Dozens of Mission Hospital nurses, joined by family, friends, supporters and Asheville political leaders, rallied in downtown Asheville Sunday afternoon in advance of an official vote within the next three weeks on whether to join the largest union of registered nurses in the U.S.
About 300 people paraded from the Buncombe County government administration office building on College Street to Pack Square Park, with some holding signs and others chanting “What do we want? Union! When do we want it? Now!” and “Hey-hey! Ho-ho! Union busting’s got to go!” Other’s held signs that read “Support our RN community” and “WNC Central Labor Council Supports Mission Nurses.”
Jill Rabideau, a Mission Hospital nurse, said that in recent weeks more than 30 percent of hospital nurses had filled out cards indicating their interest in joining the National Nurses United union. That number triggered the national union to file a petition on Friday with the National Labor Relations Board asking for an election to unionize registered nurses at Mission Hospital. That vote will be held within the next 20 days or so, Rabideau said.
Sunday’s gathering was “all about community support, and it’s been very humbling to see the community come out the way it has,” Rabideau said.
Alison Black, another Mission nurse, said working conditions for nurses have”gone downhill” since the for-profit HCA Healthcare bought the nonprofit Mission Health last year. Nurses want to put “patients over profit” and have been overwhelmed by expressions of community support for their unionization move.
Chad Patrick, Mission Hospital’s CEO, issued a statement Sunday afternoon stating that he and hospital administrators respected the right of nurses to make their own decision regarding the union. Administrators have tried to explain what they’re doing to support nurses in providing patient care, he said in the written statement, but said “we have more to do to explain our vision and the path we are taking to get there.”
Patrick continued in the statement: “Simply put, we don’t believe union representation is right for nurses at Mission Hospital. I say that not out of disrespect to nurses who support the union, but out of my firm belief that unions can be divisive and undermine the very relationships that strengthen our patient care teams.”
“Our nurses have the opportunity to be fully informed on this critical issue,” Patrick said in the statement. “So I urge each of you to carefully examine what union representation would actually mean for our nurses, their families, our hospital, and our patients. We’ll be sharing facts about unions and resources you can explore to learn more on your own.”
At the rally in Pack Square Park, a group of elected officials and supporters took to microphones to speak to the crowd and express their support of the unionization effort. Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and Brownie Newman, chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, read a statement of their own. In part, they said:
“We have seen first-hand the dedication and professionalism you bring to your work. You have served the people of our community well. We support you and the community supports you. We are hearing from our constituents about how encouraged they are that the nurses are working to form a union, because they know that nurses having a voice at Mission Hospital is important to the future of health care in Wester North Carolina.”
The Rev. Amy Cantrell of the BeLoved Asheville group of community activists that works on issues such as poverty and homelessness, told nurses that “we will stand with you in the streets and the halls of power,” and reminded listeners that unions in the U.S. have been responsible for an array of critical worker benefits, from the eight-hour work day, minimum wage laws to protections from sexual harassment and occupational safety rules.
Concerns about understaffed hospital operations at Mission, and severely overworked nurses, were publicly aired at a series of meetings last month held by an independent monitor to follow up on the sale of Mission to HCA. Several residents and Mission nurses told personal stories of stressful working conditions that had taken a professional and personal toll on them.