California nurses vote “yes” for union

In a vote that was as much about ensuring quality patient care as about bread and butter job issues, Registered Nurses at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California last Thursday voted by a two to one margin in favor of union representation. After a bitter battle in which the employer tried to harass and intimidate union supporters, RNs voted 269 to 149 in favor of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United (CNA/NNU).

“It’s a victory for nurses. It’s a victory for our community and patient care. It’s a victory for everybody in our community who’s  going to come to work here, to have surgery here, to recuperate here, they’re going to have excellent, improved patient care,” said Elizabeth Baker-Wade, an RN at St. John’s.

The union organizing campaign started five years ago when RNs at St. John’s contacted CNA/NNU to express their concerns that St. John’s was endangering patient care by not adhering to California’s strict RN to patient ratio standard and that the hospital’s compensation and retirement plans were substandard.

Largely due to the efforts of nurses in CNA, California passed a law in 1999 that set “minimum, specific numerical nurse-to-patient ratios for acute-care, acute psychiatric, and specialty hospitals.” Nurses fought for this law because they saw first hand the impact that under staffing had on patient care. Their observations have been supported by more than 60 rigorous studies showing that “hospital understaffing results in more patient deaths, plus more preventable complications like pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and medication errors.”

Since the law went into effect in 2004, the nurse-to-patient ratio standards have improved health care. One study conducted by Health Services Research in 2010 found that “hospital nurse staffing ratios mandated in California are associated with lower mortality and nurse outcomes predictive of better nurse retention in California.”

However, hospitals have been fighting the ratio standards since they became law. They almost succeeded when then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004  at the request of hospital owners suspended implementation of the newly passed law. But a court eventually ruled against Gov. Schwarzenegger allowing the ratio standards to go into effect.

More recently, the CNA/NNU organizing campaign at St. John’s hinged largely around giving RNs a voice on the job to ensure that the hospital follows the ratio standards. The RNs organizing campaign was met by “excessive aggression,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of CNA/NNU.

The National Labor Relations Board charged the hospital with taking a number of ant-union actions, including spying on union supporters, interrogating union supporters, expelling off-duty, pro-union nurses, who were talking to other nurses about the union, from hospital property, and preventing nurses from wearing  ribbons that read, “RNs for Safe Patient Care.”

St. Johns is owned by the Sisters of Charity Leavenworth Health Systems based in Lenexa, Kansas, which incorporated in 1972 and owns hospitals in Kansas, Colorado, Montana, and California. While the role of the Catholic Church in running the hospital chain has greatly diminished since its incorporation, the hospital system still likes to tout its relationship with the Church.

Unfortunately, the corporation chose to ignore one of the tenets of the Church’s social doctrine that holds that workers have the right to join unions. During the organizing campaign, a number of religious and community supporters of the nurses tried in vain to remind administrators at St. John’s about the Church’s position on workers’ rights.

The pro-union vote came just six weeks after the nurses filed a petition with the NLRB for a union representation election, but the union victory was not an overnight success. It took years of organizing, resisting intimidation, and staying focused on the overall goal of improving patient care.

“This was the most wonderful, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was harder than giving birth, (but) it’s so worth it. ” said Saint John’s RN Lori Hammond.

“I’ve been here for 22 and a half years. I was born in the old St. John’s. This was a yes vote for patients, for fair treatment, for what we’ve gone without for a long time. I’m happy,” said St. John’s RN Donna Schonlaw.

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