In Bessemer Shadow, Maine Nurses Organize

By James Fortin

With the defeat of the unionizing effort at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama, it is encouraging to witness the ongoing and undaunted efforts of nurses in Maine to join a union.  Voting is now underway for the 1900 nurses who work at Maine Medical Center (Maine Med), in Portland, Maine, to decide whether to become unionized.

The organizing nurses hope to join the Maine State Nurses Association, which is part of National Nurses United, the largest association of unionized nurses in the U.S. The NNU already represents about 2,000 nurses at other Maine hospitals.

Maine Med is the largest single hospital in Maine and is part of Maine Health, the state’s largest health care system. Jeffrey Sanders, President of Maine Medical Center, a “non-profit” institution, at last count has a salary and benefit package of $639,900, while Maine Health CEO Richard Peterson’s salary and frills total over $1.3 million.  The average pay of a registered nurse in this system is only $65,630, according to online published sources, compared to the national median wage of $75,330.  Maine Health ended its 2018 fiscal year, before the start of the pandemic, with a $140.5 million operating surplus. 

Union-Busting Operations Underway

Given the disparity of executive pay to that of registered nurses at Maine Med, it has been particularly grinding for many nurses that those institutions’ hired high-priced lawyers and professional union-busting consultants in January to direct their noxious anti-nurse, anti-union campaign.

The nurses at Maine Med successfully petitioned the NLRB in January to hold an election via mail-in ballot due to COVID-19. The election is underway.  Since that time Maine Med has dragged out every tool in their anti-union satchel to send the nurses packing.  Maine Med’s hirelings have set up anti-union websites, conducted one-on-one, face-to-face meetings to convince nurses to vote “No”, and placed corporate executives in front of media outlets to spread untruths and half-truths about unions. To boot, nurses also have been subjected to off-hours, automated texting by the company to their personal cell phones, directing them to anti-union videos.

Privileged Vaccinations

At the same time and in complete disregard for Maine state rules, Maine Health proceeded to quietly vaccinate all of its employees out-of-turn.  Instead of offering vaccines to those in the public over 80 years of age who were first in line and the most vulnerable to COVID-19, the conglomerate gave shots to its leadership, managers, back-office employees, and those working from home, i.e., employees with no patient contact.  While they were at it, Maine Med also vaccinated its anti-union quisling-consultants brought in to quash the union drive.

Such outlandish behavior by the corporatist management at Maine Med has led to condemnation by the community.  In a full-page advertisement, in the widest-circulating daily newspaper in Maine, signed by state lawmakers, Portland city councilors, and dozens of civic and labor groups, the signatories called for the “Maine Med administration to respect the right of nurses to decide for themselves whether to form a union, in a free and fair election, and end the administration’s harassment and intimidation.”  The community’s urging received a “butt-out” response from the “community hospital” in an op-ed piece days later.

Trump’s Union-Busting Outfit

One of the hired guns brought in by Maine Med is Joseph Brock, a principal of Reliant Labor Consultants.  Reliant is an avowed union busting outfit and Brock, personally, has promoted himself on LinkedIn as “The Unabashed Liberal Union Buster.”  Brock also represented the Donald Trump organization in its efforts to block unionization in 2014 at its hotel in Las Vegas.  Joining the management onslaught Brock has wasted no time in applying his best efforts at defeating the Maine nurses’ initiative for collective bargaining rights.

As part of the official opposition to a union Brock has re-branded materials produced by national right-wing groups to appear as locally generated.  Spouting headlines such as “Hospital Unionization Harms the Sick” and “Radical Nurses Union Appears Eager to Abandon Patients to Fulfill Radical Agenda” Brock and Maine Med have sunk to bottomless pits to discredit an enormously dedicated and hardworking group of nurses.

The heinous treatment directed against the nurses here is virtually identical to a national pattern described by Erik Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island: “Amazon pulled out the same playbook that employers have used since the 1980s: hire an expensive anti-union law firm, shower employees with anti-union literature, force them to sit through anti-union meetings and bombard them with messages about union dues.”

Nurses Fight Back

The nurses continue to fight back against the hospital’s slanderous campaign with the support of community members and groups.  Among their goals is to have a collective bargaining unit that represents them — to increase staffing to safe operational levels, to improve safety protocols in light of COVID-19, such as wide distribution of N-95 masks, and to demand wages that reflect the importance of their work and safety contribution to the hospital.  They demand a respectful seat at the table of what ostensibly should be a community-oriented, non-profit health institution that places the interests of patients first.

About 1500 former and current Maine Med patients have publicly demonstrated their support to the nurses’ efforts to unionize, sending a letter signed by them to the hospital administration.  Many of these supporters also went online at a nurses website to offer their video testimonies to the nurses cause.

The “Friends of Maine Med Nurses” website with 3,000 followers succinctly summarizes the nurses’ situation: “They are overworked. They are underpaid. Too much is demanded of them. They put patients first, but too often they are not given the respect they deserve. And all of this was true even before COVID-19.”

As we know from the Bessemer Amazon failure, efforts to unionize anywhere, including Maine, have no guarantees of success.  In fact, there are many vocal employees at Maine Med who support the company.  What we also know however, is that at the same time as the working conditions and standard of living of nurses and other health care workers have come under attack by the hospital industry, greater numbers of health care workers have been engaged in union organizing drives across the country.

The National Labor Relations Board in 2020 received approximately 1,500 petitions for union representation.  Of that number 16% were from workers in health care fields, compared to 14% in 2019.  No doubt working conditions during the pandemic that include the lack of adequate protective equipment and even oppressive work schedules that mandate back-to-back, 12-hour shifts have sparked greater interest in union representation than seen in many years.

Unionized nurses know that patients under their care get better care. One 2020 Cornell University study documented a 5.5% lower heart-attack mortality at hospitals with unionized nurses than at non-union hospitals.  Another Cornell study reported a 30% increase in the rate of OSHA inspections at unionized hospitals versus non-union resulting in more cited violations, assessed penalties, and thereby improved patient care.

Nurses Win in North Carolina

The nurses at Maine Med should take heart from a recent victory.  Nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, won the right to a union by garnering more than 70% of the vote in a September, 2020 election. National Nurses United, which now represents those nurses in Asheville, called their victory “the largest union election win in the South in a dozen years” and the most significant hospital unionization effort in the South since 1975.  While the Bessemer defeat is certainly mourned, Maine Med nurses know that they stand a fighting chance of a better result come April 27 when mail-in ballots are due at the NLRB.

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