NEW YORK NURSE: September 2009
Even though the nation’s economy is showing signs of improvement, NYSNA members negotiating new contracts are still dealing with the reality of a severe recession.
Contract talks have been tough from one end of the state to the other. Employers are coming to the table armed with demands for concessions. One hospital wanted to tie pay to performance, another wanted to add a 13th shift. A third gave nurses a final offer of only 2% over 18 months. Some bargaining units have agreed to smaller wage increases in exchange for a major improvement, such as establishing a retirement health plan.
“In this economy, members are being more selective when developing the proposals they will fight for,” said Lorraine Seidel, NYSNA Economic & General Welfare program director, “But fight we will.”
Labor unions were responsible for the rise of the middle class during the middle of the last century. They stabilized the nation’s economy by forcing industries to share their prosperity with employees. But nearly three decades of corporate aggression has weakened the economy as a whole.
New York’s healthcare institutions also have suffered, as the bottom fell out of the state’s economy after a decade of runaway speculation and investment fraud. Unable to recover from their losses, some healthcare facilities have closed units or shut down completely.
NYSNA members generally understand the predicament of facilities that legitimately need to control costs and have worked with them to help resolve financial problems. But some employers are using the recession as an excuse to gut labor contracts or get rid of unions all together. They’re looking to freeze pensions, eliminate retirement health benefits, or demand rollbacks of other contract provisions designed to keep workplaces and patients safe.
“These employers still don’t appreciate the value of their registered nurses,” Seidel said. “They want to weaken nurses’ bargaining units and reverse the profession’s hard-won gains. This is something NYSNA members will not tolerate.”
In tough times, it’s easy to say: “I’m lucky I still have a job.” Nurses shouldn’t fall into this trap. They’ve earned respect. No single person can reverse worldwide economic trends, but thousands of individuals working together can ensure that the weak economy doesn’t decimate health care.
What nurses negotiate has an impact on other healthcare workers at their facility and on other NYSNA bargaining units as well. Nurses should support each other and join the picket lines of colleagues in other unions, because they’ll return the favor.
Healthcare institutions depend on their communities for survival. Even before contract negotiations start, NYSNA members can work on building community support. They can form committees to reach out directly to the community leaders and to local elected public officials. Nurses should show their communities that they care about the work they do, and be willing to speak out about the patient safety concerns they see in the workplace. They need to remind their employers about the importance of RNs in the healthcare system – that having fewer nurses on staff is not good for their patients.
NYSNA has fought off unacceptable demands by employers many times in the past and will do so again. Hospital executives have no right to water down contracts nurses have spent years negotiating and a profession they’ve spent more than a century building.
“Even in the face of huge economic challenges,” Seidel said, “NYSNA will continue to fight hard for fair wages and working conditions and we will fully support our members in this fight, more determined than ever.”