2011 News

Can your profession survive today’s attacks on labor?


From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
August 2011 Edition

Tom BreslinBy Tom Breslin
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

By now, everyone has heard just about all they can handle about the assaults on public sector unions in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and other states. It is ironic that this started in Wisconsin, which historically has been one of the most progressive states in the country. But, like it or not, this is the climate in the country today. There is an assault against middle class workers -- and registered nurses and health care professionals are squarely in the crosshairs.

This assault is taking place because the new political majority in these states simply feels that it can. Unions and union members traditionally have not supported (contributed to) their political party. State collective bargaining laws are changed because it is easier to change these laws at the state level than it would be to change the NLRA. In addition, public sector unions are the fastest growing segment of unionized workers so they make an attractive target. Many of us never expected to see these kinds of attacks sprout up in Massachusetts. However, this past spring the Legislature debated bills restricting public employee unions’ ability to negotiate over health insurance and the state budget includes language that begins to nibble away by restricting some of the bargaining rights municipal unions have over their health benefit plans. While I am not sure what the effect will be, the fact that it easily passed both the House and Senate should be a wake-up call that workers in Massachusetts are not immune to such attacks.

All the while, state agencies continue to reduce the level of services they provide because of the lack of political courage to fix a structural deficit in the state budget. While this is happening, we continue to see public employees blamed for their greed, their benefits and the fact that they have a contract.

Can anyone actually believe that Unit 7 registered nurses and health care professionals are in any way to blame for the state deficit? They, in fact, save the state money with the services they provide. The irony for MNA members is that health care is immensely profitable. Cape Cod Healthcare, which owns Cape Cod and Falmouth Hospitals, had profits of $37 million in the last two years. Yet, nurses there had to fight for a minimal across-the-board increase and a guarantee of a limit of mandatory overtime. Meanwhile, Vanguard, which owns St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, had profits of $50 million in the last two years. These corporations undoubtedly have the ability to agree to such modest economic enhancements, as well as the proposals that would ensure patient safety. Yet, hospital managers continued to stonewall the nurses.

This kind of corporate behavior is the new reality for health care, and MNA members can expect to face such issues well into the future. The question now becomes, “How do we fight back?” How do unions and the workers they represent protect themselves, their professions, their families and their hope of a better life? In our case, we also have to ask ourselves, in light of these attacks, how do we protect our patients?

What is necessary is a new level of commitment to our patients, profession and to each other. This means that workers across all sectors of the economy have to join to confront a corporate structure that seeks to deprive workers of the livelihood they deserve and by extension, deprives their patients of the care they deserve. This commitment requires:

  • That we fight for jobs that pay a living wage
  • That access to quality education be available to all
  • That there be health care for all
  • That the long standing public policy of the U.S. regarding the right to organize and bargain collectively be protected
  • That all citizens pay their fair share of taxes (the tax rate for the wealthiest Americans is currently the lowest it has been in 80 years)

These issues are not occurring somewhere else in the economy; they are issues that all nurses are facing at the bargaining table and in their community. How we respond to these challenges will determine not only how our profession survives in the years to come, but to a large extent, how our society will survive.