Beginning next week, nurses at Maine Medical Center will vote whether to join the Maine State Nurses Association, a statewide nurses labor union. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Maine Medical Center nurses will begin voting next week on whether to unionize and while more than 1,500 people have signed a letter in support of organizing, not all of the 1,900 nurses at the hospital feel a union is needed.

Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital nurse Teresa Hart said a union would “not help with staffing issues, promises of better benefits, or better representation.”

“Maine Medical Center is by far the best hospital I have worked for,” said Hart, who has worked in hospitals for 39 years. “The benefits they provide are excellent, their leadership is visible and approachable, as evidenced by the way they took care of their employees during the pandemic.”

The pandemic and the fact that the chief nursing officer has only been on board for five months mean the timing is not right to unionize, said Jennifer Low, a nurse at Maine Medical Center for the last seven years. She recommends giving the new chief nursing officer and other leaders “the chance to implement changes and to get on the other side of the pandemic.”

“If within a year we are still not satisfied with the changes, the union can be voted on again,” Low said.

The nurses will begin the mail-in vote on joining the Maine State Nurses Association on Monday, March 29, and the ballots will be tallied April 29. The association, an affiliate of National Nurses United, represents 2,000 nurses in Maine, including those working at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Suzanne Spruce, chief marketing and communications officer for the hospital, declined to comment on the union’s impact on nurses there.

Nurses want to have more influence at MMC, Grey Marcoux, 36, an MMC nurse who works on the geriatric psychiatry unit, told the Portland Press Herald.

“We nurses are organizing to have a strong and real voice in patient care at the hospital,” Marcoux said.

One area where nurses want change is in split shift requirements, she said.

“Split shifts make it mandatory for a nurse to be working during the days and nights. This sort of shift leads to fatigue and poor patient care,” Marcoux said.

According to the letter of support from the Friends of Maine Med Nurses, nurses at the state’s largest hospital are overworked, underpaid and too much is demanded of them.

“They put patients first, but too often they are not given the respect they deserve. And all of this was true even before COVID-19,” the letter said. “Nurses advocate for us. The stronger our nurses feel, the better our health care will be. They should be in the room where decisions regarding patient care and their working conditions are made.”

Portland resident Todd Chretien said he was compelled to draft the letter of support after seeing the role nurses played during his daughter’s recent surgery at the hospital and because of the care they gave there to his late father.

“We have the nurses’ backs, and we think they have the right to make the decision to join a union,” he said at a press conference March 17. “We say that out of respect, out of love and out of awe for their professionalism and their dedication to their patients and their family members. We want to thank them, and we stand with them.”

Rachel Corey, a Portland resident whose father is a patient at Maine Medical Center, agrees.

“The nurses have more than once saved my dad’s life because they have recognized small changes and have stepped in,” Corey said at the press conference. “They are caring for him and advocating for him. I will forever remember how well they have treated him and me.”

Corey said well-cared-for nurses mean a better-cared-for public.

“I am so thankful for the nurses and I want to support their efforts to have a seat at the table and in the decision-making process because they are the front lines and they see what the patients need first hand all the time,” she said.

Amy Caswell-Lee, who has worked for a decade for MMC’s parent company, Maine Health, said a nurses union would not necessarily result in better patient care.

“We provided them exceptional care without the union present and we will continue to do so,” she said.

Nurse Lisa Huntress-Beecher said MMC nurses already have a voice in terms of working conditions and compensation and that the hospital management “encourages nurses to speak and be heard.”

“Unionization results in the loss of the ability to knock on our nurse manager’s door and say, “can we talk?” Nurses will not be able to talk to management without a union representative,” she said. “The shared governance that nurses have worked so hard to obtain will be lost.”

Angela Logue, an MMC nurse for the last 30 years, said contrary to some reports, nurses were not dragged out of patients’ rooms to attend a 30-minute information session with Reliant Labor Consultants, an anti-union group hired by Maine Medical Center.

“I have worked my entire career at Maine Medical Center and cannot imagine working anywhere else,” she said.

The hospital released a statement March 17 urging nurses to investigate the pros and cons of unionizing before casting their votes.

“We believe once they do, they will see that the best way to build on the tradition of outstanding care at Maine Medical Center in support of our community is to vote ‘no’ on unionization and continue to work directly with their colleagues and leaders on behalf of our patients,” the statement read. 

Portland firefighter Evan Kleene, speaking at the press conference, said the union will benefit the nurses.

“It has been an especially difficult year for anyone working in health care,” Kleene said. “When more was asked of them, they gave it all, and now they are simply asking for a chance to have a union. The nurses at MMC deserve that dignity and respect. They deserve to have a fair election.”

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