Monday, December 12, 2016

 Back Story of the Hale Nurses Union

In the immediate aftermath of WWII, many groups of workers, whose wages had been limited by the wage and price control boards during the war, began to press for higher wages and a higher standard of living.

By 1954, the nurses at Hale Hospital were among them. They organized a nurses' council and had elected representatives.

In March of 1954, the nurses were pressing for improvements in their wages and hours and presented their "demands" to the hospital trustees and the director of the hospital. Without regard to those demands, the hospital proposed that the City pay the nurses as follows: charge nurses, $55 to $59 a week and general duty nurses, $50-$56 a week. Annually those ranges were $2,860-3,068 and $2,600-2,912.

Feeling that their voices were not being heard, the nurses voted to hire an attorney to help them press their demands. The director of the hospital, Dr. Robert Lambert, spoke against the hiring and then telephoned Mrs. Harold Baumann, one of the council members to "advise" her not to let their attorney make any statement to the press, saying that such a statement might "jeopardize chances of getting benefits and 'antagonize the board of trustees.'"

Mrs. Baumann and her colleagues viewed this as intimidation and denounced it in the press as"an attempt to silence me."

After this incident the director made statements implying that the elected leaders did not really represent the nurses. With the support of their members, the nurses' leaders sent a five column letter to the local paper reviewing the history of the entire process.

That letter makes clear that the leaders were elected by their peers and that all were united in trying to get a 40 hour week. Then they outlined their three month effort to meet with the trustees or the director, without success. Finally they explained that the trustees rejected the forty hour week and sent the proposed pay ranges to the City Council without even informing the nurses of their decision.

It was at that point, that the nurses hired their attorney, a man well-known in the city.  The director responded to the nurses' letter, accusing the leaders of "misleading" their peers into "unethical and unfortunate actions". The nurses wrote that their actions were taken only after votes by the entire membership and that they took action only as representatives, not as individuals. The nurses ended their letter by assuring the public that: "We shall continue to give good patient care always, for this is our primary concern."

The outcome of this confrontation is not clear, although the forty hour week was not achieved for many years. What is clear is that the nurses and their elected leaders had become willing to stand up for themselves.

Three years later, forty-eight full-time nurses resigned, effective June 1, 1957, threatening closure of the hospital. This time, they had the support of the hospital administration. After three years of training and many years of service, the nurses were, according to the president of the hospital advisory board, "being asked to work for less than factory workers." He went on to say: "The average person doesn't have the slightest idea of what it means to be a good nurse. We can't do a thing without you."

Despite the support of the Hale Hospital Board of Trustees, the medical staff, the Haverhill Ministers' Association, and the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce, the City Council and the mayor twice refused to give the nurses a higher wage increase than the $4-a-week increase that was being given to all other city employees. The mayor, Joseph L. Willett, led the opposition to a different wage plan for nurses.

The Board of Trustees voted to raise $10, 000 in private funds to pay the nurses an "incentive" above their regular salaries and asked the nurses to postpone their resignations to September 1, to allow time for the fund-raising. The nurses agreed.

The chairman of the hospital trustees acknowledged their loyalty to the hospital: "The action exemplifies their dedication to the welfare of patients. This is especially so when we realize that they need go no farther than...Beth Israel Hospital to receive up to $21 a day for their services."

The nurses maintained their organization as an informal 'union' and sought advice from the Massachusetts Nurses Association(MNA) on several occasions, but as city employees they did not have collective bargain rights under Massachusetts or federal law at that time.  After a long debate, the members of MNA voted to fight for nurses collective bargaining rights in Massachusetts and helped to pass a law in 1964 granting those rights to nurses working for city hospitals and not-for-profit hospitals in 1965. And soon thereafter, in 1967, the nurses at Hale Hospital formed their bargaining unit: the MNA Hale Professional Nurses Union. This film tells their story.