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The Power of a Member-Led Union

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My name is LaNeta Fitzhugh and I work as a Registered Nurse (RN), at Kaiser Sunset Los Angeles Medical Center. Kaiser Sunset is one of the largest hospitals in the nation. We serve hundreds of patients every day on seven floors, and RNs are involved in every aspect of the care of our patients. The voice of RNs at Kaiser Sunset is central to the proper function of our hospital.

This January, RNs at Kaiser Sunset voted 20 to 1 to leave SEIU and to express our voice with the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

When people ask why my co-workers and I voted to join our union, our answer is simple.

Our union, NUHW, is a member-led union. We elect our leaders. We participate in every aspect of bargaining our contracts. When there are important decisions that affect our workplace, we know that we will have a vote. In sum, we determine our relationship with our employer.

Having a member-led union at our workplace is important not just for me and my co-workers, but also for the care of our patients. As RNs, our main goal is to deliver quality patient care. Our top concern at Kaiser Sunset as RNs has centered on staffing and how a shortage of RNs and the Monitor Techs who work with us impacted our patients.

Under SEIU and its president, Andy Stern, we had made absolutely no progress on the staffing issue. This was typical. With SEIU, our concerns about our workplace often went unaddressed. Our experience with SEIU was that more and more it was a union dedicated to the employer-friendly agendas of union officials in Washington D.C. and not the concerns of health care workers and our patients.

Our experience with our pension plan was typical. In 2009, under Andy Stern's leadership, SEIU agreed, without a vote of the members, to allow Kaiser to reduce the size of the lump-sum pension option. Since the lump sum pension option was preferred by the majority of our members, this giveaway had the effect of forcing some RNs at Kaiser Sunset to retire before the deadline to take advantage of the full payout. These RNs were not replaced, increasing our staff shortage. This directly impacted patient care.

With SEIU, instead of addressing our most immediate concerns, we went backwards without a vote. All that changed when we joined NUHW.

As soon as our election was certified, we elected a team of leaders to express our voice with Kaiser management. We made clear in a series of meetings our concerns about staffing. I'm proud to report that together in NUHW, in just two months, we've won an agreement from Kaiser to post 122 new RN positions, seven Certified Nursing Assistant positions, and 42 Monitor Tech positions at our hospital vastly increasing both our nursing staff and the caregivers who support us. The public should know that every patient who is treated at Kaiser Sunset will benefit from better care as a result of our victory.

Our staffing victory will resonate beyond my fellow RNs. Almost one third of the positions will be among workers who are not in our bargaining unit at the hospital. Soon, those co-workers will have a chance to vote to join NUHW, too.

I would like to close by sending a message to my fellow healthcare workers who have petitioned by the tens of thousands to leave SEIU and join NUHW. Get the facts. Don't let fear and scare tactics distract you from the power that you and your co-workers possess. We won our staffing victory as RNs coming together in NUHW, despite the dire predictions by SEIU International staff who simply don't know Kaiser and truly don't know our hospital.

We are proving at Kaiser Sunset every day the real power of a member-led union. As Sal Rosselli, the interim president of our union is fond of saying, "There is no limit to empowering workers."

We're putting that into action every day at Kaiser Sunset Los Angeles Medical Center for ourselves and for the patients we care for.