News & Events

How Franklin Medical Center became unionized: a conversation with Julie Lowensburg

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
February 2009 Edition

By Alice Manica
BFMC committee member

On a sunny day this past autumn I had the pleasure of sitting and enjoying a nostalgic walk down memory lane with Julie Lowensburg of River View Massage in Shelburne Falls. While we sat in her cozy office overlooking the river and the beautiful Bridge of Flowers, Julie chatted with me about her years working as an RN in the 1960s and 1970s at what was then the Franklin County Public Hospital (now Franklin Medical Center, or FMC). Julie told me the very interesting story of how she was responsible for bringing a union to the RNs of FMC. With her energetic personality and willingness to speak her mind, she was probably the perfect nurse at just the right time for this task.

She told me that other former RNs who helped to organize the union were Betty Nelson and Esther Purington. Although I was not successful in tracking down Esther, I did make contact with Betty who, in her late 80s, is still feisty. She credited Julie as being the major force in the campaign to unionize. “We needed it to better our lot,” Betty said and then added that “nurses in those days didn’t go to work to have fun but, somehow along the way, we managed to have fun anyway.”

These days at FMC—as well as at many other unionized facilities—the union is taken for granted, considered just to be another “fact of life” because most RNs in such facilities have never worked without a union.

I was interested to know from Julie what the conditions were like at FMC before the union arrived. She graduated in 1950 from the Franklin School of Nursing . . . a time when RNs were paid just 35 cents an hour. After taking a few years off to raise her young children, she began working as a charge nurse in FMC’s eight-bed ICU on the night shift. She also later worked as a supervisor on the same shift.

It was interesting to hear from her that the ER at that time was not staffed at night with nurses. If a patient showed up, the switchboard operator would call the nursing supervisor on duty to come to the ER and handle the situation. If the supervisor needed support, she would pull nurses off the units and call the MD at home for orders to deal with the problem. Since there was no communication with ambulances at that time, you never knew if the ER patient might be a child with asthma or an auto accident involving six people. As a result, night shift RNs had a lot of responsibilities. They often had to do EKGs, respiratory therapy treatments, draw labs, unlock the pharmacy and find drugs or even assist the doctor with pacemakers, as well as many other miscellaneous duties.

Because of these conditions, I was curious to know about the climate and situations that initiated the journey and the reasons nurses felt the need to bring a union to FMC.

The situation that Julie described to me was that after working as night supervisor for several years, she began to notice that her hours were being cut and a new, younger nurse with less clinical experience was hired and being given many of Julie’s hours.

“That irked me, so I put a call in to someone at the state level of the nurses’ organization,” said Julie. Although she can’t remember if it was the MNA or the ANA with which she worked, it sent a representative to meet with and guide the nurses as they explored the world of organized labor. “When the process started, there was a mixed response from some nurses,” said Julie. “In those days nurses never knew what each others salaries were. We didn’t talk to each other about it, but we should have.” New nurses were often hired at higher salaries than others with more seniority and experience. There was no fair and objective system in place for salary increases. But as discussions about unionizing evolved, some nurses became worried about intimidation and possibly losing their jobs. Some were apathetic and just wanted to go to work and collect their paychecks. Others listened and expressed an interest in the union and then reported back to management. Sound familiar?

It took one year of meetings and discussions before a vote was taken. Julie recalls that the vote to unionize passed by just five votes. At the time there were no more than about 50 nurses employed. One of the most interesting ironies was that many of the nurses who initially were against the union were shocked to see that their pay rate increased by more than $1 an hour when the new pay scale took effect! This was in 1970 when according to Julie, nurses at FMC were earning about $6 an hour. Many were amazed at how low their pay had been for having so much responsibility for so many years.

In telling her story, Julie said what reaffirmed her conviction that the union was a worthwhile effort. Shortly after the union became a fact of life at FMC, one of the administrators at the time, Bill Christianson, was heard to say to one of the nurses, “You (nurses) really needed this. This is a good thing for the RNs.” Julie’s parting words to me were, “Don’t ever lose the union. The nurses need to keep it!” As I thanked her for her bravery and all her efforts, I acknowledged the debt of gratitude that we all owe her and the obligation we have to maintain the fruits of her labor and of her 1970 Franklin County Public Hospital colleagues. I firmly believe that in order for nursing to continue to improve as a profession, nurses need to speak up for their own needs and the needs of their patients.