News & Events

Rebutting the refrain, ‘What has my union done for me lately?’

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
May 2010 Edition

By Tom Breslin
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

How many times have we all overheard a fellow union member declare the following: “I’m sick and tired of my darned union! All I get for my monthly dues is (insert complaint here).”

But what DO unionized workers actually get with their monthly dues? At the very least, unionized workers get:

  • Good medical and dental benefits, paid for mostly by their employer
  • Reporting pay when called into work
  • Vacation time with vacation pay
  • Seniority rights that provide benefits and layoff/recall protections
  • Access to grievance procedures that culminate with binding arbitration if you disagree with your employer
  • Contractual health and safety language that requires your employer to maintain a safe work environment

One of the hazards we all face is that sometimes we take our union and the work it does for granted. After all, what else guarantees that the employer will have to negotiate with us, or even talk to us at all? What else brings a voice and a sense of democracy to the workplace unless it is a union?

It is easy to forget that the language we have, the pay scale with steps, the grievance procedure with binding arbitration and the other protections we have is all due to active union members before us fighting to win it for their bargaining unit, and ultimately, for the rest of us. These things did not appear simply due to the benevolence of the employer. In addition, what protects these and other benefits from unilateral change by the employer?

Why should we care about this now? More than ever, employers are taking advantage of working people when they can. Even in health care, which is supposed to be resistant from the economic pressures of job losses; we are seeing layoffs of health care workers in general and registered nurses in particular. We are seeing increases in workloads and speedups across the country. We are seeing an increase in employer demands that nurses float; whether they are sufficiently oriented to that unit or not. We are seeing less orientation and training and a decreased emphasis on continuing nursing education in hospitals. More and more hospitals are bringing in consultants to show them how they can save money on care delivery.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does it sound like the last round of work restructuring in the 1990s? It should. Hospitals did exactly the same things in their attempt to reduce the number of registered nurses and replace them with unlicensed personnel. Many nurses left the profession or found work in non-hospital settings.

Organized nursing’s response in the 90s when nurses refused to permit their practice to be decimated in this manner is the same response that is required today. MNA nurses were a model for nurses across the country in the manner in which they responded to restructuring initiatives. Nurses must become active once again to show both the employer and the community the hospital serves that speedups and increasing workloads harm patients. It can’t be enough for nurses to get involved with the union only when the contract is open and the committee begins negotiations.

We need only look at the actions taken by nurses at Boston Medical Center and Tufts Medical Center and their supporters who picketed in the snow and cold in February not because they wanted better wages or benefits, but because the staffing in their facility puts patients at risk. There are also examples at other facilities of how we can stand up to the outrageous and unreasonable demands of the hospital industry.

Nurses at Morton Hospital were recently in the contract fight of their lives to preserve their pension and prohibit the dangerous use of mandatory overtime. Similarly, nurses at Quincy Medical Center have filed an unfair labor practice charge and are fighting back after their employer unilaterally imposed wage and benefit cuts.

A few years ago I was speaking with a staff person from another nurses’ union about the mandatory overtime language in an MNA contract. She responded that nurses “were lucky to have this language.” I was shocked by this reaction and told her that luck had nothing to do with it. These nurses won this language because they thought it was important, they educated the membership on the issue, developed a plan and together they fought for it.

The same applies today. Once we identify what is important and what is worth fighting for, we have to work together to achieve it. It will not happen simply because we want it or because we think we deserve it. Whether it’s trying to achieve new contract language or the fight to preserve the language we already have, the fight is the same.

It is time for nurses to work together within and across bargaining units and within corporations to address issues that unite us all. The tactics may change, but the most important component of any successful campaign is an educated, motivated and mobilized bargaining unit.