RNs from across the country made history last week by founding the 150,000-nurse super-union, National Nurses United (NNU). Freshly elected to the Council of Presidents, Jean Ross, RN, stopped in to chat with Scrubs during a busy week of conventions and rallies to share her personal statement of views and to answer the question “Why now?”
Scrubs: What is the purpose of the NNU?
Jean: We’re changing the face of nursing in America! For many years, we’ve been watching hospital chains grow exponentially. The biggest ones are now literally hundreds of facilities. They have unlimited resources, the ear of politicians and unconscionable influence over regulators, and all of that makes it very difficult for nurses to stand up to them on behalf of patients. For some time we’ve known that we needed to construct an effective and committed national vehicle for RNs to balance that out. In looking across the country, we realized that there was a great group of nurse activists, but that they really needed a network, an infrastructure. National Nurses United will provide that to nurses across the country and have an immediate impact in our hospitals. I can’t even tell you who approached whom. We just knew this was the most opportune time to finally get this done.
Scrubs: Why will a unified nurses’ union be so powerful?
Jean: We see ourselves as vital to patient care. We’re the ones with the patients 24/7. Who better to speak to issues on patient care, healthcare reform and safe patient workloads (nurse-to-patient ratios)? As a unified voice for RNs, we will immediately have the platform and the background to start advocating for better care within hospitals. And it’s certainly not lost on us that nursing is the most trusted profession because everyone can identify with our patient advocacy. We believe that we can take that patient advocacy from the bedside to the public sphere and affect change through it. For too long, nurses have been shut out of public debates, and everyone will win now that we’re coming together for a voice. There are more than two million of us across the country, and we now have the vehicle we need.
Scrubs: What is the membership structure like and what can nurses expect from their membership?
Jean: We invite every nurse to sign up right away—whether they’re ready to start organizing their hospitals or not. Our membership model is more flexible than that of most unions, and RNs across the country can sign up to join, start receiving our action alerts and plug right into our campaigns for safe RN-to-patient ratios, fair agreements for nurses and guaranteed healthcare for all patients.
RNs who work in similar hospital types or chains will come together in national summit meetings to harness and coordinate collective power. A national political summit will coordinate our political and legislative efforts, including implementing a plan to pass S. 1031—the National Nursing Shortage Reform and Patient Advocacy Act, the bill that would create national RN staffing ratios. We’re planning another major gathering of nurses in Washington in May for National Nurses Week, building on our great “RN Day of Action” last May.
We will forge international ties with nurses in other countries. The president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions spoke at our convention in Arizona. We have strong links with nurses in Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom and many other countries in Latin America, Europe and Asia, in particular.
Sharing our successes, our experiences and our collective work will strengthen our ability to protect patients, improve healthcare and promote the role of nurses across borders.
Scrubs: What are some long-term objectives for the union?
Jean: Our first and main objective is to organize every RN in the nation so that we can all finally speak collectively on behalf of our patients and our profession. Beyond that, we’re concerned about safe RN-to-patient staffing ratios, rights and representation—which we see as the basis for a patient safety agenda. We aim to advocate for our patients in whatever way they need us. Helping to pass the Employee Free Choice Act is central to RNs organizing with the NNU and winning collective bargaining contracts with safe patient care protections.
Scrubs: Why has it taken so long for nurses to come together as a collective force in this way?
Jean: Good question. Because the organization we all came from, the American Nurses Association, has over the years sided with employers to the detriment of direct-care RNs, we were forced to seek help where we could find it, banding together as state organizations or joining other unions with different kinds of workers.
We all tended to do things in our own separate ways, some with more success than others. I think factors came together this year that lent an urgency to our wanting to unite: a more labor-friendly political climate, the constant employer threats and attacks on our practice, the rapid expansion of the employers building and buying across the country. No better time than the present! We have an aggressive agenda that we plan on implementing right away. You will be hearing from this union!
Scrubs: What is your personal statement of views as NNU co-president?
Jean: I think the biggest challenge we face as a profession is ensuring a safe, manageable workload for nurses. We now have research to prove what most of us have known anecdotally for years. Assigning too many patients to an RN increases their risk for infection and complications, up to and including death. I believe it’s up to us to set a standard that our members feel is safe, reasonable and enforceable.
Other issues before us include the continuing RN shortage (especially faculty), safe patient handling standards, the Kentucky River decision and the generally unfriendly labor climate we have in our country at present.
Although collectively we have achieved great contract language allowing RNs some control in the workplace, I believe we need to focus on helping nurses learn how to enforce that language and to support them with resources to do so.