Since its formal inception in 2009, National Nurses United has emerged as one of the lone upstarts in the otherwise-contracting organized labor landscape. Defending nurses in the face of hospital budget cuts, the nurses are also fighting for increased safety for themselves and their patients.
“You can’t poison the air because your company won’t give you more money per hour,” she said. “You’ve got to fight for safety standards for the public, and you’ve got to fight in the public’s interest. If unions don’t connect with the public interest, there’s not going to be unions..”
It’s a strategy that other unions have tried recently, most notably the AFL-CIO, led by Rich Trumka, which is seeking to represent the rights of all working Americans, not just its members. The fast food strikes of the past year have also sought to draw attention to the larger problems created by the minimum wage, rather than just a union. And the most successful unions these days organize from the bottom up, not the top down, said Julius Getman, author of Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement.
“What I see is that the unions are organizing on a much more sophisticated basis,” he said.
But the nurses might be most able to lead a labor resurgence because of the fact that they’re highly-skilled workers, and not easily replaceable. Nurses are less afraid to strike than fast food workers, for instance, because they know their employer won’t have an easy time finding someone to replace them. That’s made it easier for them to speak their minds on things not necessarily related to their union. NNU has spoken out in favor of a financial transaction tax, protested water shut-offs in Detroit, and supported Occupy protesters.