Without a means for collective action, nurses are powerless to influence the healthcare environment.
Nurses can be empowered by participating in organizations at local, state, national and international levels. But power struggles and differing ideologies between these organizations and among nurses in in varied roles, fragment our profession and our voice.
These recent events may have a profound impact on the ability of direct care nurses to advocate for their patients and their practice. I think an interesting discussion would be- what does the future hold? What kind of organizational structure and governance, whether the organization is a union, professional association or both, would best represent direct care nurses and encourage more to participate?
Ensuring a democratic structure organizes the collective power of members in a way that ensures accountability and member control. This kind of participation differs from mere mobilization of members in what are essentially top-down actions, and it goes beyond "consultation" or "input," to include participation in setting goals, assessing risks and opportunities -- all the elements of strategic planning. The distinguishing feature of democratic participation is the power to make informed decisions.
(What follows is my experience as a member in one of the states that left the UAN. Please excuse the length of the post.)
My experience in my state with the issue of disaffiliation from the UAN has left me feeling that there is an intolerance for diverse opinion and open communication within my Association. The discussions at convention as well as ongoing communications focus on personal relationships as opposed to organizational issues which remain unaddressed. This avoidance and unwillingness to debate the issues in open discussion, has been a recurring theme throughout the campaign to disaffiliate from the UAN.
The membership was divided on the issue of disaffiliation from the UAN from the start. This was clearly evident in all forums before any exposure to the unity caucus- from comments on "members only", discussions with members in the bargaining units, and questions raised at meetings. Yet many seem to be in denial of this fact and continue to place the blame for the schism on a small group who had the courage to ask questions and protest openly.
The integrity of our Association was harmed as it acted bureaucratically but criticized the UAN for being undemocratic. The UAN followed the resolutions adopted by the state affilates at the National Labor Assembly and as this fact could not be challenged, it's structure and employees became the focus of criticism. Alliances against the national were made behind closed doors and demands were made without seeking guidance from the members or the elected leaders of the union. Adding to that, the decision to disaffiliate was made in the absence of any mandate from a majority, and so it is not surprising that the membership remains divided. The accountability rests with those few individuals who made these decisions, not those who sought transparency, inclusion, open dialogue, objective information and answers for the members.
There is no "plan" for dealing with the challenge of having a divided membership except, it seems, to encourage the ongoing attacks against those used as scapegoats. Indeed, I have not heard of any plan in moving forward, except to try to maintain ties with the state and local AFL structures, which may or may not be possible.
Many members seem unfamiliar with history as well as the bylaws and polices which are supposed to govern our actions. The names of the 22 members of the unity caucus as well as the fact that members sought disciplinary action against them, was printed in the Association publication. The article failed to disclose that three members of the caucus, who were members of the board, were in fact disciplined and denied membership rights without a hearing or any due porcess. Due process with discipline is a right of every member no matter what position they hold according to law. Our discipline policy promises confidentiality to any member that has a complaint filed against them.
Those who attack the caucus do not appear concerned that our relationship to the broader labor movement has changed, that criticizing LBU leaders in our open publications which are read by management invites harm to the membership at grievance hearings and the negotiating table, or that we are providing more resources as a result of disaffiliating to organizations which oppose legislation desired by our members- staffing ratios.
Two E&GW leaders took a strong position encouraging disaffiliation which was distributed broadly to the members and state affiliates before the poll using Association resources. The board of directors took no position on the disaffiliation however individual board members lobbied both for and against it. Additionally, any action considered by the board which is in conflict with the bylaws is out of order and even if adopted unanimously, null and void according to Robert's Rules.
When the unity caucus asked for support from the UAN, Cheryl Johnson disclosed that the UAN would assist a group of our members. Her letter was distributed to our membership and responded to by our leadership before the mailings from the unity caucus took place. By putting their names to their publications, and providing further explanation on their website, these members clearly accepted responsibility for their actions. Yet, the Association expressed its "outrage" against the caucus for deceiving the membership by not disclosing that they received financial support from their national union.
The Association has spent a lot of our dues on propaganda attacking the caucus instead of attempting to resolve the conflict and deal with the division among the membership which may be the greatest challenge we ever face. I feel it would be in the best interest of our Association to take a different approach, but sadly, this does not seem possible at this time.
Despite this experience, I continue to believe that achieving democracy within our unions and associations is possible but only achievable if the membership remains committed being involved and holds the leadership accountable for their actions. If the membership is complacent, intolerant to open discussion and diverse opinion, and unwilling to advocate for needed reforms, these organizations will not survive.