CANTON, Mass. — As nurses seek to improve staffing ratios, working conditions and to achieve fair pay and benefits as a means of improving patient care in the Commonwealth, a growing number are turning to the Massachusetts Nurses Association as a vehicle for nursing and patient advocacy. This month, membership in the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which is both the professional association for registered nurses and the states largest union for registered nurses, topped 22,000, the highest membership count in the association’s 100-year history.
Membership in the MNA, which reached a high in the early 1990s of just over 20,000 members, dipped below 20,000 for most of the 90s, but has surged in recent years as the organization has gained stature and visibility as a powerful voice for nurses through successful public policy initiatives on Beacon Hill and through high-profile union contract efforts. In the past year, the MNA has seen a 10 percent increase in its membership, with the new membership equally split between union and non-union nurses.
For the last 10 years, the MNA has been the leading voice in the nursing community on public policy issues related to patient safety, access to quality health care for all residents, the protection of health care facilities from closure and, most important of all for nurses, legislation that would regulate how many patients are to be assigned to a nurse.
More and more nurses are joining the MNA because they understand that we are the voice for nurses on issues most important to them, which are issues that deal with their ability to provide safe, high quality patient care, said Karen Higgins, RN, president of the MNA since 2001, and a key force behind the MNA’s success. Nurses know the MNA is not afraid to stand up to the health care industry and the insurance industry to make sure that their voice is heard and that the needs of their patients are being adequately addressed.
On the policy front, the MNA has become a powerful force on Beacon Hill, winning passage of numerous pieces of legislation in the last five years, including a bill to mandate identification of licensed health care workers to ensure patients know who is providing their care, a law providing whistle blower protection for nurses and other health professionals in reporting unsafe patient care conditions to appropriate authorities; and the MNA led the effort to pass a law to require the use of safe needle systems in hospitals to prevent needlesticks and HIV infection of health care workers. The organization also played a role in helping to pass legislation regulating drive-thru deliveries and landmark legislation granting consumers a patients bill of rights under managed care.
The most important initiative for nurses and the MNA, and the issue that has mobilized the nursing community behind the organization, has been a push to improve patient care, protect patients and address the nursing shortage by passing a law to regulate RN-to-patient ratios in Massachusetts hospitals. The bill filed by the MNA, H. 1282, An Act Ensuring Quality Patient Care and Safe Registered Nurse Staffing, has already garnered 101 legislative sponsors and has been endorsed by more than 55 consumer and health care advocacy organizations.
Nurses Turn to MNA Union for Protection
The MNA made headlines throughout the late 1990s for its efforts on behalf of unionized nurses to address issues of safe staffing, mandatory overtime and to prevent the replacement of nurses with unlicensed personnel, all of which are strategies the hospital industry employed as a means of cutting costs by cutting back on the publics access to nursing care.
These efforts garnered national attention in 2000 and 2001 with widely publicized strikes by MNA nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester and Brockton Hospital over the issue of RN staffing conditions and the use of mandatory overtime. In both cases, the strikes ended in the nurses favor, resulting in groundbreaking contract language to prohibit mandatory overtime and to require the hospitals to provide better staffing conditions.
MNA now represents nurses for collective bargaining in 85 different health care facilities, including representing the nurses at 51 of the 76 acute care hospitals in the state, which makes the MNA a leader in the nation in union penetration, with 65 percent of hospital nurses represented by the MNA, and 25 percent of the total nursing population in the state.
Throughout the late 1990s, the MNA’s success as a union helped generate a boom in union organizing for nurses in the state with the MNA. Between 1997 and 2000, the MNA organized a total of seven hospitals, three VNAs and four school nursing units, totaling more than 2,800 nurses under the MNA union umbrella.
During the same time period in 2000, the MNA also made a historic and controversial decision to disaffiliate from its national organization, the American Nurses Association. The MNA believed the ANA had become too conservative in its policies and positions and was failing to adequately represent the interests of front-line nurses, who comprise the vast majority of the MNA membership.
On March 24, 2000, more than 2,400 nurses flocked to Mechanics Hall in Worcester to cast a historic vote to split from the ANA, with 83 percent supporting the measure. This was the largest gathering of registered nurses in one location ever assembled in the state.
The move to disaffiliate was a defining moment for the MNA, providing the organization with greater resources and a clear focus on a core mission to protect and promote the interests of front-line registered nurses and their patients. In 2001, the MNA joined with other like-minded organizations to form a new national organization, the American Association of Registered Nurses, collectively representing more than 80,000 nurses.