Six years ago, as chair of the Coordinating Council at St. Vincent Healthcare, I helped dissuade other nurses from forming a union. Instead, I encouraged nurses to support shared governance. Our model and motto was "bedside to boardroom." Now, six long years and many broken promises later, I feel a union is the only solution to the problems we face.
As nurses, our No. 1 priority and responsibility is our patients and their families. We care for people at their most vulnerable time, and this relationship is sacred. We spend more time at patients' bedsides than anyone else in the hospital, and we have a better understanding of patient needs than hospital executives.
Despite this, our executive officers essentially refuse to include us in discussions regarding patient care. Instead, they change protocols and policies overnight; new mandates arrive without explanation or education. We want to advocate for our patients' needs in order to raise the level of care, and having a union will guarantee nurses a voice in the decision making.
Nurses also need input into other aspects of working conditions. We want our decisions to form self-contained nursing units to be respected, we don't want pay deducted for lunch breaks that we are unable to take, and we need someone who will stand up for us when we are summoned to HR. Having a union will help us on each of those counts.
St. Vincent Healthcare frequently loses talented, experienced nurses because of the oppressive, fearful environment created by hospital administration. The average cost to orient a new nurse is $63,000, but with no voice, the new nurses never feel any investment in the hospital, and they soon leave. Nurses who approach the administration to raise concerns are accused of a "mob mentality." Many leave for the Billings Clinic, where their nurses' union has created a respectful work environment where nurses' voices are heard and encouraged.
Back in 2003, when fellow nurses chose to not pursue forming a union, we did so because we wanted to give the administration another chance. With shared governance, all levels of administration and staff - bedside to boardroom - were to come together to solve the hospital's problems. But governance was never truly shared, and without a written contract to hold the administration accountable for their promises, they continued to make decisions on the fly without bedside nursing input.
A union will give us a seat at the bargaining table and a contract, ensuring the conditions of the agreement are honored and our patients get the best care possible.
The process to form a union, however, is far more difficult than it should be. There are nurses at St. Vincent Healthcare who are afraid to publicly support the union for fear of reprisal. Their fear of retaliation is well-grounded in St. Vincent's historical opposition to previous unionization efforts. Nurses should not have to live in fear of exercising their basic democratic rights.
Congress has a chance to alleviate this fear by passing the Employee Free Choice Act. This labor law reform would strengthen penalties against employers who illegally fire or threaten union supporters, guarantee that workers get a first contract and let workers choose whether and how to form their union.
We nurses at St. Vincent Healthcare need a union, as do thousands of other Montana workers. Senators and congressmen, please stand up for us and support labor law reform that will protect us as we form our unions.
J. Curt Jensen, RN, CEN, has worked at St. Vincent for nine of the 15 years he has been a registered nurse.