News & Events

Nurses’ union flexes its muscle

Strikes, picketing strengthen group

By Lena H. Sun

Washington Post / November 23, 2010

WASHINGTON — The nurses at Washington Hospital Center were all set to wear red scrubs — the union color — yesterday in preparation for a strike tomorrow. But those scrubs can be put away, at least for now.

The union canceled the one-day strike and management put controversial pay cuts on hold, as both sides agreed to resume talks after the holiday.

That turn of events reflects an aggressive strategy by a national nurses’ union, analysts say: Its members are growing in numbers, and they have not been afraid to walk picket lines. The huge costs of hiring temporary nurses — and, probably, bad publicity — have forced institutions like the hospital center to return to bargaining on staffing and wages.

National Nurses United, the largest nurses’ union in the country, has helped organize strikes or threatened to strike this year at hospitals in California, Pennsylvania, Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota.

The Oakland, Calif.-based union has tapped into concerns of registered nurses worried about losing jobs at a time when hospitals and health care organizations are under enormous pressure to cut costs.

“They have been very aggressive in legislative lobbying efforts, influencing public policy through informational picketing, and willingness to get out there and strike,’’ said Joanne Spetz, an economist at the University of California, San Francisco, who specializes in nursing workforce issues. “Love them or hate them, you have to respect their success.’’

The union also sported a high-profile campaign during the recent midterm elections by attacking Republicans for their positions on health care. It targeted Meg Whitman, who lost to Jerry Brown in California’s governor’s race, and Sharron Angle, who was defeated by Democratic incumbent Harry Reid in Nevada’s Senate race.

The voluble face of National Nurses United is executive director Rose Ann DeMoro, a former Teamsters organizer who took over the California Nurses Association in 1993 and boosted its membership fivefold.

DeMoro, also a vice president of the AFL-CIO, which includes National Nurses United as an affiliate, envisions a super union of the country’s 3 million registered nurses.