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Overcoming that which divides

The current “Editor’s Pick” article presents what the authors, Geraldine Gorman, PhD, RN and Corinne Westing, MS, RN,  call a “union narrative as a nursing parable.”  Their article is titled “Nursing, Unionization, and Caste: The Lessons of Local 6456” which provides an account of one local unionization effort, as well as an analysis of the far-reaching implications for reaching across that which divides us to create peace in our own communities.  Corinne shared this story of the work she and Gerry have pursued together over the past 5 years:

This article started in some ways in the winter of 2009. President Obama’s first term in the White House. This was during my first semester of nursing school, in Obama’s home town. I was lucky to have as one of my first classes a course intended to help new nursing students navigate the cultural and social transition into the nursing world. Gerry and I found we were completely simpatico. When I entered the Master of Science program in my pursuit of a career in nurse-midwifery, Gerry asked me to share my knowledge and experience or labor organizing as it impacted nursing, by giving a lecture for her class to supplement the presentation

Corinne Westing

Corinne Westing

traditionally given by the Illinois Nurses Association. I had been around the National Nurses United, which represents the nurses at Cook County, University of Chicago, and a few other hospitals in the Chicago area. I had read a few things about nursing strikes over the years and was generally very sympathetic toward organized labor and nurses’ grievances.

During that time, faculty at the University of Illinois began organizing of their own accord. In the wake of the economic crisis that was deeply impacting public education, faculty had every reason to begin to explore organizing. Amidst the hostility surrounding this union drive at the College of Nursing (CON), Gerry and I—and of course other union sympathizers—began a conversation about what was going on. We struggled with the divide between unionization in some of the clinical sites the CON sends its students to and the negative reception nursing colleagues gave the union organizers at the CON. How could unionizing be accepted for rank and file nurses but not for academic nurse workers, especially those in an increasingly stratified workplace like the public university?

Over the semesters, my research into the history of nurse unionism proved challenging. I could not find one single source that could knit together this story—especially not in nursing literature. There would be hints of the back story in labor texts and historical archives. The narrative was unfolding, and it was my pleasure to try

Gerry Gorman

Gerry Gorman

to construct a coherent version that could also shed light on current conditions in academic labor, including in the nursing world.

As frustrating this journey to unearth radical nursing past proved, it also was profoundly rewarding to discover how well nurses belie the myth of the “handmaiden” or subservient comforter. Though women may be socialized to nurture, when put in collective working conditions like the hospital unit, women care workers, like all workers, will eventually struggle. And it turns out that even a tenure-driven, female-dominated academic workplace can contain the seeds of struggle.

We worked on this article through the ups and downs of the card drive at the University, and in the context of a successful strike by Chicago public school teachers. We chewed on the meaning of the mass protests against austerity and union rights just north in Madison while we watched as little organized resistance developed to take on rising tuition costs at our University. We solidarized with the movement of the 99% in Chicago and hoped that Occupy would inspire increased support for campus labor, including professors. We submitted this article in the shadow of President Obama’s second inauguration, as hope of change from above seemed to dissipate, and we struggled with where to go from here. Within UIC United Faculty, negotiations continue; still no contract, still a pressing need to build links between students, faculty, and other campus labor groups to help win this much-needed agreement.

It was an honor to work with Gerry through the process of shaping this piece to contribute to the discussion about how working conditions shape clinical and teaching practice. We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to share this work with you, through Advances in Nursing Science. We hope that this article has inspired critical thought about the roles we play in our workplaces and how, collectively, we can make nursing stronger, on the nursing unit and in the classroom.

Visit the ANS web site today to download your copy of this article while it is featured at no charge and read their account  – one which deeply honors the intent and hope to seek peace in our communities.

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