National Nurses United President Deborah Burger on how COVID-19 has affected union efforts

Hospital Administration

Labor unions have staged protests, gone on strike and even organized new members throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. National Nurses United is no exception as the country’s largest nurses’ union with 170,000 members across the country, NNU notched two major election wins in the past year.

About 2,000 registered nurses at Maine Medical Center voted to join NNU in April, making it the largest successful union election with the National Labor Relations Board so far in 2021. And in September, 2,000 nurses at HCA’s Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, successfully unionized in a state with the second-lowest union membership rate in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Those nurses are bargaining for their first employment contracts, and will soon be joined by thousands of other NNU nurses across the country with contracts up for renegotiation this year. Staffing, safety, and other issues exacerbated by the pandemic are likely to be key issues.

The union is also currently lobbying for a number of bills in Congress, including the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, and the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would punish employers for a number of tactics used to dissuade workers from unionizing. Both passed the House but need Senate approval.

NNU President and registered nurse Deborah Burger reflected on nurses’ experiences over the past year on the front lines, and outlined where the union is headed going forward. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HEALTHCARE DIVE: Has NNU seen an uptick in organizing throughout the pandemic?

DEBORAH BURGER: Actually it’s about the same pace, because it does take time to go through the entire process. And we actually had to go through the Trump years and the Trump labor board, and sort of a hostile labor board and a hostile union environment. The nurses in Mission Hospital in Asheville that voted to join the union were up against some really heavy union busting, both on the part of the employers there, and politicians. It’s a testament to how committed nurses were to making sure they had a voice that protected them, and protected their patients and protected their community that they overcame intense union busting. Maine was also extremely hostile, but what was really helpful was having the community support them. They had a lot of support, so that made a huge difference.

After the North Carolina win, is there an impetus to get nurses in states with lower unionization rates to join NNU?

BURGER: We already represent nurses in Kansas, Missouri, Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Arizona. I mean we do represent nurses in what you would call right-to-work states, so nurses actually understand once they’re given the information, what their options are. And they can be heavily intimidated, even in California which is not a right-to-work state.

How will NNU leverage nurses’ experiences through the pandemic to get the contracts it wants?

BURGER: Nurses were working 12, 16 hours a day with no days off, and then you want to furlough them when there’s finally a break. Nurses have bills to pay, they have mortgages and often times they’re the primary breadwinner or the sole breadwinner of their family. So I’m sure that nurses are going to want to have a discussion on, you know, a commitment that if you’re hired for 32 hours a week, you get 32 hours paid.

We’re also still fighting to have adequate [personal protective equipment]. In California, we got a law that said that hospitals had to stock three months worth of PPE. So part of our negotiations will be to ensure that we get more protections written into our contracts so that nurses have a say over what inventory is in the hospital because nurses were told, “We’ve got adequate stocks now,” but the transparency for supplies is not there.

What do you want the healthcare industry to do for nurses to improve burnout in the profession?

BURGER: What we want the healthcare industry to do is not put us in a position where we’re under such moral distress. We had to make very difficult decisions because we didn’t have the support and the resources from our employers. We didn’t have the staffing that we needed. We didn’t have the security that we needed. We didn’t have the patient protections that we needed, you know, to be able to get testing for a patient when they come into the emergency room.

I think that that’s probably one of the things that makes nurses the angriest, is that there wasn’t a true lack of supply, there wasn’t a true lack of the testing capability, there wasn’t a true lack or inability to communicate to nurses when they were exposed. It was outright deception and lying to the nurses. Nurses are pretty forgiving, but when you’re outright lying to them, they remember that, and they remember how badly it hurt them.

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