Nurses Steadfast in Iowa Strike

By Bill Cullen

Dubuque, Iowa

Seasons pass and the yard signs remain standing around town, though dwindling in number. "We Support Our Nurses," our purple and white proclamation, has been planted and battered on our lawn since April of last year.

Union Nurses of Service Employees International Union, Local 199, first organized Finley Hospital in Dubuque in December 2003, achieving over 65% of over 300 nurses who voted (see "Nurses Demonstrate Solidarity," 5/15/05 TPP). They finally negotiated a one-year contract in June 2005. Administrators at Finley stalled its renewal in 2006, objecting to basic collective bargaining tenets such as "just cause" and the grievance process and guaranteed safety in the workplace.

Last summer SEIU Nurses conducted two three-day work stoppages in order to address these contract basics. Hospital administrators responded by employing US Nursing Corporation, whose website enticed strike-breakers to Dubuque for $40 per hour, with time-and-a-half pay for over 40 hours. Though there were complaints that quality of care suffered, the hospital remained open during these stoppages as friends in labor, including nurses, picketed the hospital.

Since last summer two veteran nurses who had cited staffing and safety concerns have been fired by Finley Hospital. Appeals to its administration have been fruitless. Along with prolonged stalling on the contract, these selective and severe disciplinary actions further serve to stifle dissent.

Hospital administrator John Knox repeatedly states that the hospital is bargaining in good faith. Impartial observers have put the lie to that claim.

On April 25, 2007, Ira Sandron, Administrative Law Judge of the National Labor Relations Board, in examining unfair labor practices charges, ruled clearly on numerous counts in favor of SEIU in his 22-page decision. Sandron decided on point after point in favor of SEIU and concluded that the Finley administration should cease and desist from "interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees" in exercising their union rights; Google: Ira Sandron and Finley Hospital.

Of course, Finley administration is appealing this decision.

Appealing to whom?

Commentators have decried the May 29, 2007, Supreme Court ruling against Lilly Ledbetter, the Goodyear supervisor who had been paid far less in her career then her male peers. Of the president's two appointees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sam Alito, TPP's own Jim Hightower declared, "These two black-robed corporate hirelings are pummeling workers from the bench." Hightower adds, "… it is essential to begin evaluating judicial appointees not merely on social issues but especially on how they'll treat workers, consumers, the environment, and others abused by corporate power."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, called upon Congress to change the law in order to overrule this unwise Supreme decision.

While campaigning in Dubuque, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have embraced the cause of these nurses, and they, as well as John Edwards, have cited the nurses' right to secure a fair contract soon. All three have appealed strongly on their behalf.

This author first met our new Congressman, Bruce Braley, at a rally in support of the nurses in March, 2005. Braley has consistently supported the right of nurses in their efforts at collective bargaining.

Congressman Braley is a co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act, HR 800, "the freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life," which fosters economic growth for America's middle class. In writing about this vexing issue, Braley promises "assistance to both sides as a person with extensive experience in mediation, to see if I can help bring a resolution to this divisive problem."

As recently as June 6, hospital administrator Knox imposed a contract on nurses, citing an impasse. This action astounded union representatives who had offered conciliatory proposals and were awaiting bargaining. Linda Merfeld, Finley chapter Local 199 president, explained that during recent bargaining both sides sought more specific language, "We added language that would clarify 'just cause'," she said. "Any confusion only comes because they don't want to treat people fairly."

Finley Hospital is operated under the umbrella of the corporation Iowa Health Systems (, and their deep pockets outspend a negotiated settlement. Teaming with the union-busting Chicago law firm of Seyfarth Shaw, Iowa Health has stalled and obfuscated this matter of labor rights ad nauseam, while squandering a fortune in non-profit monies in the process.

Michael Moore's superb documentary movie, SiCKO, showcases the dangers of greed and corporate interests placed above the interests of fellow citizen patients.

Filmmaker Moore poignantly and comically demonstrates the wayward path our nation has taken with corporations denying necessary health care to both insured and uninsured.

Dubuque also witnesses this travesty in its nurses being denied the right to organize to provide for the safety and care of their patients in a healthy work environment. Merfeld declares, "I guess we're going to work until it's done." Against great odds do these Finley SEIU nurses take a stand while our state and nation determine and finally act on truly supporting them with an acceptable contract.

Bill Cullen lives in Dubuque and is a member of Teamsters Local 421.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2007

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