News & Events

Dispatch #3 From NNU Convention by MNA Delegate Sandy Eaton

Phoenix – Monday morning’s business meeting was chaired by UAN executive director Walt Frederickson. AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka had been scheduled to chair this historic session, but family illness prevented his attendance. Kay McVay, chair of the credentials committee reported that, of a possible 152 delegates, 134 were present, in delegations from CNA-NNOC, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Hawai, DC, Florida, the UAN Veterans Affairs Council and the Southern United Nurses of Kentucky. (Delegates from Maine and Pennsylvania were counted with CNA-NNOC.) The essential business before this body was clear and everyone present knew why they were there.

Unanimous votes followed in swift succession. The motion to adopt the draft constitution was made by Linda Hamilton, President of the Minnesota Nurses Association, and seconded by the presidents of the Massachusetts and Michigan Nurses Associations, the VA Council, and Zenei Cortez, co-president of CNA-NNOC. Upon adoption, one delegate turned to those around him to share his favorite line from the movie Matewan: "Boys, looks like we got ourselves a union."

When the time came to pick a secretary-treasurer, Sandy Eaton, delegate from Massachusetts, took the mike to nominate Martha Kuhl from California, a veteran nurse leader and treasurer of CNA-NNOC. There followed seconding remarks by delegates from a half-dozen states, small and large. Karen Higgins from Massachusetts, candidate for NNU co-president, asked for and received dispensation to go to the mike to add her support to Martha’s nomination. The vote was again unanimous.

The slate of presidential and vice-presidential candidate that had been put forward by the merging organizations was elected and brought to the podium. The proposed dues policy was duly approved.

The conclusion of this business meeting unleashed a torrent of joy. Sandy Eaton from Massachusetts and John Karibian from Michigan shared a comradely embrace, with Eaton remarking that, after sharing in the fights to democratize ANA in the ’90s and after the separation caused by disaffiliation, their states were united again, but on a much higher level.

Massachusetts delegate Stephanie Stevens remarked, "We’ve come a long way from Minnesota." She was referring to the 1996 Staff Nurse Summit, the theme of which was how staff nurses could organize to take power at the state and national levels.

That afternoon, to put things in perspective, nurses young and old discussed their experiences in three panels, followed by a panel comprised of the three newly elected co-presidents. Beth Piknick from Massachusetts moderated a panel of senior nurses comprised of Sheila Ainsworth from Massachusetts, Cindy Barnes from Minnesota and Kay McVay from California. The changes they experienced, and helped forge, over three or four decades of practice and struggle were spelled out.

Joan Greaves from DC moderated a panel of two student nurses. Krista Papaw from Michigan observed that the two of them at this convention can go back to their respective states to educate other student nurses, but "I wish there was a student here from every state" to go back and teach. Tanya Brown, an NP student from California, spoke of experiences in Student Health Professionals for Single Payer. Initially far outnumbered by medical students, student nurses went out to recruit others to forge necessary changes. She pointed out that "ANA is no longer the spokesperson for America’s nurses."

Jeff Breslin from Michigan moderated the panel on today’s challenges. Trande Phillips described how recent technological changes are often designed to make nurses "responsive to the machine." She held up a new "Technology Despite Objection" form. She suggested that every nurse’s contract needs language that technology will not be used to supersede the nurse’s professional judgment.

Donna Kelly-Williams from Massachusetts outlined the plight of those falling victim to mounting insecurity and joblessness as mental health and substance abuse programs are slashed. She described how the injustices built into the Massachusetts plan and the cutbacks introduced to bail it out have undermined the ability of safety net facilities to cope with this crisis. She lamented that the state sector was even worse.

Linda Hamilton from Minnesota recalled her state’s long history of militancy, a history that gives them strength now to proclaim, "No wage cuts, no pension cuts."

Lorna Grundeman from California described the experience of forging a master agreement for the Catholic Healthcare West chain in California and Nevada, with the demand for occupational safety in the face of the spread of the H1N1 virus. A 97% strike vote followed a period of intense internal organizing.

The presidential panel examined what it took to get us here and what we need to do now. Jean Ross described the heroism of those who put the best interests of their members first and the betrayal of those who thought first of their own narrow interests. Describing herself as an organizer, she said, "Nurses know how to get things done."

Karen Higgins prefaced her remarks by proclaiming that "we are the experts on patient care … We are finally taking back our influence and power." She recalled the March 24, 2001 meeting in Worcester, the largest gathering of nurses in the history of Massachusetts. The first vote was to disaffiliate from ANA. The second vote, following swiftly, was to form a national nurses union. "Nine years later we accomplished that." Two thoughts immediately arose, she said: "What took us so long?" And "Don’t screw it up!" The 2008 convention in Massachusetts looked at health care emerging as the big issue. The changes in Massachusetts were not good. "Who was at the debate?" asked Karen. "Insurance, hospitals, PhARMA. Where were we? The few times we were supposed to be there, ANA was standing there." She continued, "How can you have this discussion without our presence? We voted at that convention to go forward. Karen pointed out that, with 23,000 members, we’ve done extremely well on issues affecting our practice. "But we don’t live on an island."

She observed that New Hampshire has passed legislation to allow unlicensed personnel to give out medications in hospitals. Connecticut has passed a weak "safe staffing" bill that has harmed our attempt to push forward in Massachusetts. How do we stop it? "Organizing: we need to organize every nurse," Karen concluded.
Deborah Burger stated that "the bonds we are forging are 100 years overdue. We stand on the shoulders of those who campaigned before."

Tuesday morning opened with breakout groups on collective bargaining strategy and tactics. Samples of model contract language was circulated by Californians, while Massachusetts stressed leadership development as concretized in its Labor School.
The idea was raised of organizing a national labor school.

There followed a militant demonstration outside the offices of the Arizona Hospital Association. Nurses in Flagstaff and Phoenix have been trying to organize, and they have been viciously thwarted thus far by professional union busters paid $900 an hour. Chants and freedom songs punctuated this rally, addressed by Warren Beatty by telephone and the vice-president of the Arizona AFL-CIO, who said she wanted to see every nurse in Arizona organized.

The speakers’ list included RNs from across the country and Arizona. A representative from the Progressive Democrats of America brought greetings from our nurses movement’s allies in the fight for a just healthcare system. CWA, SEIU and other unions were represented at the rally as well.

The convention’s final session heard the charge from Rose Ann DeMoro to pool resources in order to organize on a scale never before seen and to supplant the fascistic voices of the tea baggers. Delegates began their trek home to take up the challenge.