Cayuga Medical Center Nurses Need Union Representation
November 11, 2015
A Union at CMC?
by Kerrie Gordon
For the past six months there has been an effort to organize a nurses union at CMC. This will be the third attempt since Tompkins County Hospital became Cayuga Medical Center; first in 1983, then again in 1998. Just before the vote in 1983, CMC’s administration offered an across-the-board $9.75/hour raise. The vote was called off, and what seemed to be a win was effectively negated when the hospital raised employees’ contributions to their health plans later that year.
Now it is 2015, and a newer generation of nurses are experiencing some of the same issues as the nurses before them: understaffing, threats to patient safety, lower/inconsistent wages, arbitrary management decisions, and a lack of representation in making key decisions.
There are nurses unable to get meal breaks, unable to access vacation time, compelled to work past scheduled hours, and working with nurse-patient ratios that feel dangerous, stressful, and unsafe – all because there is not enough coverage. CMC is currently under investigation by the New York Department of Labor for their no-break culture.
At CMC, nurses are not allowed to discuss their compensation openly, but simply told that their wages are competitive. Pay-rates are determined at CMC’s discretion, despite experience or certification. Nurses at CMC are at-will employees, and can be let go at any time by the hospital, regardless of the years of service that employee provided. As one nurse was told by her manager: “Everyone is replaceable”.
Here is a sampling of stories: there are nurses who have to work with chemical wipes that not only cause severe skin reactions and trigger respiratory symptoms, but have delaminated pieces of hospital equipment. Employees complained, the wipes were pulled, only to be quietly re-introduced one year later. There is a nurse manager who – kicked out of one department due to coworker complaints – was unilaterally hired by HR as a director of another unit, bypassing the objections of participants of the ‘democratic’ interview process. Then there was the (male) interim director, who the hospital stood by, despite verbal complaints and one formal filing by nurses exposed to a disturbing video during a staff meeting. The filing nurse was temporarily suspended. The case is now in process with the National Labor Relations Board.
Six months ago, having exhausted the available channels of change at the hospital, a few nurses from the Emergency Department approached the Tompkins’ County Workers’ Center for guidance. They were put in touch with SEIU 1199, which had successfully helped nurses organize at Krause Hospital in Syracuse, and offered the potential to represent other worker groups within the hospital.
The hospital has not been friendly to these efforts. Administrators claimed that a couple of agitators were stirring things up, rather than agnowledge that there were valid systemic issues. Hospital employees were encouraged to tear down any union-oriented materials in legally protected spaces. Hospital physicians were advised by hospital administration not to encourage or support their nursing colleagues. There is a pronounced presence by administrators in work spaces. A high-level administrator attempted to evict two nurses who were tabling in the hospital cafeteria. Emails were sent out that emphasize that union members have to pay dues, and that ‘third parties’ are not welcome – while the hospital hires higher-paid traveling nurses from ‘scab’-supplying outfits. This has created a chilling effect on employees – some are even afraid of being seen with active organizers. It is also worth mentioning that since the organizing has begun, there has been no attempt on the hospital’s part to speak with any of the main union organizers to discuss their concerns.
Requests for change have not been enough. The nurses at CMC are striving to have more leverage than the current system provides, which is basically some therapeutic listening or filing a report. They are looking for the leverage to advocate for the conditions that will enable them to provide better and safer working conditions for themselves and their patients, to collectively bargain as a group of professionals – and not just for money. They are looking for the support of a union to help negotiate changes that will be neither neat nor easy. Once changes are agreed upon, they are looking to have the back-up in place to enforce those changes and hold the hospital accountable to its commitments. Currently, CMC employees only have themselves as advocates, and the hope that those who do make the decisions will chose to do right by them, rather than what they can get away with. The nurses’ goal is to hold an election by year’s end.
So, if you can, let the CMC nurse/employee in your life know that you support them in their effort to shape their work-life so that they can take better care of themselves – and our community!