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Public worker health and safety hinges on protecting our rights

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A bill making it easier to join a union is coming up for a vote in the U.S. House, and passing it is a matter of life or death. Just ask registered nurses. 

Every day, we go to work in an immoral health care industry that values profits over people. Our corporate hospital employers assign us far too many patients to safely care for at once, increasing the chance of harmful patient outcomes and nurse distress. The hospitals often barely stock our supply closets using cost-cutting methods lifted from the auto industry, without regard to the fact that our patients are human beings, not cars. 

In so many ways, our “health care” system is not about health; it’s about profit, and the only way nurses can bring the focus back to our patients is to stand together in a union and collectively demand change. There is power in numbers. 

Unfortunately, our employers don’t make it easy. They spend millions of dollars on union-busting firms and lobby politicians to pass anti-union “right to work” laws. In every possible way, they try to divide and conquer workers, jeopardizing our patients’ lives.

That’s where the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act comes in. 

This act would make it easier for workers to reach first contract agreements — critical because our union contracts enshrine our workplace protections. It would also close federal loopholes that allow employers to misclassify workers (avoiding the resulting benefits we would otherwise deserve), and allow unions to collect dues for the representation they provide.

And with the passage of this bill, employers who violate our workers’ rights would feel repercussions. The PRO Act would allow the National Labor Relations Board to assess fines when an employee is wrongfully fired. Workers could also seek justice in court when our employers interfere with our right to organize or carry out union activities.

Making it easier for workers to join unions isn’t just morally right. It’s also popular. A recent MIT study showed that while union density is low from years of corporate attacks on unions — a growing number of non-unionized workers want to join a union.

National Nurses United (NNU), the largest union of registered nurses in the United States, knows this to be true because we are continuing to grow every single year. In 2019 alone, thousands of nurses in five states and Puerto Rico joined NNU affiliates, and we also won strong contracts covering thousands more.

Our big numbers also help us win legislative victories for all health care workers and patients. NNU’s affiliate, the California Nurses Association, has fought for and won gold-standard protection in the areas of safe staffing, workplace violence prevention, and infectious disease protection — and we continue to fight for these same protections nationwide. In 2019, NNU was instrumental in helping a federal health care workplace violence prevention bill pass the U.S. House with bipartisan support.

Solidarity is power, and that’s not just true for nurses.

In recent years, we’ve seen massive teachers strike across the country, as educators fight to protect their students and to win living wages and benefits. Even now, teachers are continuing to stand up, knowing solidarity can prevent them from having to work multiple jobs to survive, and help them fight back against the same problem nurses face: being assigned too many students to educate and nurture.

In addition to teachers, auto workersgrocery store employees, and other workers have been striking at levels not seen since the 1980s. And everyone from Google cafeteria workers to journalists have voted to form unions.

Congress must pass the PRO Act when it comes up for a vote — not just because it’s popular and right, but because it protects members of the public who are served by working people every single day. 

Bonnie Castillo RN is executive director of National Nurses United, the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in the United States, with more than 150,000 members.


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