Declaring “Patients, not profits!” and carrying signs demanding safe-staffing nurse-to-patient ratios in D.C.’s hospitals, more than 100 Washington nurses gathered in front of the capital’s City Hall on May 12 to demand the mayor and council back a real safe-staffing nurse-to-patient ratio ordinance. And that wasn’t their only cause. The D.C. campaign was echoed in other marches, all organized by National Nurses United, the leading union for registered nurses, in the Twin Cities, Chicago, Boston and Sacramento. But the D.C. nurses added an extra NNU cause, with a second protest, in front of the Veterans Affairs Department, demanding collective bargaining rights for VA nurses. And there, they got some action…
The protests in D.C. and the other cities focused on passage of safe-staffing legislation, at those levels and in Congress. Safe-staffing bills, modeled on a law NNU pushed through the California legislature a decade ago, mandate that hospitals set minimum nurse-to-patient ratios in various departments. Without such mandates, patients suffer and die and nurses burn out due to short-staffing, the nurses said. Meanwhile, the hospitals build up their profits.
“We want the (D.C.) council to take our safe-staffing bill seriously,” Jeanne Ross, RN, a Minnesota nurse and one of NNU’s three national co-presidents, told Press Associates Union News Service during the first demonstration. “It’s what our patients deserve, it’s what our nurses need and it” – protecting citizens – “is what governments do,” she added.
With mandated nurse-to-patient ratios, especially in key areas such as cardiac care units, emergency rooms and intensive care units, the numbers of hospital-generated ills, such as patient bedsores, and deaths decline, Ross said.
Hospital lobbies strenuously oppose any mandated nurse-to-patient staff ratio legislation, at the local level and nationally. Their trade group sidetracked an NNU-backed D.C. bill last year, and has convinced Councilwoman Mary Cheh (D) to push the hospitals’ weaker alternative, which would let them set the ratios, with no input from nurses themselves.
But NNU’s D.C. affiliate, the D.C. Nurses Association, recruited the chairman of the relevant council committee, Vincent Orange (D), to hold a June11 hearing on NNU’s bill. And nurses’ lobbying has made similar headway in Minnesota, with state legislative hearings there.
“Veterinarians have national standards and day care centers have national standards,” Ross told PAI. “Why shouldn’t hospitals?...It’s ludicrous for them (hospitals) to decide how many nurses we need” to properly care for patients.
NNU members had two aims at the later VA protest: To support legislation by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., for national nurse-to-patient staffing ratios and by Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, to restore full collective bargaining rights for nurses and other clinicians at the federal agency. NNU represents 10,000 of the VA’s nurses.
They also wanted to convince the agency’s officials to back collective bargaining rights, a cause they took to Congress in lobbying in the afternoon.
AFGE, which represents other VA nurses – and whose president, J. David Cox, is a retired VA nurse from North Carolina -- also backs the collective bargaining rights bill. He says VA abuses the current limit on bargaining topics, by refusing to discuss working conditions.
“Equal bargaining rights allow our dedicated VA nurses and physicians to speak up for patient care and decent working conditions,” Cox said when Takano and Brown introduced their bill on May 8. “To ensure veterans get safe, quality care at every VA facility, our clinicians need an equal workplace voice to speak up for adequate staffing, safe schedules and other practices that affect patient care.”
At the D.C. protest, Irma Westmoreland, a VA registered nurse at the agency’s hospital in Augusta, Ga., told the official – Rob Nabors, the VA Secretary’s chief of staff – “we do talking, talking, talking about the problems at the hospitals and nothing’s been done.”
Westmoreland also told Nabors the VA has available money to add to its staff. “You’re spending millions tracking equipment and nurses rather than on patient care,” she said. And despite the VA secretary’s bans, lower-level VA hospital managers still retaliate against RNs who complain about short-staffing or patient care, Westmoreland added.
“We’ve got 4,000 signatures from RNs across the country on this petition, which says ‘Please stop the bullying,’” Westmoreland told Nabors, a former top White House staffer.
- Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer