commitment to passing the Employee Free Choice Act and to implementing rule changes that would strengthen the role of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in keeping workers, and specifically nurses, safer at work. She talked at length about back injury rates for nurses and about her commitment to work with us to force the industry to prevent these debilitating and costly injuries. “Every year four million American workers suffer serious injuries and many of them are totally preventable, we need to stop the madness,” Solis said,
She echoed Trumka in calling nurses heroes. “The department of labor stands with you because you are about dignity and respect; you are about the delivery of quality health care. Nurses are warriors on the frontlines, giving comfort and care, and I am committed to making sure you are safe at work.”
Later, union leaders from across the country discussed struggles they have encountered in their respective workplaces, with a focus on sharing the strategies they employed to win contracts or address issues. All described similar issues and tactics by CEOs, a resurgence of efforts to strip nurses of hard fought benefits, to cut staffing levels, and to take a harsh line in negotiations. Nurses from the just completed Temple University strike described their great victory over efforts to cut their health insurance, strip their pension and impose a gag order to prevent them from speaking ill of their employer. The nurses struck for 28 days, with the hospital spending a million dollars a day until finally the nurses, with tremendous support from the public, forced the hospital to capitulate on nearly all their demands.
Nurses from Minnesota talked of a similar battle brewing there, where 12,000 nurses have been negotiating a contract that the employer seems hell bent on driving towards a strike. The nurses have used a number of tactics, including social media, YouTube, a number of job actions and member mobilization to prepare for what could be the largest nurses’ strike in nursing history on June 1.
MNA’s Barbara Tiller, of Tufts Medical Center presented information about the nurses fight there to combat a number of staffing cuts and the introduction of a circa 1990s staffing model, which would replace nurses with unlicensed personnel. Tiller talked of the mobilization of the nurses, their highly successful picket a few months back, and their preparations for a contentious contract fight in the fall.
The stories are the same, but all the nurses in the audience benefited from learning from each other and all committed to working together, no matter where the battle lines are drawn, to win for patients and for the profession.
As NNU Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro stated at the end of the discussion, “When one of us loses one of these fights, the industry is only emboldened and we all lose. This is about all of us, that is what this new union is all about.”
That power was demonstrated at the end of the day’s activities when a caravan of buses lined up outside the meeting hall to transport hundreds of participants from the hall where they talked about job actions to an actual picket line. Nurses in black and red NNU jackets joined a throng of Washington Hospital Center nurses on their picket line, extending a line nearly a city block around the hospital. The nurses hugged and high fived each other. They were all strangers, but they were all sisters and brothers in the struggle. This was a great day for NNU, a demonstration from start to finish of the power of the new national nurses movement.