Healthcare workers are angry, engaged, and winning victories

On the ground at the AFT Healthcare Professional Issues Conference in Baltimore

This story was published in the Winter 2024 issue of The Washington Nurse.

Union wins

The last time I flew from Sea-Tac to Baltimore Washington International, I was on my way to a tour in Afghanistan. While the stakes this time were certainly less drastic, I felt a familiar tinge of anxiety and excitement as I headed to my first conference as a WSNA employee. It turned out that excitement was warranted, but the anxiety was not.

On the ground at the AFT Healthcare Professional Issues Conference, several WSNA members, including President Justin Gill and Executive Director David Keepnews, and I were presented with opportunities to learn and share about the issues, challenges, and successes surrounding the Code Red: Understaffing = Patient Care Crisis Initiative that AFT Nurses and Health Professionals has been running for the past year.

AFT Nurses and Health Professionals represents 200,000 health professionals in Alaska, Connecticut, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. It is the fastest-growing healthcare union in the country, according to AFT. AFT was formed in 1916 to represent teachers (American Federation of Teachers) but has been representing healthcare workers since 1978.

OSHA executive is keynote speaker

The conference opened with a presentation and Q&A with Occupational Safety and Health Administration Deputy Assistant Secretary James Frederick. Frederick shared the work OSHA is doing to combat workplace fatalities, injuries, and violence. Special emphasis was placed on mental health and suicide prevention in the workplace, with OSHA running a campaign to reduce the 120,000 deaths associated every year with workplace stress. Frederick said he wanted everyone to be aware of the resources on the OSHA website (search for “OSHA” and “mental health”).

The audience asked how to navigate challenges in the healthcare workplace in the wake of COVID and an uncertain political future. I left with a sense of optimism but also a clear understanding that much more must be done to support the nurses and healthcare workers who are still putting their lives on the line every day.

Media preparedness

Following the opening plenary session, we were divided into working groups. I attended a workshop on media preparedness and was retrained in how to prepare myself and the nurses I represented on how to speak to the media. Emphasis was placed on looking the part, such as wearing scrubs and a stethoscope, as well as being prepared with three main points, backed by real-world examples. The success of WSNA’s campaign at Virginia Mason Medical Center was highlighted and showed how effective media relations can be.

AFT President Randi Weingarten

During lunch, we were honored to hear from the towering and ever–energetic AFT President Randi Weingarten. Weingarten enthralled and motivated us by recounting how AFT Health Care has won victories across the nation, from contracts to legislation, including significant victories in Pacific Northwest legislative bodies. What really resonated with me is when she said that in 2022, healthcare workers seemed to be in mourning following the tragic losses we suffered during the COVID pandemic. However, this year, we are angry, engaged, and ready to fight harder than ever.

Another round of workshops in the afternoon showcased healthcare issues, including responses to nurse attrition, private equity threats to healthcare, the staffing crisis, and using our collective voice to support worker empowerment. The day closed with speakers who showed us how to use Code Red to engage our communities, including using Affordable Care Act requirements, such as community health needs assessments, to bring stakeholders into the conversation. This was followed by a joint reception with AFT public employees involving line dancing. I got to see firsthand the, ahem, enthusiasm that labor leaders can bring to a conference.

Use of ADOs for contract negotiations

Day two opened with another plenary session that was a facilitated discussion with Oregon Federation of Nursing and Health Professionals and Ohio Nurses Association representatives on how they used Code Red strategies to win contract and legislative successes. Hearing the praises for the Oregon staffing laws as the new gold standard was a huge motivator to keep up the fight for safe staffing here in Washington and across the country.

The Saturday morning workshops included one that I presented with Deb Snell, president of AFT-Vermont, who focused on using assignment despite objection forms (ADOs) to win strong contract language during negotiating campaigns. The workshop was a success with fantastic engagement.

There is interest in creating a national working group to help other associations maximize their ADO usefulness. Nurses and healthcare workers from around the country were impressed and interested in how WSNA makes ADOs work with us, including the incredible work our IT Director Jeremy Raughton has done to modernize and streamline them.

The conference closed with a victory plenary session presented by AFT Vice President John Brady; Oregon Nurses Association Executive Director Anne Tan Piazza; and our own executive director, David Keepnews. This session spotlighted the legislative wins in the respective states. Keepnews did an excellent job showing “how the sausage is made” while setting expectations for the future, including focuses by all three presenters on legislation addressing workplace violence.

Overall, the AFT Health Care Professionals Issues Conference was an astounding success and clearly showed how AFT and its local affiliates continue to lead the nation in transforming the workplace for the better for nurses and healthcare workers in our communities at the bargaining table, as well as in state capitols from coast to coast.

Jared Richardson is the WSNA nurse representative for St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma and St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood. For the last two years, he has been a nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital and the co-chair and chair of the local bargaining unit. Before becoming a nurse, he served in the U.S. Army as a combat medic for two tours. Read more about Richardson in this issue.