Nurses take to streets for union, patient rights

Bush labor board poised to deny union rights to millions of workers

OAKLAND, Calif. — More than 700 nurses and their supporters gathered in downtown Oakland July 11 to protest a forthcoming National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that could devastate their union rights and their ability to advocate for patients. Potentially affected are hundreds of thousands of nurses and up to 8 million workers overall.

The marchers, clad in bright red T-shirts and carrying signs in English and Spanish, were participating in a national week of action by the California Nurses Association (CNA) and other unions that included rallies in Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, Seattle, Pittsburgh and Bangor, Maine, among other cities. More than a dozen leaders of labor and faith-based organizations were preparing to be arrested in civil disobedience protests during a July 13 mass action at the NLRB’s headquarters in Washington.

At issue is an impending ruling on three related cases collectively called the “Kentucky River” decisions. The AFL-CIO says the NLRB could remove bargaining rights by redefining “supervisor” to include skilled and experienced workers who give instructions to other workers. Since supervisors are not allowed to join unions, employers often try to deny workers their union rights by classifying them as supervisors. While nurses are affected especially severely, building trades workers, media workers, port shipping workers, quality control inspectors, sales personnel and many others could also lose their rights.

In a July 12 memo, the Economic Policy Institute reported that “the broad definition of ‘supervisor’ employers are seeking [from the NLRB] ultimately could take away the right to join a union and bargain collectively from 8 million Americans throughout the labor market.”

The five-member NLRB — all Bush appointees — has refused to hear oral arguments, even rejecting union requests for hearings. A decision may be issued as early as August.

In Oakland, marchers and speakers alike emphasized nurses’ roles as advocates for their patients, and warned of the ruling’s potential impact on patient care. They urged supporters to demand Congress call for public hearings.

CNA Vice President Zenei Cortez, Secretary Malinda Markowitz, and fellow CNA board of directors members Robert Marth Jr. and Trande Phillips — all working nurses — carried a banner proclaiming “RN Rx: Union rights, human rights, patient rights.” They called the potential ruling part of a direct attack on working people throughout the country.

With nurses at the mercy of their employers, they said, they could no longer be able to speak out for patient rights or uphold the improved nurse/patient ratio they recently won in California. “It’s all about corporate power and profits,” said one. “They are trying to take power away because they know we always try to advocate for patients,” added another.

Jerome McCockran, a Kaiser Oakland hospital nurse for 24 years, pointed out that not only “charge nurses” but all bedside nurses would ultimately be affected, since RNs direct the activities of other health care workers. “We want to continue to be union, so we can answer to our patients, not to administrators,” he said.

“We could end up with one nurse to 20 patients,” said Lonnie Kidd, an RN in the behavioral health unit at San Francisco’s Saint Francis Memorial Hospital. “That could be very dangerous, since we have patients who could hurt themselves or others.”

The nurses were joined at a spirited City Hall rally by Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, and Sharon Cornu and Shelley Kessler, heads of the Central Labor Councils in Alameda and San Mateo Counties. Oakland Vice Mayor Jean Quan, Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, and Tim Cromartie, district director for Rep. Barbara Lee, joined them in pledging wholehearted support.

“George W. Bush is trying to put all us workers in the same boat — a sinking ship,” said Pulaski. “Imagine George Bush telling employers there’s a way they don’t have to give you health care any more, there’s a way they can cut back your pensions, there’s a way to keep you from collectively negotiating a wage increase any more. That’s what the George W. Bush plan is.”

To Pulaski’s query, “Are you ready to fight back?” the nurses responded with a resounding “Yes!”

No matter what the NLRB decides, employers do not have to enact the rule, said CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro. “Basically,” she said, “It’s up to the employers to continue to recognize the union.” DeMoro also warned about employer efforts to split workers, and said an ultimate recourse might have to be striking hospitals throughout the country.

Recent NLRB rulings in other cases, including its denial of union rights to graduate research assistants and disabled workers, and restrictions on organizing rights of temp agency employees, have aroused increased concern about the outcome of the “Kentucky River” and other cases still before the board.

en español: Protestan fallo antilaboral