Maine Medical Center Nurses Want a Union, Need Support, by Sheila Malone RN

Nurses at Maine Medical Center (MMC) in Portland, the region’s preeminent referral center, have taken steps to organize a union.  On their behalf, the Maine State Nurses Association (MSNA) in January petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to authorize a secret vote on forming a union for the hospital’s 1600 nurses. Ballots mailed to MMC nurses on March 29 will be returned to the National Labor Relations Board prior to April 27, and counted two days later.

Campaigns to unionize MMC nurses in 1976 and 2000 fell short. The MSNA is an affiliate of National Nurses United, the union arm of the very progressive California Nurses Association. MSNA currently represents nurses who staff Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and eight other hospitals or health centers in northern and eastern Maine.  NNU serves nurses in seven other states.

In an interview, MMC nurse Jackie Fournier emphasized her colleagues’ desire for collective decision-making at the hospital that would assure optimal patient care. The nurses look forward to negotiating wage increases and time-off. They seek measures that might prevent burn-out, especially no more forced overtime.

The nurses’ drive to form a union has gained support from other unions in Maine including the Maine Service Employee Association (SEIU) and the Machinists’ Union at Bath Iron Works. In social media postings, activists in Maine are calling for support for efforts to form a union.  Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO and strong NNU supporter, suggests that positive experiences of already unionized nurses in Maine work in favor of an affirmative vote by the MMC nurses.

Executives at Maine Medical Center and its parent organization MaineHealth are fighting back. They’ve had nurses attend small-group, anti-union indoctrination sessions and have posted anti-union videos on nurses’ phones. Florida-based Reliant Labor Consultants, a top player in the “union avoidance industry,” orchestrates the hospital’s campaign.

To facilitate the appearance in Portland of that company’s operatives, hospital executives arranged for them to receive the state-supplied anti-Covid-19 vaccine out of turn and in disregard of public health priorities.

Maine Governor Janet Mills objected, insisting that, “It was an insult to the hardworking nurses trying to assert their rights and to those who are waiting patiently for their turn … That was an inexcusable act.”

Maine Medical Center’s anti-worker bias was on display in its failure to comply with an ordinance approved by Portland votes in November, 2010, one that requires employers to pay frontline workers a $15 minimum wage with time-and-a-half pay during emergencies.

The organization apparently is not suffering. According to mainebeacon.com,  five surgeons“ made between $1.2 and $1.4 million in the last tax year” and “MaineHealth CEO William Caron Jr. made $1.6 million in 2019, [while] MaineHealth President Richard Peterson [also] made $1.6 million.”

University of Southern Maine economics professor Michael Hillard pointed out recently that the union-organizing campaign occurs at a crucial time. He claims nurses and other former students are carrying debt loads that were “unheard of a generation ago.” He also senses “a growing sense of unfairness in our employment system.” Indeed, “We’re at a point where we’ve had 40 years of in-your-face capitalism, and we’re seeing a greater willingness to organize, especially among young workers.”