In one of the largest union organizing wins in recent years, 1,016 Registered Nurses employed at Hennepin County Medical Center have chosen to be represented by the Minnesota Nurses Association.
The state Bureau of Mediation Services Monday certified that MNA has shown majority status, after conducting a card-signing campaign among the RNs.
Nurses have been increasingly concerned about their employment status at HCMC as county officials pursue plans of governance change for the hospital, seeking third party administrators.
“Without a contract, employers are free to make unilateral changes that impact our incomes, our health and how we provide nursing practice,” said Sue Johnson, RN, an HCMC nurse who helped in the organizing drive. “Now that we are recognized as a bargaining unit, they have to talk with us, now they have to negotiate with us.”
The HCMC nurses will be able to tap into significant power with their membership in MNA and subsequent affiliation with the American Nurses Association, The United American Nurses and the AFL-CIO, Johnson said.
“Now we’re at the table with 1,000 knowledgeable nurses at HCMC, 18,000 nurses statewide, and 100,000 nationally to support us when we talk about working conditions, nursing practice and patient advocacy,” she said.
The victory culminates a two-year organizing drive. BMS said MNA turned in union authorization cards from 514 nurses – 5 more than the number needed to achieve majority status.
HCMC is one of the largest single bargaining units organized in the history of the state nurses’ union, and MNA President Linda Slattengren hailed the news as a victory for all nurses.
“Every nurse in Minnesota is going to be stronger because of this new addition to our family. MNA will gain more activists with a strong foundation in nursing principles to advance important issues like health care reform, workplace safety and safe patient handling.”
Slattengren also recognized the need to assure a strong nurse voice in the face of upcoming governance changes, noting, “A contract will help empower nurses to protect the quality of care delivered to patients at HCMC.”
That ideal was echoed by HCMC nurses who participated in the organizing committee.
“Over the years, HCMC nurses have benefited from MNA’s good work regarding salaries in the metro area,” said Judy Austin, RN. “It’s time we join in and help work through our Association to improve the lives of nurses and their families and our patients.”
Stephanie Wells, RN, looks forward to putting her union membership into action. “We have a legal document that gives us the tools to protect our jobs and our patients,” she said. Wells is very supportive of implementing staffing committees and other labor-management committees that have proven to be effective as a means to resolve issues in other contract facilities.
With help and support from other unions, including SEIU, the campaign was a tribute to a unified labor effort, the MNA said. Hundreds of nurses from HCMC and other contract facilities were joined by other union members to conduct old fashioned, door knocking and “meet ups.”
On the political front, MNA credits a valuable relationship built with County Commissioners. “We applaud Hennepin County Commissioners for their support regarding workplace policies of union neutrality, which allowed the nurses to make this important decision without constraint or disruption in the workplace,” said Slattengren.
On Nov. 23, 2004, the county board agreed to recognize a union if a majority of workers signed cards authorizing representation. The agreement originally gave MNA until Aug. 31 to persuade a majority of HCMC nurses to sign authorization cards without interference or intimidation from hospital administrators. But the timetable ran into immediate problems, as the union and hospital had trouble agreeing on a list of nurses who should be part of the proposed bargaining unit. The dispute eventually went to arbitration, where a consent decree gave the union a three-month extension.
MNA declared majority status on Nov. 23 – exactly one year to the day of the original agreement with the county. It was a narrow victory – “but a majority is a majority,” said MNA Legislative Director Walt Fredrickson.
One highlight of the public campaign was a highly visible rally held at the Hennepin County Government Center in June 2004. Nurses from throughout the country who were meeting in Minneapolis for the ANA and UAN conventions, along with members of 15 different local unions, gathered around the fountain to demand that HCMC nurses receive their promised wage hikes.
County Commissioner Gail Dorfman issued a persuasive alert in support of the organizing effort, saying “The new Hospital Board will set their own rules that will affect all employees, and nurses are the only large group left without organized representation.”
The next steps for the bargaining unit will be to elect a committee to begin first contract negotiations. Nurses are hoping to achieve a contract within a year.
This report was compiled from information supplied by the Minnesota Nurses Association and St. Paul Union Advocate editor Michael Kuchta.