The Political Clout of California's Nurses

Last year, their association took on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and helped crush his ballot initiatives. Now, the nurses are expanding their agenda —even though some unions aren't on their side.

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Last year, the California Nurses Association handed Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger some big defeats. Now they're expanding their reach, organizing nurses in other states and putting a measure on the November ballot that would fundamentally change California's political landscape.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

INA JAFFE reporting:

If you're a member of the California Nurses Association, you never have to worry about what to do with your spare time. There were about 40 nurses on a recent workday morning at an anti-Schwarzenegger demonstration in Los Angeles. Deane McEwen(ph) was one of them.

Ms. DEANE McEWEN (Registered Nurse, California): I've been a registered nurse in California for 32 years.

JAFFE: How many demonstrations have you been to, do you think, in the last year or so?

Ms. McEWEN: Oh, probably 50.

JAFFE: And before that?

Ms. McEWEN: One.

JAFFE: By now, Schwarzenegger must be used to ranks of chanting nurses following him around everywhere he goes. They were one of many unions that helped to defeat his special election measures last year.

But their protests go back further than that, to when Schwarzenegger tried to suspend a new law that called for hospitals to hire more nurses. When CNA members heckled the governor at a big convention, his retort made them famous.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (California): Pay no attention to those voices over there, by the way. Those are the special interests, if you know what I mean. Okay? The special interests just don't like me in Sacramento because I'm always kicking their butts. That's why they don't like me.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: The CNA ultimately won the fight over hospital staffing in court. If Schwarzenegger helped make them famous, the CNA made sure to keep itself in the public eye, with stunts like renting airplanes to fly over the governor's fundraisers trailing anti-Schwarzenegger banners.

Ms. RUTH MILKMAN (Institute of Industrial Relations, UCLA): They're masters of public relations.

JAFFE: Ruth Milkman is the director of the Institute of Industrial Relations at UCLA.

Ms. MILKMAN: There's a sort of built-in advantage that they have, which is that most people love nurses, so representing an occupation like that already gives them a big advantage. But I think it's partly because they have been so clear on the links between the welfare of their members on the one side and those of patients on the other.

JAFFE: At a time when many unions in the country see their numbers declining, the California Nurses Association has more than tripled its membership in the past dozen years. Their critics, many of whom declined to be interviewed for this story, have called them aggressive, radical and sensationalist. CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro thinks that's the way it should be.

Ms. ROSE ANN DeMORO (California Nurses Association): If you're a patient's advocate, you're advocating for that patient. You're not advocating for the profit of that hospital.

JAFFE: The CNA's now branching out with their National Nurses Organizing Committee. They've just negotiated a contract for county nurses in the Chicago area. But other nursing organizations accuse them of raiding their members. Among those is the American Nurses Association, which declined to comment. Rose Ann DeMoro says the CNA's not raiding - it was drafted.

Ms. DeMORO: The nurses in the nation saw what was happening to their profession. We were on the front lines fighting against health care restructuring, fighting against corporations, doing whatever it took to make sure that nurses were protected as patient advocates in that time. Nurses across the country looked to that, and they kept asking us, come into our state, come into our state.

JAFFE: Now the CNA's in a fight that puts it at odds with some other California unions. They've put an initiative on the November ballot they call Clean Money. It would raise corporate taxes to pay for public financing of political campaigns. The measure is essential to improving health care, says DeMoro.

Ms. DeMORO: The political system is so fundamentally corrupted that everyday decisions that are made about nurses' lives, patients' lives, are determined by who's paying off the legislators.

JAFFE: Most of organized labor here, which contributes heavily to politicians, is keeping its distance from this measure. A couple of unions are actively working to defeat it, among them the powerful California Teachers Association. Barbara Kerr is the president.

Ms. BARBARA KERR (California Teachers Association): There are just too many unintended consequences, and we think it's too poorly crafted to be law of California.

JAFFE: Still, says Kerr, she thinks the nurses have their hearts in the right place. The CNA is hoping that most of the voters feel that way about nurses, too.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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