Nurses, nursing and unions – Happy Labor Day!

from a site on FB called ” the other 98%” – I have this idea that the person who made this won’t mind, but I don’t know who that was.

For a nifty poster about team work, feminism, solidarity etc, go to Syracuse Cultural Workers and get their catalog.

How nurses get their groove back…..

In the Year of Our Lord 2000,  I was elected the President of the Maine State Nurses Association. My tenure there was rocky, which is a whole ‘nother story. At the time we had 1,800 members, the vast majority of whom were rank-and-file unionized nurses. Prior to being President of the organization I had never visited some of the unionized hospitals around the state, so I decided to do so ( I was a faculty member at a college at the time.)

“And how did you get the union, here at this place?”

I always asked this question. At one particular place, I got the answer below. Here is the  true story of the nurses union at a small Maine hospital. The names of the hospital and the name of the administrator and the name of the nurses, have been changed.

A small hospital (about sixty beds) in the state of Maine was having financial problems. The CEO of the hospital was concerned about the amount of money being spent on the payroll. To use the management euphemism “labor costs” were going up.  this particular CEO had no clinical background. He decided that he would show some “leadership” in controlling costs.

Fair enough; that’s what we expect administrators to do.

I suppose he thought he was “innovative.” He adopted a tactic of walking through the building every day between nine in the morning and noon. At each nursing station, he would look to see if nurses were sitting down. If they were, he would come up behind them, tap them on the shoulder, and tell them to sign out on their time sheet, because if they were able to sit down it must mean that they were done for the day. And send them home.

Nurses protested that they needed to “chart” – to document their care’ and to do such things as checking doctor’s orders, etc, but to no avail. Spending part of each day sitting down and doing book work is part of the job. The Director of Nursing was a pleasant older lady who was not willing or able to stand up for the nurses.  The medical staff of the hospital was supportive but they couldn’t do anything right away.

Within two weeks, there were enough union cards signed to force an election. Within two months, the CEO was gone.  So was the Director of Nursing.

The nurses didn’t get the union right away, but when they did, they thought of naming their local after the (now gone) CEO, because as one nurse put it “He did more to bring a union there than any fifty organizers could ever have done.”

Since then

Since then, the hospital has still struggled with finances, and yes, there was a round of layoffs along the way and a new emphasis on cost containment. The union was not able to prevent those mega-trends from affecting the nurses jobs.

But the union was able to establish that reductions-in-force would be conducted fairly. Along with  a lot of other things that stabilized the employment scene. and most importantly, things that contributed to better patient care.


which leads to the moral of the story. Within the realm of people who organize nurses into unions, there are proverbs. And this story illustrates a few general conclusions.

1) Nurses will not vote for a union so much as they will vote against their manager

2) nurses will not vote for a union because of promises of more money, but they will always vote for a union if they feel that patient care is threatened.

3) if the administration wishes to prevent a union from forming, the best step is often to fire the managers who are being unresponsive.

4) a union can not promise results such as better wages or working conditions or job stability; but the union can promise a framework within which the union members can bring their concerns to management so they can at least be heard.


1 Comment

Filed under Nursing in Hawaii, Uncategorized

One response to “Nurses, nursing and unions – Happy Labor Day!

  1. Sammy Gompers, and Happy Labor Day to y'all!

    I am not a nurse, nor associated in any way with the medical profession, except as an occasional patient.

    Many years ago, I sat in the introductory management class of the MBA program offered by our local university. My fellow students were being groomed to become the managers of the future. (Me? Not so much. I enrolled in the program simply because I had to enroll in SOMETHING, if I wanted to have borrowing privileges at the university library. But I digress.)

    The professor of this Intro to Management class was someone who had negotiated many labor contracts with unions over the years. (He touted his expertise in being able to read the body language of his opponents at the bargaining table as one of the secrets of his success.)

    Anyway, one of the things he said has stuck with me for nearly thirty years now. He frankly told the class that there is probably not a company in the country with a unionized workforce that didn’t deserve it when the labor force went union, that they had it coming.

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