New York City Nurses May Vote to Strike This Month

Mark Brenner

Thousands of nurses poured into the streets of New York City April 16 to protest staffing shortages they say put patients at risk. (Michael Fleshman / Flickr)

This post first appeared at Labor Notes.

Thou­sands of nurs­es at 12 hos­pi­tals poured into the streets of New York City April 16 to protest staffing short­ages they say put patients at risk.

We used to see 250 patients a day in our E.R.,” said Nan­cy Hagans, a nurse at Mai­monides Med­ical Cen­ter. But then two hos­pi­tals in Brook­lyn closed and now we’re see­ing 400 a day, with the same num­ber of nurs­es. How can we be the advo­cates we took an oath to be?”

The infor­ma­tion­al pick­ets were the lat­est sal­vo in nego­ti­a­tions with the city’s largest pri­vate hos­pi­tals. Next the New York State Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion entered a month of intense fed­er­al medi­a­tion with three hos­pi­tal systems.

Vot­ing for strike autho­riza­tion could begin as soon as mid-May.

The goal is not to strike, said Antho­ny Ciampa, a teleme­try nurse at New York Pres­by­ter­ian Hos­pi­tal and mem­ber of NYSNA’s exec­u­tive board.

But we won’t be ignored,” he said. If it comes down to it, we’ll strike to pro­tect our patients and our communities.”

New lead­ers, new strategy

The union’s year-old coor­di­nat­ed con­tract cam­paign at 17 hos­pi­tals rep­re­sents a sharp shift in strategy.

Till now, NYS­NA has nego­ti­at­ed sep­a­rate hos­pi­tal-by-hos­pi­tal con­tracts for its entire his­to­ry — while Ser­vice Employ­ees (SEIU) mega-local 1199 was win­ning high stan­dards and indus­try-shap­ing polit­i­cal pow­er through mas­ter con­tracts with the same facilities.

Now the nurs­es union is putting com­mon demands on every table. At most hos­pi­tals it’s con­duct­ing open bar­gain­ing, with as many as 200 mem­bers show­ing up to par­tic­i­pate in negotiations.

The new approach stems from a lead­er­ship change inside NYS­NA three years ago, after a slate of bed­side nurs­es wrest­ed con­trol of the exec­u­tive board away from the nurse man­agers who had his­tor­i­cal­ly dom­i­nat­ed the organization.

We’re try­ing to build a real union,” said Pres­i­dent Judy Sheri­dan-Gon­za­lez. But there are no short­cuts. Mem­bers have to do the work.”

She stressed the union’s push to con­nect with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and co-work­ers in oth­er unions, espe­cial­ly 1199. At her hos­pi­tal, Mon­te­fiore Med­ical Cen­ter, nurs­es have been par­tic­i­pat­ing in local meet­ings of the city’s com­mu­ni­ty board, where they’ve got­ten to know activist res­i­dents and high­light­ed prob­lems like emer­gency room overcrowding.

Rank-and-file 1199ers, along with oth­er hos­pi­tal work­ers, were enthu­si­as­tic par­tic­i­pants in NYSNA’s pick­et lines.

Ambi­tious agenda

On their key issue, staffing, the nurs­es have a dou­ble-bar­reled strat­e­gy — stronger con­tract stan­dards and statewide leg­is­la­tion to guar­an­tee min­i­mum nurse-patient ratios.

On the heels of the infor­ma­tion­al pick­ets, a thou­sand nurs­es flood­ed the state capi­tol April 21 to press for safe staffing legislation.

If New York adopts a staffing ratio law, it will be the sec­ond in the nation. Cal­i­for­nia got a sim­i­lar mea­sure in 2004 after a major push by the Cal­i­for­nia Nurs­es Association.

NYSNA’s con­tract cam­paign bore its first fruit late last year, when the CEOs of three of the city’s biggest health care sys­tems — cov­er­ing 10,000 of the 18,000 nurs­es now in nego­ti­a­tions — agreed to mul­ti-employ­er bargaining.

This could be the first step towards an 1199-style mas­ter con­tract. But hos­pi­tal admin­is­tra­tors have shown lit­tle appetite for the nurs­es’ top demand, enforce­able staffing stan­dards — much less their non-tra­di­tion­al proposals.

In an inter­est­ing twist, the nurs­es have pro­posed elim­i­nat­ing the man­age­ment rights clause from their con­tracts. They would replace it with a com­mu­ni­ty rights” clause that would sanc­tion nurs­es to eval­u­ate local pub­lic health needs and review their find­ings in reg­u­lar meet­ings with the CEO.

Fol­low the work

Nurs­es are also push­ing for stronger guar­an­tees that they won’t lose their jobs when hos­pi­tals close, merge, or are tak­en over.

This issue has tak­en on a new urgency in New York after a wave of merg­ers and a high-pro­file NYS­NA fight to keep two Brook­lyn hos­pi­tals from clos­ing. Hos­pi­tals are plan­ning even more sweep­ing changes as they vie for $6 bil­lion in one-time fed­er­al funding.

NYS­NA is also push­ing union-build­ing mea­sures: a job secu­ri­ty fund, new funds for child­care and elder care, and release time for union leaders.

While bar­gain­ing at the big table” has slowed nego­ti­a­tions every­where else, NYS­NA is in a strong posi­tion. Some of its demands, like ful­ly paid retiree health care, have been long­stand­ing ben­e­fits for co-work­ers in 1199.

And 1199’s lat­est con­tract, final­ized last sum­mer, set the prece­dent that union work­ers had the right to fol­low the work out­side the hos­pi­tal into clin­ics and doc­tors’ practices.

Mark Bren­ner is the Direc­tor of Labor Notes. He can be reached at mark@​labornotes.​org.
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