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The Growth of Nursing Unionism

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Nursing strike supporters on Washington Street wave at people inside Tufts Medical Center on Wednesday morning. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

You would have no way of knowing it, but it may surprise you that there are things happening today that do not revolve around idiot New York Times op-ed writers. One of them is the daily struggle of the working class that might sometimes deserve our attention. Some of those workers are nurses. And they have been among the most pro-union workforces in recent years.

The American healthcare system is plagued by the most expensive costs in the world, as millions of citizens suffer from medical debt and 13.7% of adults have no insurance. In the midst of these issues, nurses across the US are fighting to unionize as a way to take on the for-profit healthcare system that they see as failing to help patients.

Mary Beth Boeson has worked for 24 years at Beaumont hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, where nurses began an organizing campaign this year to form a union for the 3,200 nurses employed by the hospital with the Michigan Nurses Association.

Boeson said the campaign started because of changes at the hospital, including high turnover rates, understaffing and budget cuts.

In response, Beaumont hospital hired the union-busting consulting firms Kulture Consulting and Reliant Labor Consultants. Kulture has previously been hired by Donald Trump to fend off union drives at his casinos.

“It’s been really disappointing how management has responded to our organizing efforts,” said Boeson. She filed an unfair labor practice charge against the hospital in July 2019, alleging the hospital changed her job duties as a nurse anesthetist in response to her union activity. “Management took me off this area because they wanted to make sure I wasn’t in different areas of the hospital to speak with different nurses.”

Once the union drive went public, Boeson said the hospital began mandating nurses attend one-hour information meetings with their hired labor relations consultants. The Oakland county board of commissioners even passed a bipartisan resolution calling on the hospital to remain neutral and cease anti-union activity.

A Beaumont hospital spokesperson denied the union busting allegations and noted they intend to cooperate with the National Labor Relations Board. “We want to ensure our nurses understand their legal rights and have complete, accurate information,” said Beaumont Health’s chief nursing officer, Susan Grant, in an email. “Our nurses can and do speak for themselves and we think they do not need a union to speak for them.”

Nurses at Beaumont hospital in Michigan are one of several groups around the US that have undergone the process of organizing a union in 2019, despite often facing opposition from management.

“We take a vow to provide the best care we can and that has a lot to do with why there are so many nurses trying to organize,” said Liz Martinez, a nurse at Beaumont hospital involved in the union organizing drive.

You’d be amazed that an industry so dedicated to the health and well-being of ill Americans would treat their workers so poorly……wait, I’ll come in again.

Nurses are very much like the other sector that has driven much of American unionism in the last couple of years: teachers. These are female-dominated industries with a lot of emotional labor given. Both our children and our sick and elderly are vulnerable. We as everyday people rely on nurses and teachers to help make our lives better in a very personal way. And so when they go on strike, there is the potential for broad-based community support. Last year, when I moved back to Providence after my sabbatical, I had rented a new apartment and paid a moving company to do the physical labor. I took the guys out to lunch. They wanted to go to Wendy’s, which is at least marginally acceptable fast food. So fine. We drove past a hospital where the nurses were striking. As it turned out, one of the guys had his baby in that hospital at that very moment. He had just returned to work (how he was ever going to pay for whatever was happening is another question). And he was extremely supportive of those nurses, telling me how great they were in taking care of his kid. That’s just one anecdote, but we see this kind of response pretty frequently. Employers on the other hand, all they see are costs to cut. If a few patients die, well, does it affect the bottom line? Or says one worker:

“The fact they continue to push back on us, appeal, and would rather spend money going to the NLRB in Washington DC than using that money on things like patient outcomes is a surprise to me,” said Sara Mittelman, a nurse at the hospital’s emergency department.

So it isn’t at all surprising that nurses are unionizing. They deserve our solidarity and support.

Speaking of solidarity, on this labor post maybe we can avoid the embarrassment of yesterday’s comment thread on the AT&T workers, where our white liberal commenters decided to turn a post on striking workers into a discussion of their phones. Turning something about class into something about consumerism is peak upper class white liberalism. I think we can do better.

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