Nurses set to battle Health Midwest 

Nurses set to battle Health MidwestAs his audience shivered from a potent mixture of bitter cold and anxious energy, Rev. Nelson Thompson, president of the Kansas City chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, stood and delivered. The crowd, a diverse mix of local labor leaders, elected officials, and nurses, cheered as Thompson declared, "Of all the different folks that are involved in health care, the nurses are the only people that you can talk real sense with." Then, pumping his fist emphatically, he finished with a dramatic flourish. "Keep up the fight, stand tall, and victory is yours," he bellowed.

Thompson was the first of several speakers to voice his support for Nurses United for Improved Patient Care at a public rally held in Swope Park last month. There, the nine-month-old grassroots organization unveiled the Community Coalition for Improved Patient Care, an alliance of nurses and community leaders. Slogans such as "Balance sheets shouldn't be more important than bedsheets" and "The patients are my bottom line" inspired the 60 to 80 attendants to applaud wildly.

Since the rally, Nurses United has received an average of three calls a day from nurses who wish to become involved in the effort, spokesman Michael Krivosh says. Because of the diverse nature of a nurse's workday, the calls come throughout the day and night. Krivosh says the group's Raytown office is staffed virtually around the clock. Volunteers answer phones and tend to the color-coded charts that line the walls, tracking which hospitals' nurses have been contacted or have volunteered to join the group.

According to Nurses United's mission statement, the organization aims to "achieve and secure the necessary balance between quality of care, patient safety, and cost containment." Krivosh says Nurses United decided that the best way to reach its goal would be to attain collective bargaining and a negotiated contract voted on by union members.

The group affiliated itself in October with the Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (FNHP), an autonomous division of the million-member American Federation of Teachers that represents 53,000 healthcare professionals, including nurses at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Krivosh says this action provoked an immediate response from Health Midwest, the area's largest integrated healthcare delivery system, which operates 15 hospitals and employs 3,500 registered nurses.

"Right at the point when Nurses United announced its affiliation with FNHP, Health Midwest announced the first pay raise in two years, and even nurses who had already reached their top level of pay were given raises," Krivosh says. "At the same time, they rolled back a benefits cut. You could see they were thinking, 'Let's try to stop them now.' Then there were a lot of meetings where they asked, 'What are the problems here? Give us an opportunity to fix them.'

"That was phase one of the campaign. Phase two was absolute legal interference with employees' rights to distribute literature in the workplace."

Earlier this year, the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a formal complaint, based on charges filed by Nurses United, against Health Midwest and several hospitals in the Health Midwest system. The complaint alleges 25 separate violations, most of which concern illegal restrictions on union activity. One of the incidents documented is the reprimand of Teresa Barnett, a registered nurse at Menorah Medical Center.

"We set up an information table in the cafeteria at Menorah Medical Center, and we were asked to leave," Barnett says. "I showed them a copy of their policy that states we could be there. They left, and then they came back with armed security guards. We were then told if we didn't leave, we'd be escorted out, and I pointed out to them that they were violating federal laws."

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