Nurses Speak: “We Want a Union that Cares for Nurses and Patients”

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Left Voice spoke with Diana Torres, a nurse who works full time in a rehab/medicine unit at Mount Sinai West. Torres is an elected member of the hospital’s Executive Committee and has consistently advocated for the union to win demands through militant collective action including strikes, as well as transparency and democracy.

Nurses picket outside Mount Sinai Hospital in Harlem, February 18/ Photo by Luigi Morris

In March, over 10,000 NYC nurses were on the verge of a massive strike. Their primary demand was safe staffing ratios. After announcing plans for an April 2 work stoppage, the strike notice was later withdrawn and a tentative agreement brought back to members for ratification. Despite substantial opposition, including Montefiore nurses initially rejecting the Tentative Agreement, NYSNA leadership was ultimately successful in ratifying the contract.

Left Voice spoke with Diana Torres, a nurse who works full time in a rehab/medicine unit at Mount Sinai West. Torres is an elected member of the hospital’s Executive Committee and has consistently advocated for the union to win demands through militant collective action including strikes, as well as transparency and democracy. She has been openly critical of the now-ratified contract. Two other rank-and-file NYSNA activists joined the conversation on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Over the last seven months, all three have been deeply involved in the fight for safe staffing and improvements in the patient care environment.

Your recent contract campaign was unusual and perhaps reflects broader shifts in the organization of hospital systems. In the past, nurses negotiated contracts on an individual, hospital-by-hospital basis. In 2015 and this time, however, your negotiations involved three major NYC hospital systems and multiple employers. Over 10,000 nurses organized by NYSNA thus presented common “global” demands and “local” demands. What were your global proposals?

The whole point of us being in an alliance (three hospital groups) was to fight in unity for our common demands. There were 12 to 13 global proposals, which we all agreed on. They included workplace safety, retirement healthcare and others, but the #1 issue was safe staffing.

You were part of the bargaining process from the beginning, since presenting your demands to employers in October 2018. What was the bargaining process like?

From the beginning, it was quite clear that it was a disaster in the making – a bomb that was going to explode. The staff and legal team knew there were opposing views among the committees and attempted to control the situation. We felt we couldn’t miss a day of negotiations during the entire six months, because we were afraid of being excluded from an important decision.

After we put in our strike notice, a hot-shot mediator came into the picture, brought in by agreement from NYSNA and the bosses. We were told to trust him, which was a setup; the mediator told us from the beginning that we had to pull our strike notice. I mean, what do you mean we have to take out the strike notice? We needed to negotiate with the strike notice in place!

At certain moments, we weren’t sure we could trust our own legal team. The NYSNA lawyers were telling us to agree to proposals that we didn’t have a chance to read. Instead, they read us their own summaries of various proposals. They had the audacity to say, “You have to agree to this before management will tell you how much money you’re going to get.”

When the mediator finally presented the proposal that was ultimately ratified, the lawyers rushed us to agree to the TA before having a chance to read it over carefully. Bargaining committee members who were opposed to the tentative agreement had their votes challenged and even nullified on unfounded technicalities.

Union headlines celebrated “enforceable staffing ratios” in the new contract. What’s your take?

There are no ratios specified in the contract. Instead, it stipulates an “allocation committee.” If that fails, there will be arbitration. I think what’s most troubling is that the contract actually states the hospital employers are not financially obligated to support hiring. The contract campaign’s main platform was safe staffing. We painstakingly crunched the numbers of staffing, and need per unit throughout the hospitals. We figured out what it would take to achieve safe staffing for the patients. But that’s been completely disregarded. Mount Sinai West and St. Lukes are each only getting nine nurses!

The Tentative Agreement was brought back to the membership for vote. What did the union do to secure the “yes” vote, and how did nurses respond?

NYSNA brought in tons of additional staff, releasing them from their roles in other facilities around the state to walk through the units and tell nurses to vote yes, telling them it’s “historic.” In some cases, members were shutting them down, kicking them off units, telling them, “Don’t come around here.”

The vote at St. Lukes/Mt. Sinai was conducted during Good Friday and Passover – the biggest holidays for some members. There was a push by the union tops and staff:  “You gotta do it now, you gotta vote now.” The MOA is written in a very confusing way – you need to go over it with a fine-toothed comb. Why didn’t members have a chance to read, digest, and fully understand the contract?  The vote wasn’t democratic. It wasn’t done in a clean way.

Were elected union officers allowed to express their opposition to the TA?

No. The NYSNA legal team sent executive committee members a letter, informing them that the union may be sued if they spoke up against the contract in violation of “good faith bargaining.” This had a chilling effect. Some people were insulted and accused of being anti-union for advocating for a better contract. At Montefiore, where union officials saw a lot of displeasure among members, the union sent the most staffers.

Have you ever seen the union push a contract this hard?

We’ve never seen the union push a contract like this before. We didn’t think it was possible for them to silence us and threaten us in order to ratify. We just don’t understand why the hospitals, or even NYSNA, which is more concerning, pushed it and pushed it and pushed it. It makes us wonder if union officials really care about the patients. Think about it: if the contract is so great, why do they have to sell it to us?

Three bargaining units ratified the contract in the first go-around. Why did the majority of nurses at NYP Columbia, Mount Sinai, and St. Luke’s/West vote for the  TA?

The nurses that voted for it were buying into retiree health benefits and a 3% cost of living increase. Far from “industry-leading,” it’s the same increase we got last time and barely keeps up with inflation in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

Why did Montefiore nurses reject the deal?*

It’s a bad contract. NYSNA’s presenting the deal as “improved staffing.” The bosses gave a flat fee of $100 million for a four-year contract, but you have to split that among five hospitals. Montefiore has a huge need for staffing – it’s probably the worst-staffed hospital in the city. The nurses don’t want to be on their own, and they don’t want to be stuck with this contract.

Why were you against the contract? What were you fighting for?

We didn’t get ratios in this contract. At St. Luke’s and West, there are certain departments that are 100% against it. The whole hospital is short-staffed, with the exception some specialty areas. The emergency departments are by far the worst off. Some patients are staying for 40 to 60 hours and nurses have anywhere from 12-18 patients. On medical/surgical units, nurses have 6 to 8 patients, often very sick. In the ICUs, nurses can get up to 3 patients when they should only have 1 or 2. 97% of nurses voted to authorize a strike, and it was for staffing. Our patients are suffering, they need the care. Nurses are burnt out.

What is the situation since Montefiore initially rejected the TA?

There was something written in the original agreement that if any hospital votes down the contract, then none of us ratify. We have the language of the original agreement (September 2018) that says ratification is an “all or nothing” deal. We openly discussed and agreed that we were in this together. Now, the legal team and other officials are changing the story. Montefiore has been told they will have to go back to negotiations by themselves and they’ll be left alone to negotiate local issues. We want to go back to renegotiate with Montefiore.

Do you think the union should moved forward with the strike?

Yes! The only way we’ll get safe staffing is if we strike. In the midst of a strike, difficult things happen. It affects the patients. But if you ask the public, they will tell you that they see bad things happening every day in our hospitals. Patients fall and get injured because of short staffing. Some have even died because they go to the bathroom and no one knows where they are. People die because they are stuck in the waiting room. Nurses are willing to go a week without pay to fight for better staffing for patients.


If the whole union returned to negotiations, you could reissue the strike vote?

That would be ideal. And that would restore a lot of faith that has been lost in the union because of what’s going on.


Because of how the votes were carried out?

Because of the way everything went. We’ve been through many contract fights. The union always kind of builds you up to strike, build up momentum, and then it gets lost. It’s almost anti-climatic.

 

Frustration is common in the labor movement. For instance, the majority of UPS workers voted against a master contract, but union leadership ratified it anyway. In Los Angeles, many UTLA teachers who went on strike in January felt their union pushed a contract on them.

That’s exactly what’s going on in NYSNA right now. We’re disenfranchised. They are filtering comments and censoring opposing views on the union’s facebook page. The NY Presbyterian Facebook page was certainly censored; only favorable comments were allowed, the rest were taken down. Nurses don’t have a free place to really discuss. What’s really troubling most of us is the sense that nurses don’t have a say. And I think when you’re paying dues and you’re a member, you’re supposed to have a voice. And I’m concerned the union is not working in our best interest.

What would you like to change about NYSNA?

One of the things we want to point out is the the misuse of members’ dues and union resources. There’s no transparency. We don’t get a detailed breakdown of expenses.

The vote was undemocratic. Members were being misinformed about the terms of the contract. Another dynamic that we need to honestly examine is that all (but one) of the lawyers on both sides were white men. This is not at all representative of our members and who we are. It doesn’t have to be, but it can be symptomatic of some deeper problems. It was clear that we were misrepresented.

This contract fight has brought some of these things to light. We hope more members take notice and put thought into what’s going on in the union’s underbelly, and take action.

We’re fighting for staffing ratios because we know we need them. We know how detrimental inadequate staffing is to patient care. The positions they gave us in this contract aren’t going to resolve the crisis in the ER – and it is a crisis. We feel used: safe staffing made headlines, people listened, but NYSNA leadership manipulated the situation, harming the union and we’re left with the same conditions. NYSNA’s become so diluted from what it should be: a powerful, fighting, united force.

We want to be part of a union that really cares for nurses and patients. Our fight is for the community, for better working conditions for nurses. We want members leading the union because we are the union. We don’t need someone else doing that for us, we can make our own choices. We want the union that will fight for what we need, and not get in the way.

 

*This interview was conducted a few days before Montefiore nurses voted to ratify a slightly modified TA.

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Luigi Morris

Luigi is a freelance photographer, socialist journalist and videographer. He is an activist for immigrants' rights.

Ben Fredericks

Ben Fredericks

Ben is a member of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and has been active in anti-imperialist and labor activism.