Justice for Healthcare Workers
Work Starts with Respect3/27/2006
Bangor Daily News Op Ed by EMMC Workers
We are part of a larger group of workers at Eastern Maine Medical Center (EMMC) who are creating and building a local union with the support of the IAM Union. EMMC has grown to become one of the largest employers in the state of Maine and an excellent acute care hospital. EMMC is where many of you are cared for when sick, but it is also your hospital, a community-run, non-profit institution.
We perform the "grunt work" at our hospital, titled the ‘non-professional unit — we are the nurse’s aids, housekeepers, surgical scrub techs, orderlies, unit secretaries, and others. We clean, care for patients, assist nurses and doctors, prepare and serve food — and we care deeply about the work we do. We make sure our hospital runs well and nobody cares about our work more than we do.
We all consider ourselves as parts of this greater whole in giving care to our community. Our struggle to form a union is due to the vested interest we have in our hospital. There is already one union at EMMC, the Maine State Nurses Association, and we see how much their voices are heard. We deserve the same respect that is given to the nurses and a place at the decision making table. We feel that a union will not only improve the quality of jobs, but also the quality of care in our hospital.
Respect is the number one issue and goal of our union. The work we do is very stressful, not only mentally but also physically. We are the first line of defense in caring for patients and do the grunt work that makes the hospital run. Every other issue of our unit and goal of our union — wages, a place at the decision-making table, job protection, legal rights and more — are all underscored by respect.
As an organization we take respect very seriously. In order to request it, we must first give it. We are developing a union that is built on five areas of respect: respect for all employees of the hospital, whether the CEO or laundry workers, and the roles each has; respect for ourselves as workers and caregivers; respect for patients; respect for the overall healthcare system and respect for our union. It is in this context and in the shadow of respect that we discuss the goals of our union.
Having a place at the decision making table where our voices are heard will give us the respect we deserve while also bringing a much needed say to those who actually do the work. Currently it is very hard to have our ideas be heard. We do not have a protected voice, which a union provides. This hurts the quality of care because we are the ones doing the work. We want to help make our hospital better and work with management. It would be extremely valuable for elected representatives from our unit to sit down with CEO Debra Carey Johnson and Vice President Lorraine Rodgerson, both of whom were nurses on the floors, and have earnest discussions about how to improve our hospital. We believe democracy is a good thing.
Wages at EMMC is one area where respect looms large. We want fair wages, while also addressing preceptor (training) pay. At EMMC some new hires come in earning higher wages than workers who have devoted many years of hard work to the hospital. To add insult to injury, workers who have been at the hospital for many years are forced to precept (train) and take responsibility of new workers (sometimes making more than us) without any preceptor pay.
A union will also give workers at EMMC an advocate and organization to defend their rights. Currently workers within our unit are being denied rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA, a federal law passed in 1993, provides for unpaid time off from work for a serious health condition of a worker or a workers’ immediate family. Essentially it means that we should not be forced to choose between our health, our family’s health and our job.
We appreciate that management has legitimate scheduling concerns, but the balance, especially with management’s new attendance policy, has gone too far in one direction. At least three workers who missed work due to serious health conditions have been fired or forced out in the past few months. One was told in writing that her number one job goal should be to limit her time off due to illness, as if illness was her choice and under her control. We have only been able to learn of these rights and fight for them by joining together.
We are building a union that honors these values. We appreciate that good things in such a complex environment don’t "just happen on their own". We are spending our time and resources to build our union.
There is a risk. Management has made it clear, both explicitly and implicitly that they do not want a union. We are making these sacrifices because we love our jobs and believe that a union will make a better healthcare system. We don’t want to run the hospital, just have our voice heard and respected in the decision making process. We believe in democracy, which can only happen through a union. We don’t want special treatment, just fair treatment. This will be good for not only ourselves, but for our entire hospital and the healthcare system.
We invite members of the community to contact us and become involved in this exciting project. We all have a role to play in building a better, more just and more effective hospital.
This commentary was signed by the following people: Anthony Tripp, certified scrub tech, outpatient surgery; Cathy Looke, CNA, Grant 5; Vicki Lowe, CNA, Grant 3-rehabilitation; Jeff Allen, material specialist; Lisa Boyington, CNA, hemodialysis; Mary Lee McDonald, unit secretary, rehabilitation; Pauline George, CAN, Merritt 3-surgical; and Paul Banville, CAN, Grant 6-respiratory.