Guest Column

Nurses’ Union? Yes and Why

I wholeheartedly support the effort by nurses in this community to organize and be able to collectively bargain on their own behalf

This is in support of voting yes for nurses who are trying to locally organize a union in part in response to corporate decisions from Kalispell Regional Healthcare (KRH). I have been a working medical health care professional in the state of Montana since 1983 and a past union bargaining representative. I would like to speak to Dr. Craig Lambrecht, KRH’s chief executive officer, stating in newspaper articles that a nurse’s union could threaten the hospital’s independence. I respectfully disagree with that rhetorical statement.

Dr. Lambrecht came from one of the largest rural hospital systems in the U.S., Sanford Health (where unions exist). Sanford Health has 44 hospitals and about 1,400 physicians. It appears that Kalispell Regional may have moved toward what Sanford Health has done in other areas, which is to change to customer centric-interventions that “rarely (if ever) improve the quality of care patients receive,” according to an article by Mathew Keller, RN, JD titled “Sanford Health Gets it Backwards” on the Minnesota Nurses Association’s website (mnnurses.org/Sanford-health), which lends understanding as to why nurses in the Flathead Valley want bargaining power. Real patient care and safety can’t be sacrificed for a perception of patient care and safety. Fancier hospitals affect perception but do not affect real patient outcomes, including adequate staffing and care.

So what is a nurses’ union? It is a labor union/trade union of organized workers formed to protect and advocate for its members’ interests. Mostly it is in the form of collective bargaining aimed at improving employees’ wages, hours, working conditions and benefits. Advantages? 1) Job security prohibiting termination without cause and to offer representation for disciplinary action to ensure fair treatment. 2) Advocate for higher nurse-to-patient ratios, better safety rules and protocols, and the elimination of mandatory overtime. 3) Guaranteed wages and pay raises. Pay increases are automatic based on the union contract, and the employer will not be able to lower nurse wages due to budget cuts. 4) A process for addressing complaints and grievances, which protects a nurse from reprisal and actively facilitates resolutions. 5) Educational grants, apparel and travel discounts, insurance, special mortgage rates.

Disadvantages? 1) Procedures may make it difficult to fire nurses or bad eggs for inappropriate behavior or incompetence. 2) To gain better working conditions, unions may go on strike. Union members must join a strike (without pay) or face anger and even violence from the rest of the union members. 3) Seniority over performance. 4) Union mediation for everything. Unions may create adversarial relationship between employees and their managers and complicate simple disputes with unnecessary processes. 5) Union dues. To operate, unions collect initiation and membership fees, which can be deducted from your paycheck.

Are unionized nurses better off? Various studies are inconclusive. Most information about nurse unions have been found to be biased. My personal experience has been that when the subject of organizing comes up there is something driving the movement. Let’s ask the question. What are the local nurses striving for? What is driving the request to form a union? Let’s give them a voice and find out. Think of things like short staffing, pay cuts, layoffs, perception versus real value. As integral parts of a hospital system, nurses deserve a loud voice in the quality of patient care and how he/she works satisfactorily as a nurse.

Not unique locally to health care workers is the violence that has become prevalent to nurses in the workplace, as reported in most major Montana newspapers. The Montana Nurses Association supports HR 1309, The Workplace Violence Prevention for Healthcare and Social Service Workers Act. Montana nurses need a voice in this debate, and a nurse union lends a voice to the need.

Let’s say KRH wanted to sell to Sanford and the nurses here are unionized. Per the National Labor Relations Act, new owners are subject to a test called substantial continuity. Transfer of ownership may require the new owner to be forced to honor the union contract. Refer to Substantial Continuity Overview under the National Labor Relations Act. If Sanford were to purchase KRH/Northwest Healthcare, it would likely cost them more. This may be a moot subject, but it is worth considering regarding objections to a nurses’ union.

Finally, as a current RN and past union representative and bargaining member, the disadvantages of having a union fall under the more rare occurrences. Perhaps you could ask the nurses in Missoula if they want to give up their collective bargaining power. I have been on both sides of this equation. It is a no-brainer for me. I wholeheartedly support the effort by nurses in this community to organize and be able to collectively bargain on their own behalf, and to the benefit of the local community.

Mary Jane Barrett is a registered nurse and consulting nurse with Forensic Nursing, Inc. in Whitefish.