Nursing profession strikes back
Lionel Van Deerlin
Van Deerlin represented a San Diego County district in Congress for 18 years.
May 15, 2002
First, a disclaimer. I am both married to, and have sired, registered nurses. I cite this as fair warning. A certain bias might intrude.
And now to the news. The California Nurses Association has been authorized to call a strike in our state's largest health care system, the University of California hospitals and student health clinics.
If and when push comes to shove, this won't resemble a strike by steel workers, airline pilots or in those other venues where all work grinds to a halt. Since critically ill patients must not be left unattended, the nurses will give ample advance notice - time for hospital management to make emergency arrangements and to clear the decks of all so-called "elective" surgery.
But some unusual confrontations may lie ahead, make no mistake. There has been a discernible shift of thinking among the 2.69 million Americans - mostly women, but some men as well - who devote their lives to the occupation of nursing.
By tradition, and not without reason, these highly qualified, tightly trained personnel have long seen themselves as "professionals" in the prestigious ranks of healing arts. They felt no need of union-style organizing to protect members' interests.
But the changing scene - of years marked by Medicare, widened public health programs and the bottom-line business practices of HMOs - causes concern in many a hospital corridor. Increasingly, nurses are casting their lot with a union movement that was shunned 10 and 20 years ago. And so it is that an overwhelming majority of some 8,000 nurses in the UC health-care system voted contract negotiators the green light to call a strike.
Not everyone agrees that this is the way things should be. A critique in the business journal Forbes, headlined "Here We Go Again," tut-tutted nurses for following the militant lead of organized school teachers. It noted that registered nurses in California have chosen to be led by the hard-charging Rose Ann DeMoro - no nurse, she, but a former rep for (gulp) the Teamsters Union.
"Florence Nightingale, meet Mother Jones," Forbes quipped.
By this magazine's logic, we might suppose, a truck driver needing bedside care should seek it from a fellow Teamster rather than a trained caregiver. Boss DeMoro, who's 52, may not savvy the gentle technique for inserting a catheter, but she knows all about rallying the troops in a labor dispute.
Under her six-year leadership, the nurses' union has doubled its membership in the Golden State, presently numbering roughly 44,000. Of these, the university system now girding for a showdown employs nearly one-fifth.
Judged by its public utterances to date, UC appears to hope the nurses can't be serious. Spokesman Paul Schwartz said last week's strike vote was "an attempt to exert maximum influence over negotiations."
Well, duh! Calvin Coolidge could not have defined a strike's purpose more succinctly.
UC would do well to look at what has been happening. In many places those time-honored hospital professionals have shown a readiness to hit the picket lines. And their recent spate of victories reminds us of the Old Yankees.
Members have hung in there even when it wasn't easy. All 1,730 nurses in Stanford University's massive hospital system stayed off the job nearly two months before winning recognition. Oregon nurses went out just before last Christmas and persevered seven weeks before winning a new contract (plus a state action penalizing hospitals that lured strikebreakers with bonuses). A 100-day walkout by 450 staffers at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center on Long Island ended successfully in early March.
The mood has taken hold even in Canada, where nearly all nurses work for a government health system that makes work stoppages illegal. A half dozen attempted strikes were broken by Quebec Province authorities before 47,000 nurses nationwide brought matters to a head with the threat they'd all hit the bricks.
Issues everywhere have been pretty much the same - money, yes, but such related matters as opposition to the exhausting mandatory overtime that many hospitals routinely require, with up to 12-hour shifts. UC staffers have a special beef - aiming to substitute straight salary scales for a "merit pay" system, which they find rife with favoritism.
Incidentally, I note that an agreement won at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center pays nurses $60,000 a year - quite a jump, this, from the $20 per eight-hour shift that was standard in San Diego 40 years ago.
I may send Mrs. Van Deerlin back to work.
Copyright 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
May 16, '02
I'm a member of the British Columbia Nurses Union. I won't go into our job actions last summer, other than to say that it included a ban on all overtime, but in August, the new provincial Liberal government imposed a contract on us. The same contract that more than 96% of us turned down in June. At the time, Premier Campbell announced that "this will draw nurses into this province and will retain the nurses who are here".
Among other things, the imposed contract took away "days off" for part-timers, so that they can be required to work more than their regularly scheduled shifts, and with no overtime paid out to them. In fact, part-timers must work in excess of six shifts/week to get OT pay.
BC hospitals have basically been surviving by using overtime. The Health Employers Association of BC (HEABC) first claimed that this was not so and then, when confronted with a reporter who had done her homework, admitted that it was true.
Every summer, hospitals here in BC consistently close up to 1/2 of their operating rooms due to staff/physician vacations. The closures start in May and end in September. Last summer, Gary Moser (HEABC) consistently stated that ORs were closing "because of nurses refusals to work overtime". The health minister claimed that, because nurses were refusing to work overtime "patients' health is being put in danger". Emergency rooms, with a common waiting time of over 6 hours (one had a wait of 18 hours and one even had to close for an entire weekend), were the "result of nurses being allowed to take vacation time". And on and on, ad nauseam.
The legislated contract now says that nurses can be "paid out for" their vacation time, rather than be allowed to take it.
Not content with imposing this contract, in January of this year, the BC health care minister declared our (government imposed) contract "inflexible" and the government passed Bill 29. As part of Bill 29, we are no longer "employed" by our employer, rather we can be sent anywhere within a 50 km. radius for up to 7 days at a time, anywhere in the province for up to 30 days at a time 3 X year. If the nurse refuses, they will be considered to have resigned effective immediately. We are also required to pay for our own transportation, accomadation, etc. We can "put in a request for reimbursement". Nurses can also be transferred from one nursing unit to another, including specialty units, within their home hospital.
Bill 29 also killed "effective immediately", the Health Labour Accord Act (HLAA), which among other things provided provincial funding for employer-offered "compressed time frame" critical care specialty programs. In 1995, the now premier of this province, Gordon Campbell, said that when he became premier, he would do away with the HLAA "as it is paying nurses to sit at home doing nothing when they should be out working".
Now the health minister, Colin Hansen, and the head of HEABC, Gary Moser, are saying that there is a "shortage of critical nurses in this province" (last week issue of Vancouver Sun).
In the media, this provincial government has consistently portrayed nurses as "greedy". Colin Hansen has claimed that the provincial MSP (health insurance) fees have had to be increased by 50% "to pay for the nurses' pay raise". Now he is claiming that closing of hospitals/nursing homes/nursing units is a result of "the nurses pay raise".
The frustrating thing about all this is that the media in this province publish this and the public buys into it. CamWest, owners of the Vancouver Sun/Province/Victoria Times Columnist/Global TV contributed a very large sum of money to the Liberals campaign fund. Try and get a "letter to the editor" printed when written by a nurse!
Since announcing the "new health care directions" last month, more than 50 RNs have lost their jobs. Mr Hansen claims that they can relocate and that "with the need for nurses in this province, there is no need for them to remain out of work unless they choose".
When the president of BCNU was speaking before a finance committee on health care funding, she was asked by the provincial finance minister "I recognize that you know about nursing, but why do you think that you know anything about finance?".
I suspect that this "in your face" anti-union attitude of this provincial government leads them to think that somehow BCNU will go away. I have news for them. It is just making us stronger, madder, and more determined.
Last edit by jurbyjunk on May 16, '02