While I was doing laundry, my phone buzzed with a message from Maine Medical Center, where I’ve been an emergency nurse for eight years. Fortunately, there was no crisis event; instead, a video warned against unions and claimed COVID as the reason for nurse burnout, stating, “We will have time to make things better, it’s just not right now.”

It’s no secret that administrators are working hard to keep nurses from voting “yes” and gaining access to collective bargaining. Parent company MaineHealth may officially object to unions, but federal law says it’s illegal to suppress staff efforts to join one or to mislead or intimidate employees.

Look, unions also produce videos and flyers and offer advice on how to run a campaign. The difference? Employees must seek out meetings and authorize their communications. Unlike employer-sponsored texts or events, there is no power imbalance. If a nurse is approached by a colleague who wants to talk union, they are free to say, “Not interested.”

Recently, over 60 Maine legislators denounced MMC’s tactics and their “disingenuous” claim to be respecting nurses’ rights. Senate President Troy Jackson reminded MMC, “It is the policy of the United States government to encourage collective bargaining.”

There are two issues. First, MMC’s blatant efforts to manipulate staff, often targeting the most vulnerable – new graduates, new hires and those angling for promotion. They access our cellphones, assign “education sessions” with expensive anti-labor consultants, send emails, approach us at work and headline meetings with their perspective. The terms used, “pro union or pro hospital,” are divisive and negate nurses who see unionizing as a way to improve patient care and working conditions.

The larger point: It’s this style of management in response to calls for change that compels workers to seek support and protection from unions in the first place. Some say COVID has only illuminated long-standing concerns preventing them from doing their best – for patients, themselves and their families. They feel unionizing would move the hospital beyond just listening to nurses to working with them as stakeholders to create a work environment that staff won’t leave, whether because of burnout or inability to afford a single-family home in the Portland area. In the words of one nurse I know, “It’s not COVID, it’s corporate.”


COVID escalated stress, but it isn’t the true cause of nurse frustration – just ask frontliners who’ve lobbied MMC for years.

In 2016, I returned after working abroad and asked co-workers, “How’s things?” They told a familiar story: sick patients crowding the ED for days, not enough staff or resources for mental health patients and constant turnover exacerbated by scheduling and stagnant compensation. Since, nurses have pointed out the same barriers to patient care and overall safety. This month we were again promised changes and thanked for being flexible.

Since MMC nurses filed for a union vote, the same hospital that cited limited resources and delayed annual increases doubled travel nurse hires, advertising rates up to $124 an hour. That’s three times what experienced staff make. No wonder we continue to ask: Why not invest adequately in retention?

Maine workers, like the rest of America, are burdened by costs of living, lack of affordable child care and inadequate health care coverage. Recognizing the growing divide between top salaries, company profits and the middle class’ ability to keep up, President Biden endorsed the PRO Act, which sits before the Senate as national interest in unions has increased. This is particularly true among nurses experiencing moral strain as their work is compromised by thinning resources.

Not all Maine Med nurses want a union; their right to speak and vote is just as important as mine. Still, let’s consider the enormous power of nurse-driven initiatives that have brought MMC Magnet Designation, and ask ourselves: Will the hospital continue to control our impact, or will nurses challenge the status quo by seeking a union-backed seat at MaineHealth’s negotiating table?

How can we deal with this now, the video asks? Because the health of our workforce and quality of patient care, pandemic or whatever the future holds, is at stake.

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