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Op-Ed: It’s Time for Hospital Owners to Listen to the Voices of Nurses

Nurses must be free to offer a vital voice at the bedside -- and an equally essential voice at the table.

Wanting to be able to speak out more effectively on behalf of their patients and their profession, the registered nurses working at Memorial Hospital of Salem County (MHSC) voted over two-and-a-half years ago to join the Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE), NJ’s largest union of nurses and healthcare workers.

The nurses knew they needed a union to protect their right to advocate for their patients. Community Health Systems (CHS), one of the largest for-profit hospital chains in the country, with 135 hospitals, took over MHSC more than a decade ago.

According to a 2013 First Quarter Investor Presentation posted on CHS’s website, the company reported $13 billon in income during 2012. Unfortunately, CHS has failed to keep the promises it made to Salem County and even tried to stop providing maternity services. The nurses knew they would be facing a stiff challenge from CHS when they voted overwhelmingly to unionize with HPAE, but CHS’s resistance has far exceeded anyone’s expectations. To this day, CHS refuses to recognize the nurses’ union and bargain a fair contract.

During National Nurses Week, starting on May 6, I am reminded of the crucial link between safe and effective patient care and the rights of nurses to speak up for themselves and their patients. When nurses are protected by union rights, they can advocate and bargain for safe staffing levels, for safe working conditions and for policies that promote the retention of qualified staff, without fear for their jobs.

Rather than work with their nurses to make our community hospital stronger, CHS has spent millions of patient-care dollars pursuing a frivolous legal challenge. Its legal team, based in Philadelphia and Tennessee, is claiming that MHSC nurses are really managers, and therefore do not have the protected right to unionize under federal law. In truth, the nurses provide bedside nursing care every day, and every legal ruling so far has supported their right to unionize.

CHS has tried this strategy in other nurses' union elections in other hospitals around the country. Its attempts failed then and I believe they will fail again. I have no doubt that CHS will eventually be ordered to recognize the nurses’ union and sit down to bargain a contract. While CHS continues to waste valuable patient-care dollars on a legal battle, the nurses’ priority remains the same -- providing the best care for their patients.

That’s why I have introduced a NJ Senate Resolution recognizing nurses’ rights during National Nurses Week. The resolution, in part, says:

“[W]e want to recognize the value and importance of ‘Nurses Rights’ – the right of nurses to speak up for their patients and their profession both at the bedside and in the public, before legislative and regulatory bodies . . . Whether advocating for safe staffing, for patient rights or for transparency and accountability by our healthcare institutions, the voice of frontline nurses has made a significant contribution to improving healthcare in New Jersey.”

I am calling on CHS to end its campaign to silence the voices of nurses at the bedside. Your MHSC nurses want a voice at the table to set standards for safer staffing, patient care, and working conditions. I urge you to join me in support of the RNs at MHSC by signing a petition asking CHS to recognize the rights of its nurses. It’s time for CHS to drop all legal appeals and listen to its nurses.

Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) is president of the New Jersey Senate.

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