For many years I thought that Labor Day represented the end of summer, without much more importance. However, all that has changed for me.

I have been a nurse for over 45 years. For the past 10-plus years my focus has been in geriatrics and most specifically in end of life care in hospice. I’ve had many opportunities to provide quality care at the end of life to terminally ill patients and their loved ones. The hours are long and at times stressful. However, offering this care can be extremely rewarding. On this Labor Day, I will be an RN who recently helped organize a union at my place of work.

Many persons see union jobs only in industrial settings. But with the number of women nurses and health care workers, union issues in health care organizations are women’s issues, regardless of the setting. Job frustrations and pressures that nurses encounter are shared with workers in other sectors from agriculture to retail to heavy industry. Bad bosses, declining wages, and benefits, job instability and lousy hours are not unique to a particular sector.

Women in health care are much more than caregiving servants. We want to have more of a say about staffing, our working conditions and real input into the delivery of patient care. That’s why RNs in Maine and across the county have been organizing. As caregivers, it’s important to have workplace protection to speak out and advocate on behalf of our patients. Health care workers, along with all other workers in America, seek a balanced input on their wages, hours and conditions of employment.

Last year several of us felt our voices needed to be heard more in the operation of our organization. We organized with the Maine State Nurses Association and National Nurses Organizing Committee. At the beginning of this year, we began a campaign for a union recognition election. We talked to our nurses, social workers, chaplains, nursing assistants, and other support staff about the value of having a union.

We submitted paperwork to the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union recognition election. During the six-week campaign, we were surprised by the stiff management resistance. Management’s outside consultants spent many hours meeting with the staff explaining why a union would not help them. After all our work, we were grateful that the union won the election with a strong majority vote.

We look forward to our upcoming bargaining with management. There we can work on our priorities, including safe staffing assignments with the necessary support, fair compensation to address the severe shortages in staff, and the right to advocate on behalf of patients. We can also address fair and consistent working conditions. Having rights and protections on the job is particularly crucial for RNs and other health care workers. We are on the front lines of the delivery of patient care.

The union process led me to research worker’s rights under the federal National Labor Relations Act. Under Section 7 workers have a right to join a union. In Section 8 management is prohibited from harassing workers because of union activities. These laws are no longer just lines in a book to me. They now have meaning in my life.

I’ve also learned that one of the goals of the NLRA is to establish labor peace between workers and management. My fellow nurses and other hospice staff value the opportunity to sit down with management and bargain in good faith. This is why we worked so hard and long to get our union established. We would like to work together with management to focus on helping our patients and loved ones at a crucial time in their lives

Record numbers of RNs and health care workers across the nation are organizing due to the attacks on patient care standards and lack of voice in decisions affecting their practice and their patients. Collective bargaining provides the legal authority and power to engage in patient advocacy actions on a collective basis with a unified health care worker voice. MSNA and NNOC contracts in Maine and across the country address key issues of safe staffing, safe patient ratios, recruitment and retention, health and safety and fair compensation.

Nurses and health care workers know they are in high demand and are not easily replaced. Their skills – for the most part – cannot be outsourced. Because of all that, they know they don’t have to tolerate a dysfunctional workplace. They have two options. They can vote with their feet and find a new job elsewhere. They can also vote to organize a union and have a greater voice in the care that is provided their patients and loved ones.

My fellow union members and I have a number of reasons to be thankful this Labor Day.