Nurses' activism wins strong contract

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"Our first job as a nurse is to advocate for patients," says Kelly Hickman-Begley, a registered nurse at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. But issues such as nurse retention, nurse staffing and safe patient care plagued the hospital, sometimes hindering Hickman-Begley's work.

So, as Hickman-Begley's union, the Registered Nurses Association, part of the Ohio Nurses Association, began negotiating with the hospital for a new contract last spring, she decided to get involved in the negotiations.

"I was a new nurse when I came here 10 years ago, and I was not actively involved with the RNA," she says. "But after witnessing ongoing staffing problems and the hospital's inaction, I realized that the union was the place to address the problems at the hospital. Healthcare is becoming much more of a business, and unions are key to looking out for our patients and helping nurses have a voice and build power."

Ohio nurses negotiating team

This year, many of the RNA's 1,500 nurse members got actively involved in negotiations and worksite actions. Their activism delivered a three-year collective bargaining agreement on June 30 that addressed major concerns for the nurses. The overuse of the hospital's on-call system, created for emergencies and unforeseen circumstances, was particularly frustrating to the nurses.

Jeannette Porter, RNA president and a registered nurse, says the new contract language means that on-call will only be used for unanticipated situations, not as a staffing tool. "As a deterrent for going back to the 'old way,' nurses will be paid a premium if they are called in for inappropriate situations," she says. "The hospital will now have to staff nurses appropriately from the start."

Now that the contract has been ratified, the nurses are already seeing changes, says Hickman-Begley.

Registered nurses will also receive an average wage increase of 5.7 percent in the first year of the contract.

Michelle Thoman, a registered nurse who works on a specialty surgery unit, believes the improved wages will make the hospital more competitive with other facilities. When it came to salaries, "our hospital had been falling behind other hospitals in our region. It's why we had problems recruiting and retaining nurses," she says, even though the medical center is the only Level 1 trauma center in Cincinnati. "This is a teaching hospital. It's a great place to learn and improve skills, but there is a lot of turnover. I'm hopeful that this will also be an incentive for nurses to stay."

The fact that UCMC is unionized was one reason Thoman decided to work at the hospital. "It's important for me to work in a union environment; I came from a union family, so I know the value of having a union and what it brings to the workforce."Thanks to the RNA's contract campaign, the nurses also know the value of being active in their union. "We asked members what putting patients first meant to them, and a huge number responded," says Thoman. "When our members got involved, it inspired others to get involved too. I believe we got our contract because of our activism."

Tim Puckett, a registered nurse who works in the medical intensive care unit, agrees. "It was good to see everyone engaged in moving members to action and stand in solidarity. You would not have that culture without the union," he says.

Puckett, who used to work in a steel mill, has been in healthcare for eight years. This was the first time he was actively involved in contract negotiations at the hospital. He did so because he felt like he was being forced to shortchange patient care. "It seemed like we were putting the bottom line above patient care."

Now, he would like to use the union's momentum on other issues, like making sure nurses get an uninterrupted lunch break during their shifts. "We are moving forward with strength," says Puckett.

[Adrienne Coles]