Nurses at Mission Health are working with a national nurses union organization to form a union of their own in Asheville, according to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who announced the effort during a Thursday stump speech and said he supported the effort.

The announcement came as the first public disclosure of the unionization effort, and follows a recent public outcry over deteriorating work conditions at Mission Health. The hospital system, formerly a nonprofit system, was acquired last year by Nashville-based HCA Healthcare, one of the largest for-profit operators of hospitals in the country.

Sanders was speaking to a rally of about 1,400 people at Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem on Thursday when he mentioned the Asheville unionization effort. He’s the current front-runner among contenders for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and was speaking ahead of Saturday’s primary elections in South Carolina, and next week’s primary elections in North Carolina, which is one of several “Super Tuesday” states where voters will go to the polls on March 3.

“We’re going to make it easier to join unions,” Sanders told a roaring crowd, “because if you’re a worker and you wan’t decent wages, you want decent benefits, you’re going to have to be in a union to negotiate good wages and benefits. That’s what we need.”

Sanders said he has a proposal that would double union membership in this country, and decried the fact that North Carolina has the lowest rate of unionization in the country. He then turned his focus to Asheville.

“And right now, some 2,000 nurses at Mission Health in Asheville are standing up for their patients and their profession – thank you nurses – and they are forming a union with National Nurses United,” Sanders said, mentioning the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in the U.S. with more than 150,000 members.

“And I applaud those courageous nurses and I urge Hospital Corporation of America that owns Mission Health to treat their nurses with respect and dignity and stop union-busting in the hospital,” Sanders said.

Concerns about understaffed hospital operations at Mission, and severely overworked nurses, were publicly aired at a series of meetings held by an independent monitor to follow up on the sale of Mission to HCA. (Read Blue Ridge Public Radio’s coverage of one of those meetings.) Several residents, including Mission nurses, told personal stories of stressful working conditions that were taking a professional and personal toll.

Last week, Asheville activists Honor Moor and Will Overfelt created a Facebook Group titled Mission Maladies to continue to document people’s personal stories of their interactions with Mission Health. Overfelt created the above image as a show of solidarity with Mission nurses, and has asked followers to share the image.

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