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Nurses Lead the Way!

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Far from the fear-mongering catch phrases of "Death Panels" and "Obama-Care," there is a bit of good news from the trenches of the battle for health care.

The California Nurses Association, one of this country's very best labor organizations, has just signed off on a ground-breaking agreement with Kaiser Permanente, one of our very best health care providers. The use of the phrase "win-win" should always raise appropriate skepticism. But here's what happened:

Ninety-nine percent of the 17,000 nurses of CNA/National Nurses United voted to approve a new three year contract with Kaiser. The union represents nurses and nurse practitioners at over 21 hospitals and 40 medical offices in California. Founded by physician Sidney Garfield and industrialist Henry Kaiser, Kaiser Permanente was once derided as socialized medicine. The managed care consortium is based in Oakland, California, but operates in 9 states and the District of Columbia. With its 8.6 million health plan members and almost 170,000 employees, it is the largest managed care organization in the U.S.

Against the national backdrop of Wall Street impoverishing workers and right wing Republicans and media scare tactics, the CNA won an agreement which protects existing health care standards for patients and protects wage scale, benefits and retirement security for the backbone of California health care. One can only hope this agreement serves as a model bargaining agreement.

But what should also serve as a model is the nurse's union engagement in the political realm. It was CNA more than any other organization that fought the regressive candidacy of Meg Whitman, sending busloads of nurses to picket against her everywhere from Sacramento to the front of Whitman's own home. The huge "Meg Whitman Farewell Tour/Lies, Deception and Pink Slips" bus toured the state highlighting the Republican gubernatorial candidate's record and proposals.

The nurses, dressed in their medical uniforms, rallied to fight all threats to health and well-being from the Schwarzenegger budget cutbacks to Nevada's right wing Senate candidate Sharron Angle. It was the California Nurses Association that helped Meg Whitman's undocumented housekeeper, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, come forward with her story of abusive illegal employment and secure representation by progressive attorney Gloria Allred.

Under the leadership of former Teamster organizer Rose Ann DeMoro, the union has gone from an organization focused on wages, hours and working conditions to a social movement devoted not only to improving its membership, but to improving the health of a sick nation. They have extended the scope of nursing as they have provided a model for union-building and social change.