At 26, I was the youngest elected union Co-Chair on record at the third largest hospital in the state. I had no idea the challenges we would be facing during 14 months of contract negotiations at Sacred Heart Medical Center nor how great a role my team would play in one of the most historic union operations and coalitions in the country. Along this journey, we faced more than just a corporate giant. My team and I would also be forced to challenge the very structure of established union traditions and what it meant to be a union worker within a collective bargain unit. While there is no manual on overcoming the impossible, I want to share with you what I learned along the way so that you, too, can rise to the occasion, challenge the system and make the biggest impact possible as a union nurse.
Perseverance and challenging the norm #
Stagnancy is a poison. With each new generation, union workers build upon the foundation set by those who have come before them. We owe it to ourselves to speak up and build a better future. Step outside of the comfort zone, building on historical groundwork while expanding and adapting to a modern era. Like an old house, we must continue to build upon and maintain the structure in order to keep it secure and functional.
There will be pivotal moments in the pursuit of success. For myself, it came when I realized that we had been trapped in the cultural norms of union work and that it needed to be challenged on a fundamental level. It was this pursuit of innovation that revealed perseverance to be at the core of victory.
As nurses and union leaders, it is imperative that we do not simply accept the status quo. How often do you hear “that’s just how it is” or “that’s just the way it’s always been” as a reason to oppose change? If there is one thing I know to be true for our successful contract negotiations, it is this: don’t just trust the process; challenge the effectiveness, then make it better.
It will feel like you are repeatedly running into a brick wall. But persistence is the key to breaking through. It’s more than just believing in yourself; it’s believing in the people you represent. As many times as I feared an unknown outcome, fighting for my fellow nurses and union workers was more important than playing it safe and staying in the expected lanes.
So be different. Stand out. And do not surrender to the judgment and resistance until you know you’ve turned over every stone.
Transparency, communication and trust #
One of the most common complaints from union workers is the secrecy within contract negotiations and union activities, which can lead to bargaining unit anxiety and wariness. The common trope of “just trust us” is a fallacy without establishing rapport. Trust is earned through transparency and communication. An element of our success stemmed from our efforts to empower the nurses in our bargaining unit with knowledge and factual perspectives.
Engagement is more than just a monthly meeting or a series of emails. Each member of our team recognized the need to be more than just elected representatives at the bargaining table. We acted as counselors, educators, advocates and coaches. I found myself spending countless hours writing breakdowns of contract proposals so that nurses could truly understand the impacts on their lives. We made inspirational, educational and comedic videos to keep the unit motivated. With the use of various technologies, from social media to text messaging systems, we managed to reach a wider group who had previously been uninvolved. Some of us took personal phone calls from nurses who didn’t understand the process. We listened to differing opinions, doing our best to value the insight and critical feedback while correcting misconceptions and rumors. A greater challenge was encouraging older and younger nurses to stand up and fight for each other and asking all nurses to be a unified front despite individual objectives.
As leaders, there will come a time when you will have to ask your fellow nurses to have blind faith in you. Prepare them by being factual, truthful and committed. Stay as transparent as you are legally permitted, educate and empower. And if your team has made every effort to demonstrate trustworthiness, integrity and openness, you will find a brave and loyal bargaining unit willing to follow you into the dark, even into a strike.
Accountability, boundaries, resources and relationships #
We must be brave enough as a collective bargaining unit to hold both our union and employer accountable to and for us. Never forget we are a group of people working together to improve our working lives, not just for ourselves but for our patients and families. Redirect focus back to the local needs and the union’s original purpose, especially that of fair contracts and workplace safety.
Set boundaries, or you will be asked to give all you have until you have nothing left. And there will be times when you don’t have it in you. Sometimes, you’ll receive nothing but criticism and judgment from your fellow workers. But there will be that one nurse who says that you made all the difference, another who will hug you after a day of long meetings. It will keep you going. And when someone makes a drawing of you as SuperNurse, you’ll feel like you can do anything.
And on days when you think you can’t go another day, call your team. Because they will be the biggest and most beautiful support you will ever know as even friends and family cannot fully comprehend the weight of 1,900 nurses on your shoulders. But your teammates will stand with you, help you pull yourself together and will be your strongest allies.
How do you overcome the impossible? You do not accept that it is impossible. With my Co-Chair and confidant, KT Raley-Jones, alongside an inspirational negotiation team, we managed to challenge a traditional system to make the biggest impact possible. Together, we formed alliances with our local unions and pursued partnerships with other Providence-based unions across the state, leading to a historical and powerful coalition that changed the landscape of collective bargaining.
So never doubt your ability to be an influence. The combined success across Washington state was historic, not because of one person but because a community of union workers took a stand. Here’s my call to the future nurses and union leaders: Lead well and do not let fear guide you. Be bold and be the voice.
“I attribute my success to this. I never gave or took any excuse.” — Florence Nightingale