The American healthcare system is plagued by the most expensive costs in the world, as millions of citizens suffer from medical debt and 13.7% of adults have no insurance. In the midst of these issues, nurses across the US are fighting to unionize as a way to take on the for-profit healthcare system that they see as failing to help patients.
Mary Beth Boeson has worked for 24 years at Beaumont hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, where nurses began an organizing campaign this year to form a union for the 3,200 nurses employed by the hospital with the Michigan Nurses Association.
Boeson said the campaign started because of changes at the hospital, including high turnover rates, understaffing and budget cuts.
In response, Beaumont hospital hired union busting consulting firms Kulture Consulting and Reliant Labor Consultants. Kulture has previously been hired by Donald Trump to fend off union drives at his casinos.
“It’s been really disappointing how management has responded to our organizing efforts,” said Boeson. She filed an unfair labor practice charge against the hospital in July 2019, alleging the hospital changed her job duties as a nurse anesthetist in response to her union activity. “Management took me off this area because they wanted to make sure I wasn’t in different areas of the hospital to speak with different nurses.”
Once the union drive went public, Boeson said the hospital began mandating nurses attend one-hour information meetings with their hired labor relations consultants. The Oakland County Board of Commissioners even passed a bipartisan resolution calling on the hospital to remain neutral and cease anti-union activity.
A Beaumont hospital spokesperson denied the union busting allegations and noted they intend to cooperate with the National Labor Relations Board. “We want to ensure our nurses understand their legal rights and have complete, accurate information,” said Beaumont Health Chief Nursing Officer Susan Grant in an email. “Our nurses can and do speak for themselves and we think they do not need a union to speak for them.”
Nurses at Beaumont hospital in Michigan are one of several groups around the US that have undergone the process of organizing a union in 2019, despite often facing opposition from management.
“We take a vow to provide the best care we can and that has a lot to do with why there are so many nurses trying to organize,” said Liz Martinez, a nurse at Beaumont hospital involved in the union organizing drive.
At Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore, Maryland, nurses have experienced anti-union opposition from management since their union drive to organize the hospital’s 3,200 nurses first went public in 2018.
The union push began in response to understaffing, high turnover, and low pay. Johns Hopkins was listed on the 2019 National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s “dirty dozen” list of most dangerous places to work after a survey conducted by National Nurses United found 79% of nurses reported experiencing violence in the workplace.
Nurses at Johns Hopkins noted management has also retained union busting firms and consultants since the organizing drive went public.
“There were issues on units where people would talk about unionizing and their managers or administrators would tell them they couldn’t talk about it and that there would be punishment if they continued to talk about it,” said Josh Pickett, a nurse at Johns Hopkins for over three years.
Pickett claimed management has sent out anti-union emails, distributed anti-union content in break rooms, held captive audience meetings hosted by anti-union consultants, and called security on nurses trying to engage in union activity in break rooms.
“It’s made it more difficult, because initially before the busting started, people were readily willing to go to meetings and talk about it,” Pickett added. “There’s a general kind of fear among people of what will happen if they get involved.”
A settlement was reached in June 2019 with the NLRB in response to several unfair labor practice charges. The settlement mandated management post signs affirming workers’ rights to unionize and that management would not interfere or retaliate against nurses for doing so.
“They do not suggest or imply that the hospital has acted improperly, and the Settlement Agreement specifically states that there is no admission of liability,” a spokesperson for Johns Hopkins said.
They denied allegations of union busting. “We are committed to maintaining our longstanding culture of collaboration and open communication with all of our employees in order to continue providing the highest quality of care.”
Despite intense opposition, some nurses have been successful in their union drives to gain enough support for a union election, and win.
After losing a union vote in 2017, about 300 nurses at St Alexius hospital in Bismarck, North Dakota voted to unionize in March 2019, creating the first union in the Republican-dominated state to affiliate with National Nurses United.
In July , around 650 nurses at Kalispell Regional Medical Center in Montana voted to form a union after management refused to outright recognize the union.
“There were a lot of informational meetings directed at our peers who we work with, shifting blame that if the nurses unionize, we’d go out of business, if the nurses unionize, they’ll get everything and you won’t get anything,” said Mariah Connolly, a nurse at Kalispell Regional.
But for some nurses, even winning a union election hasn’t stopped opposition from hospital management.
Some 195 nurses at the Unity Center for Behavioral Health in Portland, Oregon voted to form a union in June 2019, yet the hospital’s management company, Legacy Health, filed an appeal of the election with the NLRB in July 2019.
“We won with 86% of the vote, I just don’t understand what it is they’re denying us now,” said Amer Filipovic, who has worked as a nurse at the hospital since it first opened in 2017.
He noted since the union drive at the hospital began, Legacy Health and management has pushed anti-union literature, and thrown away pro-union material distributed in break rooms.
“The fact they continue to push back on us, appeal, and would rather spend money going to the NLRB in Washington DC than using that money on things like patient outcomes is a surprise to me,” said Sara Mittelman, a nurse at the hospital’s emergency department.