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Interview: Maine Med nurses vote union

by | May 8, 2021 | Labor, News

Interview with Maine Med ICU nurse Madison Light

On April 29, the National Labor Relations Board confirmed that nurses at Maine Medical Center, Scarborough Surgery Center, and the Maine Medical Center Brighton Campus voted to form a union by a count of 1,001 to 750. 

According to the Maine Beacon, “While nurses were busy voting, they were flooded with messages crafted by Reliant Labor Consultants, a firm hired by Maine Med that specializes in delivering tested anti-union talking points and strategies… Reliant and another anti-union consultant were paid $1.8 million to fend off a union drive at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. Reliant’s president, Joseph Brock, is a former Teamster president who also helped the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas beat a union drive in 2014.”

But with the victory in the books, the nurses have not only given Maine’s labor movement a shot in the arm, they are in a stronger position to advocate for better patient care, safe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, and sustainable working conditions. Pine and Roses’ Coral Howe and Todd Chretien caught up with Maine Med ICU nurse Madison Light to talk about how the nurses won their union and what comes next. Transcript edited for clarity. 

Todd Chretien: We have Madison Light here today, who is a nurse at Maine Medical Center, and they have just had an enormous victory, the biggest victory that the Maine labor movement has had for a very long time. If you could just start off by telling us a little bit about what you do, where exactly you work, and then we can get into the specifics of the union drive and what comes next.

Madison Light: Absolutely. I’ve been at Maine Medical Center for about five years, and I work in the float pool, which means I go to many different areas of the hospital. I spend most of my time in our six different ICU areas. I work with some of the sickest patients of Maine, and a lot of them need constant monitoring. That was one of our big driving forces in starting this movement, having the safe staffing to always be there enough for all of our patients. 

TC: My father, who passed away 10 years ago, was in and out at Maine Med for six or seven years before he passed away, and always got wonderful care and towards the end he spent some time in the ICU. What the nurses do there in terms of medical treatment and care is very impressive, but the relations that you build with the patients, with the family members, with their co-workers and friends, is really part of patient care, so could you just talk a little bit about what it’s like to be a nurse in the ICU?

ML: Yeah. Of course. I love being in the ICU, because of the one-on-one care I get to give to my patients. I get to know every detail of their story, and their illness, and their care, and, especially this year during COVID where we’ve had really limited availability for visitors at the hospital, it’s been more important than ever that we keep in touch with family members. We’ve made sure to make phone calls every day with people’s families and we’ve done Zoom calls with computers we have in the hospitals so that they can see their loved ones and it’s been really difficult, of course, for people not being able to have loved ones there at their bedside, but we’ve done the best we can, and I think we’ve done a really good job keeping everyone involved.

Coral Howe: I was curious as to the major challenges that you faced in the midst of the pandemic and how you’ve had to respond to them pre-unionization. Has any of that been a key argument for unionizing?

ML: That’s a big question! 

CH: Sorry about that, that’s a little heavy.

ML: No, it’s good. Yeah, we’ve faced some really big challenges, especially right in the beginning, when nobody knew what was going on, so we were all just doing our best, and we all learned how to use the new PPE that we were using every day suddenly, and I was lucky enough to be in an area that we’ve always had the appropriate PPE, and I know that other folks within our own hospital were not that lucky. I know that with the emergency department, they had to fight really hard to get the N95 masks, that are the appropriate care for people just coming off the street and nobody knows their infection status, so that was one of our big pushes at first.

Maine Med nurses stand together. Image credit Maine State Nurses Association

TC: Madison, you’ll often hear, “Oh, well, this union’s coming in from the outside” and in Maine that gets pitched as “Out of staters are trying to come in and take over, and it’s gonna disrupt the great workflow.” But it really sounds like, even more than even in most cases, that you all really built from the ground up. 

ML: Yeah, of course. Nurses from the hospital reached out to National Nurses United and said “Hey! Help us make a union here.” So, we got all the benefits of having a national organization, but our union is really us. Maine Medical Center nurses that are working together to create this change and to create a union contract that’ll benefit not only the nurses but our unity at large and solidify our patient care and, so yeah, I think it brings the best of a very large organization, but it’s not like someone from California came in and said “I’m gonna be your boss now!” We all have collectively invited in help to get ourselves organized. 

CH: Have you seen how that collective strength has started to grow? I imagine that feeling more like you’re part of a united front develops all kinds of other sort of positive types of growth. 

ML: I think the biggest pieces of that are yet to come. We’ve been able to grow this tiny little movement that was just a dozen of us in a hotel conference room to over 1,000 yes votes in the hospital–which has been incredible–but the actual changes are still yet to come. 

TC: It was a wonderful total to have 1,001 votes.

ML: I know!

TC: It would have been great to win with 998, but to have 1,001 seemed like poetic justice. 

ML: It did! As they were counting the last votes, I was like “let us get to 1,000, come on!” 

TC: You said the change is still to come, but maybe talk a little bit about what you’re hoping the impact might be on working conditions, on nursing ratios, on hours. What are the things that you’re most hopeful in making some positive changes in the hospital?

ML: Absolutely! The election was always about giving the nurses a collective voice in patient care decisions. As one nurse, it’s just impossible to affect change when going up against a giant like Maine Health. And so now that we have collective ways we can ask for the most important things like patient care, some of the biggest things we want to get rid of are rotating shifts. They’re not safe. It’s been proven over and over again. It’s not safe for nurses, and it can diminish our ability to care for patients and that’s not what anybody wants. 

TC: Can you explain what a rotating shift is?

ML: Of course. Not everybody of course, but in certain parts of the hospital we have day shift nurses and night shift nurses and some folks go back and forth. So they’ll do two weeks of nights and flip over to two weeks of days or whatever the ratio is on that floor. Most people don’t want to do this, but  it’s how they were hired. We’re hoping that the hospital can incentivize nurses to work night shift so that people aren’t forced to go back and forth. Yeah, we shouldn’t have to be forced into that difficult and disruptive position. 

TC: I can imagine that would certainly mess with my head if I had to work days for two weeks and then nights for two weeks. So rotating shifts, that’s one. What else is on the table for you all?

ML: Safe staffing always. Of course. It’s our top priority. Like I was telling you, in the ICU, we work with patients who need 24-hour nursing care and constant monitoring. And if we’re pulled in too many directions, then of course patient care is going to suffer. At the number one hospital in Maine, our only level one trauma center, the biggest hospital, it shouldn’t be like that. We shouldn’t be scrounging for staff; staff should be knocking on the door trying to come work here! So, we’re gonna work on that.

Maine Medical Center

CH: Speaking of the patients, I’ve seen a lot of patients reaching out and voicing their support. How’s that been during this time up until the vote?

ML: That’s been amazing! We have gotten incredible community support. Of course, we like to think that we have the biggest connection with the patients, and I think that we do. Clearly, the nursing staff spends the most time with our patients than any other group at the hospital–certainly more than the hospital administrators. So I think that they really believe in what we’re doing and believe that what we’re doing is not only for us but mostly for the patients, mostly for our community, the people we serve. We want to keep them safe and make sure we have enough time to spend with them, listen to them, and help them heal. That’s our whole goal.

TC: Back in 1970, when Maine was a manufacturing center with textiles, shoes, lumber and more, we had 35% of the state’s workforce in unions. And now we’re down to 14%, although that might go up a couple percent with you all joining. Do you have any advice for people that are working at Walmart, or any retail place or restaurant, any kind of workaday job where it would be good to have a union?

ML: Absolutely. I would give them the advice that this has been a long time coming. People have tried for decades to unionize Maine Medical Center and we fought a very large powerful corporation. And everyone knows that it was a very contested campaign, and we just kept our objectives in mind, didn’t engage with anything dramatic, and just kept our conversation one on one, focused on “Why do I want a union? Why do you want a union?” We didn’t have to think about a thousand nurses all at once, it was small conversations that turned into really big change. If we can do it, during a pandemic, while taking care of patients, I think anyone can do it. It might take a lot of time and a lot of work but it’s absolutely worth it to have a collective voice that dictates some of what goes on in your work environment. 

 

Todd Chretien is a high school Spanish teacher, translator, and author. He is a member of the Pine and Roses editorial collective and Maine DSA.

Coral Howe is a member of the Pine and Roses Editorial collective.

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