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Political Connections and Organizing Campaigns

Jeanine Hickey, RN
Associate Director of Organizing

Developing political connections and alliances is a key component in any campaign whether it is a union organizing campaign, a campaign seeking public policy changes, or a direct action campaign for social justice. Building political relations is one of the most important aspects of any organizing campaign involving the nursing profession and the health care industry.

Why? Because as Charlie Stefanini, the MNA Director of Legislation and Government Affairs has so aptly stated to many registered nurses, “Everything you do as nurses and health care professionals is directly related on some level to a government process or agency.” Whether it is on the local, state, or federal level, every aspect of a nurse’s job is regulated by one of these bodies. That is why it is very important for nurses to establish connections with their elected officials before there is a pressing issue.

Political activism is important for nurses. As frontline registered nurses, we know full well the challenging conditions we face in our daily practice. That is why we must be at the forefront in educating legislators on the effects those conditions are having on our patients and our professional practice. If we don’t take the lead in getting our message out to the legislature, you can be assured that the only message they get will be from the hospital industry. As we know, it is not the same as ours.

How are nurses getting involved in New England? This past spring, the New England Nurses Association worked with New Hampshire Representative Rip Holden to draft and promote HB 66, a bill that aimed to limit mandatory overtime as an alternative to providing appropriate staffing in New Hampshire acute care hospitals. NENA Nurses and bargaining unit leaders at Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont NH, provided testimony at the hearing regarding the limitation of mandatory overtime.

Presently NENA nurses are assisting the NH AFL-CIO to fight “Right to Work” legislation. This legislation which is pending before the NH legislature would weaken unions and undercut the ability to bargain decent wages, benefits, and job protections. NENA nurses in NH are currently involved in opposing this legislative initiative by collecting postcards, participating in legislative briefings and offering testimony at legislative hearings.

In Massachusetts, members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association have come along way in the past several years in making our voices heard at the State House. MNA members have become actively involved in lobbying elected officials on the local, state, and federal levels through phone calls, emails, letter writing, and office visits. In addition many members have worked on election campaigns, hosted coffees for candidates, and attended legislative briefings. It is through these efforts that nurses have made political connections that have proved to be beneficial for their bargaining units and for the Association.

Although one of the main focuses of the effort to mobilize members has been the passage of safe staffing legislation (Massachusetts H.2663), members’ political connections have been important for their own bargaining unit fights over mandatory overtime, nursing practice issues and campaigns to save their hospitals from closure.

The importance of having established political connections became clear during the strikes at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Worcester, and Brockton Hospital. Nurses in both bargaining units courageously fought against unsafe staffing conditions and mandatory overtime. In both cases the bargaining units were able to call upon existing political alliances for support and to expand their contacts to include every level of the political spectrum, from the local and state level right up to the federal level. These contacts were instrumental in settling both high profile strikes.

In the case of St. Vincent’s, the direct involvement of Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative James McGovern brought the hospital and the MNA bargaining unit nurses together in Washington to negotiate a settlement to the nurses’ 49 day strike. These negotiations led to landmark contract language that set strict limits on the use of mandatory overtime and gives a nurse the explicit right to refuse a mandatory overtime assignment if he or she were too fatigued or ill to work safely.

In May of 2001, the nurses at Brockton Hospital went on strike to protest the hospital’s failure to provide sufficient staff and resources to offer safe patient care and to stop the use of mandatory overtime as a means of staffing the hospital. Like their colleagues at St. Vincent’s, the bargaining unit nurses established political connections on all political levels. On August 24, 2001, an agreement was reached to settle the strike after Sen. John Kerry facilitated a marathon negotiating session. Two important provisions of the settlement were an obligation by the hospital to maintain staffing levels so that overtime would not be used to staff the hospital and language that set strict limits on the use of mandatory overtime and inappropriate floating.

In addition to these struggles, MNA members have reached out politically in their campaigns to keep health care facilities from closing. MNA members engaged local and state politicians in their efforts to help save several hospitals: Whidden, Waltham, the Fernald School, Worcester State, and Hale Hospital (now Merrimack Valley Hospital).

A good example of the MNA nurses’ efforts to fight hospital closure was the campaign to save Hale Hospital in Haverhill, Massachusetts. In this campaign, because the Hale was a municipal facility, every aspect of the sale needed to go before local and state legislative bodies. MNA nurses, working in coalition with other unionized employees at the Hale, lobbied elected officials over a two-year period primarily to keep the hospital open, and, secondarily, to protect the pensions and jobs of hospital workers.

The political work done by the Hale nurses in conjunction with other employees and advocacy groups was instrumental in keeping the hospital in service so it could be sold and remain open for business. The political connections the nurses made in this campaign would lead to the development of long-term alliances with their local legislators and proved to be instrumental in subsequent lobbying efforts, like the safe staffing initiative.

As we face the professional challenges and uncertainties of a health care system in jeopardy, the importance of forming political connections becomes more important than ever. Nurses have credibility in the public policy arena when speaking on nursing and health care issues. We must continue to develop and maintain strong political connections to continue to be at the forefront of shaping public policy. So, if you want to be a part of the voice of change in New England, you need to get political!

How can you get political?

  • Get educated on the issues.
  • Call or write your legislator and let them know your views on the issues that affect your daily working conditions and your nursing practice.
  • Attend a legislative briefing in your area.
  • Volunteer to campaign for an area legislator.

These are just some of the ways you can get political. Just know that you can make a difference, no matter what level you choose to participate in. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” Imagine what a powerful message we could send if we all got political!

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