Do unions save lives? Suzanne Gordon thinks so. Gordon believes that healthcare unions save lives. She became convinced of this during a recent hospital stay. Gordon recounted that experience to attendees at the AFT NHP Professional Issues Conference and National Federation of Nurses Annual Labor Academy, held in Chicago on May 20-22. “As nurses and health professionals, your job is to keep patients safe. But the system makes it hard for you to do that unless you are in a union,” said Gordon, an award-winning journalist and author, who focuses much of her work on patient safety and on encouraging better communications and teamwork in healthcare settings. A little over a year ago, Gordon fell ill while on vacation. She went to the nearest hospital where she was diagnosed with appendicitis and had surgery.
“I ended up with other problems that have changed my relationship with healthcare services,” said Gordon. The nonunion nurses at the hospital where Gordon had been a patient didn’t feel safe to speak up about certain conditions at their facility. That’s when she began to connect her own experience to the importance of unionized hospitals. “It goes to show,” she said, that even when nurses and health professionals have the best intentions when it comes to safety, “if they can’t protect themselves or don’t have a voice to speak out, it’s hard to focus on patient safety.”
“I had to say this to you, because maybe this would not have happened to me if I were in a union hospital where staff can speak up,” said Gordon. The sentiment resonated with Alice Leo, a member of the Porter Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals in Vermont, which recently became unionized. “I started working at my hospital in 1993. I saw things go downhill slowly. Staffing was terrible,” she said, “but nurses were afraid to speak up before we organized. Now, there is a different relationship.”
Stories like Leo’s are stories people have to hear from you, Gordon told conference participants. “I encourage you to educate America,” she said, asking participants to commit to having conversations with 10 people outside of healthcare. “Help them understand what you do and how unionization helps you do your work,” said Gordon. “Use your voices and narrate your experience.”