02/23/2009 07:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Historic Pact Creates RN "SuperUnion" -- 150,000 Nurses Strong

If anyone can move mountains to build a more humane healthcare system and strengthen protections for patients in the face of the avarice and plunder that so often characterizes the healthcare industry in America, it is registered nurses.

And the latest news for patients, and nurses, is especially promising.

Three of the nation's premiere organizations of direct care RNs have come together to form a new, powerful national nurses' union that will be the front line of confronting the healthcare industry, advancing the interests of patients, and campaigning for guaranteed healthcare reform for all.

The new union unifies the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, United American Nurses, and the Massachusetts Nurses Association into a 150,000-member association -- making it the largest RN union in U.S. history.

It's about time. With the economic crisis getting worse by the day:

• Our healthcare system is rapidly moving from turmoil to terminal (the New York Times this week described the latest "advance" for uninsured young adults -- "do it yourself medical care.").
• Hospital corporations and other healthcare industry employers are squeezing nurses and caregivers with layoffs, wage freezes and cuts, reductions in health coverage and pensions, speed up, job outsourcing, and other attacks long seen in other sectors of the economy.
• RNs face an increasingly relentless encroachment on their ability to advocate for patients, which is the last line of defense against insurance claims adjustors and hospital managers eager to sacrifice patient standards for their bottom lines.

These trials pose a daunting challenge to America's nurses, as well as patients.

But some of our obstacles come from within our own ranks. The majority of RNs, unlike professional teachers, fire fighters, or police officers are largely non-union, and splintered into a variety of organizations, including a number of non-RN unions.

Those divisions have not served RNs or patients well. They are a critical weakness which has undermined the ability of RNs to more effectively organize to improve standards for themselves, to fight for patients, and to win real, not insurance-based, healthcare reform.

To be sure, CNA/NNOC and other direct care RN-led unions have won dramatic achievements, such as the RN-to-patient ratios we pioneered in California.

But RNs across the U.S. have long yearned for a powerful national movement to serve as a voice and an advocate for all RNs. The new national union, which will be called United American Nurses-National Nurses Organizing Committee, UAN-NNOC (AFL-CIO) is a giant step forward to that goal.

In a founding statement February 18, our new union has voiced a joint commitment and common principles to:

• organize all non-union direct care RNs,
• establish a stronger voice to promote RN rights, safe RN practice, including RN-to-patient ratios under the principle that safe staffing saves lives,
• promote healthcare justice
• provide a vehicle for solidarity with sister nurse and allied organizations around the world.

It's an exciting moment, and an opportunity.