Union nurses of Finley Hospital in Dubuque, Iowa, have come to rely on community supporters in an attempt to get the hospital management to negotiate a contract.
Over 65% of the 300 Finley nurses voted in December 2003 in favor of union representation with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 199. However, contract negotiations didn't begin until April 2004 and for the next 12 months nurses have struggled to partner with Finley management, to no avail.
The area of their largest disagreement is patient care, with nurses expressing the frustration of increasing patient workload leading to the industry-wide problems of adequate care for each patient. Stretched too thin among too many patients, nurses lament that patient care suffers. "Patient care is the main issue, having a good nurse-to-patient ratio," Mary Riegler, R.N., told a reporter. And Linda Merfeld, R.N., who with Riegler is a member of the union negotiating team, said at a public demonstration April 7 at a local park, "We want to do what we do best: advocate for our patients."
Last July, Finley Hospital made the dramatic announcement that an agreement had been reached with John Deere Health system for Finley and its affiliates to serve over 6,000 insured people, active union members, retirees and their families, within the John Deere system, beginning Jan. 1, 2005. "The hospital said it didn't need more nurses," Merfeld said. "In fact, it didn't replace nurses who left or retired."
Finley Hospital is an affiliate of Iowa Health System corporation (ihs.org), an organization of seven metro medical centers and 14 rural hospitals in Iowa, which boasts a $1.49 billion annual budget. Throughout this two-year process of before and after the union vote, Iowa Health System employed the "union-busting" Chicago law firm of Seyfarth Shaw, whose Web site brags that "Half of the firm's 400 attorneys devote themselves to labor issues, particularly client counseling and prevention, and litigation and labor relations." As expensive as this law firm is, Dubuque must be a gold mine, and it's understandable that Seyfarth Shaw would advise strategies to prolong these negotiations indefinitely.
What a sorry spectacle to witness the most trusted of professions -- made up mostly of women -- locked in ongoing conflict with this statewide corporation and its law firm, over this essential labor right to organize in order to provide improved patient care. This is rivaled only by the increasingly public dispute between the 60,000-member California Nurses Association and Gov. Arnold, who delights in bragging, "I am always kicking their butts!" (See "Gov. Arnold sticks to the script," by Ralph Nader, 4/15/05 TPP.)
Local observers question the large sum invested in preventing nurses to unionize, knowing that the investment just raises the cost of health care. Alexander Cockburn stated in "Three-card Monte, One-party State" [4/15/05 TPP], "These days there are more auto manufacturing jobs in Ontario, Canada, than in Michigan, USA. Why? Canada has a national health plan. Both GM and Ford favor one here in the United States, since health is the biggest item on their budgets."
SEIU member Karen Backus, R.N., Chicago, speaking at the rally, wore the union's distinctive jacket, which is emblazoned, "Health Care for All." Afterward, Karen explained to me, "Health care for all is our end goal. Universal health care is one of the many issues that needs to be solved. Obviously, nurses and health care workers having a voice helps."
As our son was born at Finley Hospital 10 years ago, I speak first-hand of the nursing skill and patient care demonstrated by the nurses and health professionals there and know that their good judgment and advocacy can be trusted to further the goal of "Health care for all."
Bill Cullen is a member of Teamsters Local 421 and a resident of Dubuque.