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Nurses Strike in Appalachia

Posted Nov 03 2008 9:02pm

My familiarity with labor unions is minimal. I have never been a member of a union. For several years, when I was in elementary school, my mother worked as a long distance telephone operator (remember those?) for the Bell system and they were unionized. I vaguely recall Mother doing her time on the picket line in a short-lived wage dispute. That is the extent of my union association.

In eastern Kentucky, however, unions are a part of the culture. With their early roots in coal mining, unions have a long, passionate and sometimes violent history in that area of the country and many residents have a rabid allegiance to them.

Since October 1, the 750 unionized nurses of Appalachian Regional Healthcare (ARH) have been dealing with the stresses, hardships and animosities associated with a labor strike.

Six hundred of the 750 ARH nurses are taking their turns on the picket lines and it seems there’s no love lost for the 150 others who are crossing those lines to continue working.

Striking nurse Jerry Blevins says the work stoppage is all about patient safety. The union is seeking a contract that requires adequate staffing and reduces or eliminates mandatory overtime. I certainly agree with the strikers that being short staffed and overworked is a hazard for the patient—and no fun for the nurse—and I sympathize with their cause.

Nurses who have crossed the picket lines cite financial needs and an obligation to caring for the patients as their reasons for doing so. As a result, they have incurred the wrath of the strikers, had their names posted publicly on a blacklist, of sorts, and a few have had their car tires slashed. Putting myself in the place of those still going to their jobs, I can also understand their stance, particularly in certain circumstances. The mere idea of being a single mother of three little kids, with no family support, and suddenly having no paycheck, is terrifying to me.

ARH is the Appalachian region’s largest hospital system, with seven hospitals in eastern Kentucky and two in West Virginia. Jerry Haynes, CEO of ARH, is a native of Harlan County, a union hotbed. He recognizes the strong union heritage of the area and the stubborn nature of its people but is not in agreement with the union’s claims of ARH’s compromising patient care.

A large healthcare system is a business, after all, and fiscal responsibility is imperative, so I felt empathy for management, as well—until I did a little research. ARH, with deeper pockets than the union, has hired consultants to guide them in this confrontation. A self-promotional blurb by the consultants describes the firm’s “effective restoration of a union-free employment environment.” No matter how prettily it’s stated, it is still union busting.

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