Collective bargaining, the linchpin of the working class's power to negotiate the terms of their employment, has come under fire in these difficult economic times, its demise deemed a means of cutting costs and saving state budgets. And it's no surprise that nurses, relatively new to the bargaining table (they first began to organize in the mid-1940s), now find themselves at the center of the conflict. On March 31, Ohio governor John Kasich signed into law Senate Bill 5, which severely limits collective bargaining options for state employees, including nurses. Paula Anderson, president of the Ohio Nurses Association, spoke against the bill on March 10, before it was signed into law, at a hearing of the Ohio House Commerce and Labor Committee, saying that it almost eliminates Ohio RNs' ability to "collectively bargain for competitive wages and safe working conditions"—rights that are essential for providing safe, high-quality patient care, said Anderson.
Earlier in March, the Wisconsin state senate passed Assembly Bill 11 (now referred to as 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 or the Budget Repair Law). Within a few weeks, three labor unions filed suit against the state and Governor Scott Walker, alleging that the law "makes it unlawful for a municipal employer to bargain with a labor organization that is acting on behalf of employees." (The unions found other restrictions on collective bargaining objectionable, as well.) Amid that suit and public protests on the measure, Dane County, Wisconsin, judge Maryann Sumi placed a restraining order on the law, which at the time of this writing had been extended until May 23 or until arguments against the law had been heard.
Candice Owley, an RN and president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (WFNHP), saw an outpouring of support for collective bargaining rights during rallies in Madison, including a sleepover at the capitol on February 25 to protest the bill before it was signed. Nurses coast to coast traveled to the Wisconsin state capitol in solidarity. The issue affects thousands of nurses in Wisconsin, Owley pointed out, including those who work in public health, corrections, and in the state's university health system. And it may be just a matter of time before those in the private sector are affected, too, said Owley. The issue has "reinvigorated our own [WFNHP] members to stand up and fight back," she told AJN.
The efforts to restrict collective bargaining by public employees in Wisconsin and Ohio have spurred more strong responses from nurses nationwide. In a press release, the Oregon Nurses Association denounced the Wisconsin state senate for "stripping public employees of crucial collective bargaining rights." The National Federation of Nurses (NFN) and National Nurses United (NNU), as well as other local bargaining units representing nurses and health care workers, participated in nationwide rallies on April 4—We Are One—to protect the bargaining rights of workers, including RNs. More rallies are forthcoming, according to Owley. "I remember when nurses worked three different shifts in one week," she recalled, adding that because of collective bargaining, "health care workers and nurses have been able to stand up and say what their working conditions are like," and organize to improve them.
Information, updates, and links to constituent state members of the NFN and NNU can be found at www.nfn.org and www.nationalnursesunited.org.—Gail M. Pfeifer, MA, RN