By LAURIE HAAPANEN
Last year, the state of Maine saw a record rise in unionization. The Maine AFL-CIO reported that there were 13,000 new union members added to the ranks of organized labor in the state. That number rose last week when the RNs at Portland’s Maine Medical Center voted to join the Maine State Nurses Association, affiliated with the National Nurses United.* The vote was 1001-750.
With a clear 57% majority vote, this win was significant within Maine and nationwide. The MMC RNs have cited growing concerns about inadequate staffing, lack of adequate personal protective equipment during COVID19, mandatory scheduling that requires nurses to rotate between working days and nights that they say leads to burnout and fatigue, lack of meal and break relief, assignments to work in units for which they do not have clinical experience and proper orientation, and other workplace improvements and standards.
“It’s a new day for nurses and patients across Maine,” said MSNA President Cokie Giles, RN. “I am thrilled for my colleagues at Maine Med and for their resolve to win a collective voice for their patients and their community. And I look forward to working with you for a future of high-quality patient care for all Maine residents.” Giles, who is also a vice president of NNU, called on Maine Med’s administration to “respect the democratic vote of the RNs, and begin working with them to negotiate its first collective bargaining agreement that would be in the best interests of the hospital, the nurses, and the community.”
The win at MMC was not without controversy, however. After the nurses filed for an NLRB election in January, Maine Med management hired Reliant Labor Consultants, which advertises services including “avoiding a union” and “fighting a union.” Nurses were called away from patient care to attend so-called “training sessions” (aka captive audience meetings) with consultants about the “dangers” of unionization. There were reports of intimidation and threats that disciplinary action would be taken if nurses wore union buttons.
Reliant’s president, Joseph Brock, is a former Teamster president who boasts on a LinkedIn page that he has a “demonstrated history of working in [the] union avoidance industry.” Reliant specializes in “helping its clients sustain their direct relationships with their employees and avoid the many significant problems that arise when work groups are organized,” according to the firm’s website, which features a slew of positive testimonials from anonymous former clients. Brock also has a history that includes working for another anti-union firm, LRI Consulting Services Inc., which brought him on to help fend off a union drive in 2014 at Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas.
These union-busting services do not come cheaply. MMC will not disclose how much money was spent to “avoid” the union, but it is a nearly universal practice for employers to hire outside firms to block unionization. (Recently, at the Amazon warehouse organizing drive in Bessemer, Ala., which happened simultaneously with the MMC RN’s campaign, the company, which has deeper pockets than any hospital in the country, was highly successful in keeping the union out. Millions of dollars were spent. And we know the result: That union campaign was trounced.)
Some unusual circumstances arose during this organizing drive. In February, Maine Med was criticized publicly after it had been leaked to the press that Maine Health, the umbrella organization for MMC, had given away a number of coronavirus vaccines to out of state consultants from Reliant. This caused a furor amongst the public, because at that time only seniors age 70 and up were allowed to be vaccinated. People were outraged that vaccines were being diverted away from Maine citizens, and even Governor Mills was critical. However, she carefully did not take a position on the organizing drive.
What made this campaign stand out from many other organizing efforts is how effectively a community support campaign was conducted. Nurses reached out to patients, other health-care professionals, teachers, labor and church leaders, and formed a Support Maine Med Nurses Committee. There was daily open dialogue on the Facebook page about how community members were impressed by the care they received from nursing staff at MMC. Union members across the state commented on how unionizing would strengthen the labor movement in Maine. RNs who have already been unionized for decades commented on how the union had strengthened the quality of their profession and thereby increased quality patient care.
There were public displays of support with lawn signs and buttons that patients wore into the hospital in support, and a petition was presented to the hospital with over 1000 signatures from people all over the state. Using some of the same strategies that the Chicago Teachers Union has used in the past by garnering public support during strikes and other campaigns, the nurses were seen as allies of the public, as well as the public’s being allies of the RNs. This strategy worked quite well. Nurses are seen as the real warriors of the health-care profession, particularly during the COVID 19 pandemic.
Not surprisingly, later in the campaign, a group of 75 Democratic state legislators issued a letter asking the hospital to “fire the [Reliant] consultants and respect RNs federally-protected right to organize.” In a strongly worded statement, they continued, “If you intend to take anything away from RNs—including their moral and legal right to a free and fair election—we will stand with the nurses against any such attempt.” It was an unusual letter, but the Democratic Party nationally has been talking up its “pro-labor” stance recently by supporting legislation called the PRO Act (Protecting the Right to Organize), a bill that can positively affect the class struggle, if passed. The bill’s provisions would undo some of the most draconian parts of Taft-Hartley and other anti-labor legislation. They include legalizing the secondary boycott/strike; getting rid of captive audience meetings, at least on paper; reclassifying “contract” workers currently ineligible for unionization; and having a more streamlined union election process.
Coming out in favor of the RNs at MMC was a win-win for the Democrats. They have called Joe Biden the most “pro-labor” president ever. So it was really no coincidence that this letter should be sent at this particular time. Whether or not the community support or the legislative letter had an effect on the vote is hard to say, but in the end, the RNs have added to the ranks of the labor movement in Maine and should be proud of the work they have accomplished thus far. Now the hard part begins—getting management to the negotiating table!
*With this MMC victory as well as the win of 1800 nurses in North Carolina in September, and other recent union wins, NNU has reinforced its role as one of the fastest growing unions in the U.S. Overall, NNU represents more than 170,000 RNs from coast to coast.
Photo from Maine State Nurses Association Facebook