Kent Hospital nurses vote to approve union

Friday, October 24, 2008

By Felice J. Freyer

Journal Medical Writer

Nurses at Kent Hospital voted yesterday to join a union, ending the largest successful union-organizing drive in Rhode Island in 15 years.

The vote –– 290 to 214, in an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board –– brings 600 nurses into the United Nurses and Allied Professionals, the union that represents nurses at Rhode Island Hospital and six other hospitals in the state.

The union’s victory changes the landscape as Kent’s parent company, Care New England, works on a proposal to merge with the Lifespan hospital group. Now, if the merger succeeds, four of the seven hospitals involved will have unions.

“This is a tremendous victory for everyone in Rhode Island,” said UNAP director Rick Brooks. “When nurses are empowered, they’re able to advocate more effectively for patients.”

Sandra L. Coletta, Kent’s president and chief executive officer, expressed disappointment at the vote but pledged to work with the union. “We put the patient first,” she said. “Union or no union, that’s going to be the focus going forward.”

Coletta, who has held her position for only three weeks, said she had gone around the hospital to meet with staff before the vote. Nurses, she said, “felt the need to be heard. And they felt the union was the best way to ensure that happened. I have to respect their decision.”

Kent, the second-largest private hospital in the state, has endured tumultuous times in recent years with heavy financial losses, a vote of no confidence by the medical staff and leadership turnover. The previous president, Mark E. Crevier, lasted less than three years. The Warwick hospital has 2,400 employees (1,700 full-time equivalents) and takes care of about 250 inpatients on a typical day.

Workers at the other Care New England hospitals –– Butler and Women & Infants –– are represented by a different union, District 1199 of the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU held an unsuccessful organizing drive at Kent in 2004, with nurses rejecting the union 2 to 1.

But the mood this year was different, said Debbie Almeida, a psychiatric nurse who has worked at Kent for 27 years. “Over the years the whole climate has changed here,” she said by phone shortly after the votes were tallied. “We felt we no longer had a voice in things. … The patient loads are increasing and the nursing staff is decreasing.”

“The reason I wanted to see a union here was basically for respect,” said Rose Desnoyers, who has worked at Kent for 22 years. “Money is not the issue. Respect and safe staffing are.”

Scott Molloy, professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Rhode Island, said health-care jobs have offered fertile ground for unions –– the only sector where unions have seen growth in recent years. That’s because hospitals employ large numbers of people –– Lifespan and Care New England are Rhode Island’s largest private employers –– and hospitals also face trying economic circumstances that can breed discontent.

“Ironically, the hospitals have become in many ways the factories of the present day,” Molloy said. “There’s a little resentment on the part of nurses. They’re doing more things and having greater responsibility than ever before, and at the same time, there are attempts to give them less and not provide as much as respect.”

Molloy predicted that “it’s only matter of time” before all the hospitals in the state have unions.

Edward J. Quinlan, president of the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, said a union’s presence means differences in culture and environment, but not in the quality of care. “Kent is an excellent hospital and will continue to be an excellent hospital,” he said last night. “It now has a different environment than it had yesterday. I would predict going forward that the administration and UNAP will work to meet the needs of patients.”

Aside from the failed 2004 effort at Kent, the last big organizing drive in the state was at Rhode Island Hospital in 1993, when two separate unions organized two groups of workers at the hospital.

In addition to Rhode Island Hospital, UNAP represents workers at Landmark Medical Center, Our Lady of Fatima Hospital, Westerly Hospital, Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island, the Rehabilitation Hospital of Rhode Island, and the Zambarano unit of Eleanor Slater Hospital. Yesterday’s vote adds 600 members to the 4,500 already in the union.

The Teamsters represent lower-paid workers at Rhode Island Hospital.  Five hospitals have no unions: Bradley, Miriam, Newport, Roger Williams and South County.