Standing Together

Some nurses say it's time they got organized.

Many Colorado nurses fear that if they speak out about improving working conditions, they will be retaliated against by their employers. They feel powerless to change a health-care system they see as flawed. To eliminate their fear so that they can confidently be involved in staffings and other issues in hospitals, clinics and nursing homes, many nurses are now considering organizing.

In mid-September, the director of organizing for the American Nurses Association, Richard Sanders, and Carrie Gyermek, a nurse who works in Fort Collins and Vail, hosted meetings in Westminster, Vail and Fort Collins, to gauge support for forming a nurses' union in Colorado. "Right now there's no mechanism for them to change things," says Gyermek, who helped nurses in Vermont organize before moving to Colorado a year ago. "A lot of nurses don't know about unions, and they're exploring organizing as an option."

Before Vermont, Gyermek practiced nursing in California, where almost all nurses were members of a union. But when she transferred to a small hospital in Morrisville, Vermont, the nurses there were unhappy because the hospital wasn't spending enough time training new nurses; people fresh out of nursing school were finding themselves in critical situations in which they didn't know how to treat patients. Because of the hospital's limited resources and its "a nurse is a nurse" attitude, obstetrics nurses were assigned to the intensive care unit when the ICU was short-staffed. Those kind of frustrations prompted the nurses to organize. And they were successful.

Later, when Gyermek worked in Burlington, Vermont, at one of the state's largest hospitals, nurses were upset because the hospital had hired a consulting company to help it save money. Hospital administrators didn't talk to the people who were actually doing the work; they just took the advice of the consultants, who recommended that the hospital trim costs by cutting nurses. The ones who remained were so overworked that they went to the press and tried to unionize. Gyermek says their efforts failed because the hospital bureaucracy was too large. However, because of the publicity, she says, the hospital apologized for not listening to the nurses, fired the consultant and vowed to improve conditions.

The staffing issues that prompted the Burlington nurses to speak out reminds Gyermek of what Colorado nurses are facing: too much work and too few nurses. Over a period of ten years, nurses in four of Vermont's thirteen hospitals organized. But whether Colorado will ever see that kind of success is unknown. "Vermont is a more liberal state and there was more support there for organizing, so it made the climate easier, but it was a long process," says Gyermek.

Nurses in Fort Collins who knew about Gyermek's previous organizing activity asked her to help get the process started in Colorado; she has been talking with nurses statewide since the beginning of the summer.

"Nurses have no recourse right now. They feel very threatened for standing up and voicing their opinions," says Gyermek, who declined to say how many nurses attended the interest meetings. "Nurses have to be motivated enough to take the next step. But I don't know what the next step will be."

 
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