Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Campaign to organise nurses

After initiatives in the cleaning and retail sectors, the successful organising approach from the USA will now be applied to organise nurses in the Netherlands. Organisers of public sector union ABVAKABO FNV have already met with about a hundred nurses of the University Medical Centre (UMC) in Utrecht to find out what issues matter to them.
The nurses are not used to standing up for their rights. “They are inclined to efface themselves”, explains programme leader Lilian Marijnissen. “For them, the patient comes first”. The quality of health care is therefore likely to become a central issue in the organising campaign.
ABVAKABO FNV has experimented with organising before, but previously the approach was fragmented and results were disappointing. This time, it has been decided to focus attention on the UMC, a large organisation where only 7.2% of workers are affiliated to ABVAKABO FNV. Ten thousand people work at the UMC, but the campaign focuses on the 3,000 nurses at the academic hospital.
A first step was to meet with union activists. They liked the approach, but they are not representative of the entire workforce. The average employee is 38 years old; the average activist almost 50. “Some said: I’m about to retire”, Marijnissen said.
Next, they started asking around for nurses’ contact information in order to meet with them. Most meetings take place at people’s homes. Such ‘house calls’ are a standard element of American organising campaigns, but the Dutch often doubt whether this approach would work here, since people value their privacy.
However, the ABVAKABO FNV organisers found that many nurses really appreciate the house calls. “At home, people can talk much more freely and they feel that it’s an important campaign when you make the effort of visiting them. In addition, you quickly build a warm relationship when you’ve visited someone’s home. Then when you meet each other again at the UMC, there’s a connection”.
Some nurses are immediately ‘super enthusiastic’, others prefer to wait and see which way the wind blows before they become actively involved themselves. “It’s important for us to achieve a concrete result quickly, even if it’s something small, to show people that it works”, Marijnissen said.
Once a committee of nurses has been formed, the organisers will try to find allies who are willing to support the campaign. “We are looking around to see what kind of organisations there are, such as patients’ organisations. But perhaps there are also academics who would like to become involved”.
The campaign will probably be different from other organising campaigns. “For example, nurses are not likely to go on strike, for they don’t want the patients to suffer. However, we do intend to escalate the campaign, as is usual in organising campaigns”.
The campaign is run by a team of six, including two organisers from the previous ABVAKABO FNV programme, two activists who were also involved in the cleaning campaign, a former policy advisor and Marijnissen herself. Marijnissen graduated last year after writing a graduation paper on organising.
The team hopes to exchange experiences with colleagues in Germany, where there is also an organising campaign at an academic hospital. In addition, they frequently consult with American union SEIU. They will not get much time to quietly find out which approach works best: the programme will run until 31 December.
Image: the organising team, from left to right: Cihan Ugural, Bob Wester, Reinier Engelen, Jolanda van Brunschot, Lilian Marijnissen. Not in the picture: Karin Schepers. Photo: Jan van der Ploeg.

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