National Nurses’ Week is a time when members of the public raise their voices to thank the men and women at the heart of the health care system.

This year’s festivities were kicked off when the state’s biggest group of nurses broke out something new – a voice of their own.

In a clear and convincing 1,001 to 750 vote that was certified Thursday night, nurses at Maine Medical Center joined a union, for the first time sending representatives to negotiate their pay, benefits and working conditions with hospital management. The Maine State Nurses Association/National Nurses United will now represent 2,000 registered nurses at Maine Med, the state’s biggest hospital, as well as the Scarborough Surgery Center and the MMC Brighton Campus, in Portland.

In their successful campaign, organizers said they would push to get more pay for these highly trained professionals who are struggling to maintain their lives in the middle class. But they also made clear this was not just about money.

Union supporters said they wanted to negotiate with management over burnout-inducing overtime and split shifts that have been shown to wear out nurses and affect patient care.

“This is a dream come true, to bring us the unified strength we need to improve patient care conditions and workplace standards at Maine Med,” said Maine Med pediatrics nurse Jackie Fournier.

When contract negotiations begin, hospital management will have to overcome some of the divisive statements it made and actions it took during the organizing effort.

The hospital hired an out-of-state “union avoidance” firm, requiring employees to attend meetings where they were presented a one-sided anti-union message.

The public likely got a taste of those meetings in an opinion column co-written by Maine Med President Jeff Sanders and Chief Nursing Officer Devin Carr.

“An outside third party would not share our values,” the executives wrote. “More concerning is if that outside party actively undermines our efforts and sullies our reputation to further its own ends.”

We hope the hospital management will soon realize that the new union is not an outside third party, but their own employees speaking with a single voice. Together, those employees have an interest in not only their own jobs, but also carrying out the hospital’s mission, to care for people when they need it most.

If they listen to the testimonials this National Nurses’ Week, no one needs to be afraid about the developments at Maine Med. Forming a union will not make these nurses forget their commitment to doing what’s best for patients.

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