Labor ready, waiting 

Can unions in Montana and the nation survive?

When Norma Severson graduated from nursing school in 1973, she took an oath to advocate for her patients. Today, the 58-year-old says that's becoming more difficult as she and the other 50 nurses at Hamilton's Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital increasingly find themselves with more to do. "You're just seeing more patients, higher acuities, with the same staffing level," Severson says.

Many Americans took a break from a tough economic climate this month, celebrating Labor Day with barbeques and picnics. Yet as wages stagnate and jobs remain hard to find, workers like Severson and her peers at Marcus Daly aren't the only ones finding themselves with more to do. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, earnings nationally increased on average 1.2 percent between 2008 and 2010. That same time period marked an annual increase in productivity of 3.2 percent. Montana's unemployment rate, meanwhile, is 7.7 percent—higher than at any other time in the past 20 years, though still lower than the national rate of 9.1 percent.

click to enlarge Marcus Daly Hospital Emergency Room nurse Norma Severson says she’s working with her union to level the playing field between management and employees. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Marcus Daly Hospital Emergency Room nurse Norma Severson says she’s working with her union to level the playing field between management and employees.

Severson says that nurses at Marcus Daly who speak openly about staffing concerns run the risk of being branded troublemakers by management. Consequently, they're afraid to voice grievances. "Speaking up becomes difficult for nurses because they need their jobs," she maintains. "They have families. They need to work. And so it puts nurses in a Catch 22."

Seeking a more powerful means to vent their concerns, Severson and her colleagues enlisted the help of their labor union, the 2,400-member Montana Nurses Association. Together they're asking Marcus Daly management to add a clause in their contract ensuring the right to ask for an outside arbitrator if a dispute arises between workers and managers. MNA Labor Organizer Amy Hauschild says without such protection, the playing field is tilted in favor of the hospital's bottom line. "To have the CEO of the hospital have the first say and the last say is just completely ineffective."

Marcus Daly CEO John Bartos says internal mechanisms for resolving disputes already exist—nurses have multiple platforms from which they may speak freely. The third-party resolution clause nurses seek would only bog the hospital down in time consuming and expensive red tape, Bartos says. "I believe what we have in place for the nurses is fair and equitable."

Disputes like the one at Marcus Daly mirror others sparking across the nation. On one side of the debate, organized labor says that through unionizing, or coming together to advocate with one voice, American workers can protect their interests. On the other side, groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce say that organized labor drags the bottom line into the red with inflexible and expensive contracts.

Perhaps nowhere has the recent fight between those interests been more volatile then in Wisconsin, where last winter Republican Gov. Scott Walker pushed a law through the state's legislature that stripped public employees of their right to collectively bargain for wage and benefit increases. Walker said the move was necessary to keep the state's budget in the black. Labor disagreed, arguing that Walker's "budget repair bill" burdened state employees rather than asking corporate taxpayers to pay their fair share.

Similar efforts to curb organized labor's power have been underway this year in Oklahoma, Ohio and Tennessee. Union membership, meanwhile, continues to decline. In 1983, the first year in which comprehensive data are available, 20.1 percent of the country's working population belonged to a labor union. The BLS reports that number was 11.9 percent last year. In Montana, a state with a rich union history that dates back to hardscrabble fights during the late 19th century waged by miners on the streets of Butte, union membership last year was 12.7 percent. That's down from 17.8 percent in 1989 (the earliest year BLS has on record). Richard Trumka, president of the national AFL-CIO, a federation of 57 labor unions, told The Huffington Post last month that the current climate for unionized workers is "absolutely" the worst he has seen during the course of his 40-year career in organized labor.

Montana AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Alan Ekblad says waning labor union numbers can be directly tied to stagnating wages and increasing demands on productivity. "We talk about how a pendulum swings left and right in politics," Ekblad says. "I guess my belief is there is a pendulum of greed in this country and its swinging way over toward the rich right now. And they are going to push for everything they can get."

While acutely aware of organized labor's challenges, Hauschild remains optimistic that Marcus Daly nurses will secure additional protections through their efforts. Her optimism got a boost on Aug. 24 when Marcus Daly nurses picketed the hospital to educate the public about their concerns. The sun shone as members of unions from across the region came out to support the hospital employees. Locals drove by waving and giving honks of support.

Hauschild says the high-profile fight over workers rights in Wisconsin seems to be awakening Americans to the fact that if they don't stand up now, their future economic well-being could be at stake. "Collectively, you have more power and more voice then just a single person, I mean that's why people have unions."

As for Severson, despite nearly four decades of nursing and an ever-busier workload, she says she's more dedicated than ever to her patients. "We want to go to work and feel like we've done a good job," she says. "When you don't have control over how that happens, and then you don't feel like you can really speak up, it's pretty frustrating."

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