“Right to Work” Doesn’t Have to Mean Defeat for Labor. These Nurses Prove Workers Can Still Win.

James Walker September 22, 2017

One thousand nurses at Munson Medical Center, one of the largest employers in Northern Michigan, voted to join the Michigan Nurses Association last month. (Photo: Michigan Nurses Association)

This arti­cle first appeared on Labor Notes.

Nurs­es in rur­al north­ern Michi­gan made his­to­ry August 9 – 10 when we won labor’s biggest orga­niz­ing vic­to­ry since right to work” took effect in the state in 2013. By a vote of 489 – 439, more than 1,000 RNs at Tra­verse City’s Mun­son Med­ical Cen­ter, the area’s largest employ­er, will be rep­re­sent­ed by the Michi­gan Nurs­es Association.

Mun­son nurs­es tried to orga­nize years ear­li­er, unsuc­cess­ful­ly. I was involved in the effort to orga­nize 15 years ago,” said crit­i­cal care pool RN Dag­mar Cun­ning­ham. Since then ben­e­fits have decreased and the work­load due to sick­er patients has increased. Some­thing had to change.”

This time around, we suc­ceed­ed. How did we do it?

Best prac­tices

It start­ed with one phone call. After years of frus­tra­tion with manda­to­ry over­time, cuts to ben­e­fits and incen­tives for pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment, poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion among nurs­es, man­agers, and the admin­is­tra­tion, and prob­lems with nurse recruit­ment and reten­tion, RNs began ask­ing our­selves whether the high­est qual­i­ty of care was being deliv­ered to our patients at all times.

Want­i­ng to advo­cate for both my patients and my pro­fes­sion, I made the first call to MNA’s orga­niz­ing depart­ment, in Sep­tem­ber 2016.

I want to be paid fair­ly, but form­ing a union is about more than mon­ey,” said ortho­pe­dic RN Mik­ki Popp. I want what’s best for my patients. On my unit, we are con­tin­u­al­ly pulled around the hos­pi­tal as the alter­nate pool’ but we are not trained or com­pen­sat­ed as such.” (Pool nurs­es can be moved around to fill needs in many depart­ments but should receive spe­cial­ized train­ing for each depart­ment they serve.)

Only sev­en nurs­es from crit­i­cal care floors and the nurs­ing pool attend­ed our ng. But from the onset, we used best prac­tices” for orga­niz­ing: build rela­tion­ships; keep a 1:10 ratio of OC mem­bers to nurs­es; build a com­mit­tee with new and expe­ri­enced nurs­es from every shift and unit; orga­nize around the con­cerns of the peo­ple you are talk­ing to.

Gen­er­al meet­ings were held month­ly. More than 100 nurs­es attend­ed our fourth in Jan­u­ary 2017. To max­i­mize turnout, we held two meet­ings per night, before and after shift change. We also launched day-long drop-in ses­sions at a cof­fee shop, so that nurs­es who had yet to get involved could ask ques­tions of active OC members.

Text to organize

We sup­ple­ment­ed and sup­port­ed face-to-face con­ver­sa­tions with mod­ern rapid-response tools. We cre­at­ed team-based chats with­in a tex­ting appli­ca­tion (GroupMe) cho­sen for its abil­i­ty to text across plat­forms, add or drop mem­bers, and inte­grate with a cloud dri­ve (Drop­box).

This allowed us to share doc­u­ments and pho­tos, as well as plan meet­ings and col­lec­tive actions, all in real time from our smartphones.

For exam­ple, when we heard that man­agers were ask­ing employ­ees in cap­tive-audi­ence meet­ings about their union activ­i­ty, we were ready.

A del­e­ga­tion of about 20 nurs­es orga­nized via GroupMe. With a few hours’ notice, we dropped in on a nurs­ing open house” with the chief nurs­ing offi­cer (CNO). We asked man­age­ment to sign on to our state­ment con­demn­ing ille­gal ques­tion­ing of nurs­es about their union views.

Instead, the CNO sent an email to all nurs­es express­ing her con­cern about the orga­niz­ing cam­paign. Nurs­es who weren’t already aware of our effort sud­den­ly were.

We quick­ly print­ed the CNO’s email, marked it up by hand, and used group text mes­sag­ing to redis­trib­ute pho­tos of it with our edi­to­r­i­al com­ments, point­ing out com­mon anti-union tech­niques. Going around the hos­pi­tal with a tra­di­tion­al paper fly­er might have slowed us down.

Face to face

But tex­ting did not take the place of con­ver­sa­tion. Each day at lunch we set up a table near the cafe­te­ria entrance for more dis­cus­sion face to face. (Dur­ing the elec­tion, the table was a ral­ly­ing point for nurs­es to come to before or after they voted.)

By this time man­age­ment, coun­selled by a promi­nent anti-union firm out of Chica­go, was send­ing out week­ly emails against our dri­ve. They set up a page on the hos­pi­tal intranet filled with biased and mis­lead­ing facts.” Sev­er­al man­agers were telling nurs­es they would lose flex­i­bil­i­ty, the union is a third par­ty, and all the usu­al arguments.

Begin­ning in April, nurs­es were made to attend an infor­ma­tion ses­sion on the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing process, run by an anti-union con­sul­tant. Man­age­ment required nurs­es to leave our patients to attend these hour-long meet­ings off the floors.

On April 29, we began cir­cu­lat­ing union autho­riza­tion cards. A few weeks lat­er we held our first blitz,” vis­it­ing nurs­es at home to talk about our union. We held a sec­ond blitz in June.

Before the house call, I was pas­sive in my sup­port for a union. I real­ly didn’t think it was going any­where,” said Eleanor, a men­tal health nurse. But hear­ing from Shan­non Gille­spie, a fel­low nurse who was pas­sion­ate enough to knock on my door, inspired me to sign my autho­riza­tion card.”

Stepped up

Eleanor is a great exam­ple of how our union grew.

Accord­ing to Eleanor, Short­ly after the house vis­it, pool RN Spencer Carey trans­ferred in and asked me for train­ing spe­cif­ic to our depart­ment. His enthu­si­asm for our union con­vinced me that this was actu­al­ly going to happen.

Men­tal health is a locked unit, so I made an effort to be union vis­i­ble’ in an area where oth­er strong sup­port­ers might not have access. Morale was low. Maybe because we are iso­lat­ed from the rest of the hos­pi­tal, men­tal health nurs­es were more scared about unionizing.

I wore an MNA badge hold­er, attend­ed union meet­ings, and tried to keep my co-work­ers informed. Sev­er­al nurs­es signed cards as a result of our con­ver­sa­tions. I also became a reg­u­lar staffing the cafe­te­ria table.”

We won our union because nurs­es like Eleanor stepped up. But that vic­to­ry is just the beginning.

Post-elec­tion, the cafe­te­ria table is still a hub to dis­trib­ute infor­ma­tion and gath­er nurs­es’ pri­or­i­ties, as we devel­op a bar­gain­ing sur­vey and demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly pre­pare to bar­gain our first contract.

James Walk­er, BSN, RN, CCRN, is a car­dio­tho­racic crit­i­cal care nurse at Mun­son Med­ical Center.
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