Nurses at The George Washington University Hospital say they want to form a union, citing patient care and staffing concerns they say have gone unaddressed by hospital management.
“We are driven by a desire to provide the safest, most compassionate and most patient-centered care possible,” a news release from the District of Columbia Nurses Association announcing the move said. “Unfortunately, repeated attempts to work personally and directly with hospital leadership have failed to yield lasting systemic improvements.”
Edward J. Smith, executive director of the DCNA, told WTOP his group was first contacted by a group of nurses several months ago about the benefits of forming a union.
“Some of the issues raised were staffing concerns throughout the hospital,” he said, adding nurses felt like they weren’t “able to really do their jobs in a manner that can provide the best quality patient care.”
He said the challenges are similar to what nurses across the country — and the world — are facing three years into the COVID-19 pandemic: A health care workforce crunch and stretched-thin staff.
At GW, “it’s throughout almost every unit in the hospital that there’s concerns about not having proper staffing,” Smith said.
That includes what are called ancillary staff, people to answer phones, clean bathrooms and change bedding. Keeping nurses at the hospital is also a concern.
“There’s been an exodus — from what I understand, anecdotally — from the hospital in the past six months or so … it’s not any different than what we’ve seen in other hospitals throughout the country,” he said.
The George Washington University Hospital, which has nearly 400 staffed beds in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood, is one of three hospitals in the District whose nurses are not organized in a union. The others are Sibley Memorial Hospital and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.
Hospital: More flexibility, ’empowerment’ without union
GW’s hospital is owned by Universal Health Services. The company, one of the largest for-profit hospital companies in the United States, previously held an 80% stake in ownership of the hospital but became its sole owner last spring following a restructuring.
In a statement, a hospital spokesperson said the hospital recognizes that nurses have a federally-protected right to either support or oppose forming a union.
“However, we strongly believe that remaining union-free — keeping the direct relationship between our nurses and the hospital, and all the flexibility and individual empowerment that it provides — is the key to both our nurses’ ability to thrive in their professional practice and our continuing successful partnership with them in providing the best possible care to our patients and our community. ”
The statement went on to say, “Such a significant decision should be an informed choice based on the facts about unionization. We welcome this opportunity to share information and engage in substantive discussions with our nurses on this issue.”
Smith, with the nurses association, said nurses at GW have already raised issues with management.
“There’s been repeated attempts over the past few years for our nurses to talk directly with hospital leadership, and try to address staffing and day-to-day concerns … their voices are not heard,” he said.
He added, “I believe that it’s really just coming to a point where these young individuals are becoming activists.”
Smith said the nurses interested in forming a union at GW watched with interest as nurses at two major New York City hospitals last month went on strike — a move that ended with hospital management agreeing to raises, a promise to hire more nurses and measures to enforce agreed-upon staffing levels.
Last year, more than 300 nurses at Howard University Hospital — which is also represented by the D.C. Nurses Association — and other hospital workers went on a one-day strike over wages and staffing concerns.
Smith estimated that about 750 nurses would be eligible to join the union. He said the campaign will continue, and when ready, the group will file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to seek an election.
He said the group is prepared for a fight.
“This company, we suspect with a high degree of certainty, will not agree to voluntarily recognize the union, so we’ll very likely have to go to an election.”
Still, he said the group is also seeking a conciliatory approach to start.
“We think the collaboration will lead to safer patient care, in getting adequate staffing, improving training programs and increasing nurse retention … we want to work with this hospital.”