Advocates of proposed legislation in Harrisburg which would eliminate the ability of public sector workers like me to have our dues deducted automatically — House Bill 1507 and Senate Bill 1034 — would have you believe this is an issue of “empowering” union members.
But, as a registered nurse who has been a proud union member for the last 12 years, I can say that having a well-functioning union is what has empowered me and my co-workers to have not only a more effective voice in the workplace, but also to make significant strides in advancing health care standards for all Pennsylvanians. Allowing some employees to opt out of paying certain union dues would weaken that voice and our ability to improve health care, while providing those employees benefits for which they have not contributed.
For the last 11 years I have worked as a charge nurse at a county nursing home in Western Pennsylvania. I come from a long line of nurses — my mom, my two aunts, my sister, my cousin, my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law are all nurses. You can say nursing is in our blood.
Each and every day, I go to work with the goal of providing the best possible care to the seniors who call my workplace home. They are not just our residents; they become like family, and we happily go the extra mile to put a smile on their faces and make sure they are comfortable and pain-free.
To work in a county nursing home means to be a valued part of the community. Each employee at our nursing home is a resident of our county. We all have a stake in the quality of care and the quality of jobs our home provides. We provide care to our neighbors, parents and grandparents.
Being part of a union gives us a voice for ourselves and our residents. We have been able to secure safe staffing levels protected by contract, which gives our residents the amount of our time and attention they deserve. This gives residents more consistent staffing and allows us to learn their routines — what they like or don’t like, if it is orange juice or milk, pink nail polish or red.
What’s more, having a strong union has led to minimal staff turnover and greater continuity of care for our residents. At our nursing home, we have caregivers who retire with 45 years of service. An employee who is fairly compensated has less stress and is happier. Instead of worrying how they are going to pay their electric bills, our nursing home staff can focus on what is most important — helping our seniors live out their remaining years in dignity.
As a nurse, it is an incredible feeling to know that I can work with other nurses across the state and help improve standards of care for not only my residents, but also for all the people of Pennsylvania. United, we have led the charge to end mandatory overtime, pass safe needle laws and increase health care access for all through the expansion of Medicaid.
Unfortunately, we now have legislators in Harrisburg who, instead of working with us, are trying to pull the rug out from underneath us and unravel the progress we have made. H.B. 1507 and S.B. 1034 would weaken our ability to fight for our residents and patients in the workplace and in Harrisburg.
This legislation is a politically motivated ploy to cut working people off at the knees by hobbling the strength of our union — the only viable way we have to stand up for our rights in the political system. Our unified voice — as nurses, as social workers, as teachers, as bus drivers — is exactly what legislators behind these bills are trying to suppress. We have seen it in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan. And, not surprisingly, the timing aligns with an election year.
This fast-track legislation is a patronizing pat on the head by legislators who say they know best — better than nurses who have been making positive changes for their patients and residents through their union for decades. These are the same legislators who have put up roadblocks to expanding health care access for Pennsylvanians at every turn.
Our state leaders should focus on helping Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens, not on silencing the nurses who provide care for them.
Rita Treager is a registered nurse who works at Westmoreland County Manor in Greensburg.