Long before the registered nurses at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus began negotiating for a new contract, members laid the groundwork for their plan to achieve a landmark agreement.
On July 11, the nearly 4,000-member Ohio State University Nurses Organization/Ohio Nurses Association ratified a three-year agreement that includes wage increases between 15 and 18 percent for most members, safe minimum nurse-to-patient ratios, and a phaseout of mandatory overtime.
“Our nurses pushed the medical center to join us in raising the bar for our patients, and through months of collective action among our members, we were able to secure a monumental contract that benefits everyone,” says OSUNO President Rick Lucas.
“OSU is among a handful of unionized hospitals with staffing ratios,” says Kyle Arnone, deputy director of the AFT’s Research and Strategic Initiatives Department. “These ratios are hospital-wide and enforceable. The contract also limits mandatory overtime, which is a provision that only a handful of contracts include,” he adds. “To have both ratios and limits on overtime together is extremely rare, and that’s what makes this contract special. In theory, these provisions will require the hospital to hire new staff.”
A survey of OSUNO members determined that their top concerns were safe staffing with safe patient limits and ending mandatory overtime; these issues became the focus of the contract campaign.
Staffing had long been a concern for the nurses at the hospital. In 2017, OSUNO filed a mass grievance over staffing cuts in the progressive care unit that had resulted in increased patient load and put the nurses at risk. “That was our first big collection action, and we were able to beat back a lot of the hospital’s staffing changes,” says Lucas. “We knew with this contract that we were going to target staffing and mandating.”
OSUNO began the campaign by making changes to the composition of the bargaining committee. The union included nurses from across the hospital with a mix of experience. For the first time, bargaining sessions were open to members, and they were later invited to share their personal stories about wages, staffing and mandatory overtime.
“Hearing others come and speak to the folks across the table and give them real-life scenarios really moved management,” says Bret Apple, a registered nurse who has worked in the operating room/surgery at the hospital for eight years.
To keep members up to date on contract negotiations, the bargaining teams used the Hustle app and social media. “I’ve gone through four contract negotiations in my career, and I’ve never had any communication about bargaining as it was going on,” says Apple. “We were always in the dark” until an agreement was reached.
“We also talked to members about what was going on,” says Amy Pompeii, a registered nurse who works the float pool in the hospital’s medical/surgical units. “The member engagement was high because we were there and visible on the units.”
Members made buttons with the slogan “safe staffing saves lives” to wear at work. When patients asked about the button, the nurses would let them know that the hospital was cutting staff.
“Our job as nurses is to advocate and to raise awareness about patient care issues. The hospital had never seen any activity like that and did not see it that way however,” says Lucas, who was pulled aside and told that the buttons were unprofessional and scaring people, but Lucas and OSUNO members refused to be intimidated.
OSUNO joined the Ohio Central Labor Council, which helped the nurses build community and political support. The nurses created lawn signs with the slogan, “We support nurses at Ohio State” and canvassed neighborhoods, knocking on doors in the community, asking neighbors to put up their signs. The nurses also met with lawmakers and let them know what they were fighting for at the hospital. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) wrote a letter to the hospital in support of the nurses. In addition, OSUNO held a postcard drive that culminated in the delivery of 1,500 postcards during a hospital board of trustees meeting. “We were all nervous walking in, but we did it for the 4,000 members and for our patients,” says Apple.
The actions in the community helped the nurses make gains at the bargaining table. “At the table, we worked on staffing right away and got staffing limits, and then stalled out for weeks on mandatory overtime,” says Lucas. The nurses paid for a billboard near the hospital with their messaging, and it was successful: The hospital worked with the nurses on the mandatory overtime language.
“Members loved the collective actions, and most were willing to put themselves into action to participate,” says Apple.
Lucas agrees. “Many nurses said that they’d never seen the union do this, and that the action was what they had been waiting for,” he says, adding that new nurses were excited to join the union. OSUNO signed up 21 new members during ratification.
“The best thing about the contract is the nurse-to-patient ratios that are enforceable and grievable,” says Apple. “The compensation was the cherry on top. It will allow me not have to work as many hours and spend more time with my family. I can come back to work energized; and I feel valued by the hospital.”
“The ratios are a huge win for patient care and nurses,” says Pompeii. “Our goal was to create work/life balance. Every day, I come to work not knowing if I will be able to leave my shift or if I will have to stay. It will be good to actually take care of patients and, at the end of the day, leave work at work and not bring it home with you. Once our unit is staffed like it’s supposed to be, it will become a true float pool that will be used to relieve nurses instead of a staffing tool,” she adds.
“The big difference with this contract is that nurses will have the time to take good care of patients and do all the things they need to do,” says Lucas, who also hopes the contract will encourage nurses to stay at the patient’s bedside. “We set out to raise the bar, and we accomplished more than we ever thought we’d be able to. And we were able to do that though our collective action.”