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Maverick and militant nurses’ union takes on both business and labor

The corner table of Rose Ann DeMoro’s fourth-floor office looks like an
anti-Arnold Schwarzenegger shrine. The centerpieces are three ever-nodding
Schwarzenegger bobble-heads, one of which is tagged “Governor Girlie Man.”
Surrounding the dolls are displays of pro-union literature, a “Rage for
Justice” award and three Arnold masks stamped with bar codes and the
corporate names of his major donors.

Under her leadership, the California Nurses Association (CNA) has tirelessly
dogged Schwarzenegger, logging more than 100 protests last year after he
tried to cut nurse-patient ratios and proclaimed that he was “always kicking
their butts.”

Now the nurses are back, this time pushing a measure that promises to
overturn the existing political order in California by publicly financing
campaigns.

On first blush, nurses would seem an odd choice to spearhead the effort to
take money out of politics. But with national ambitions, deep ties to the
social-justice and consumer-advocacy movements and a long-standing
relationship with Ralph Nader, the DeMoro-led nurses association is no
ordinary union.

“It is arguably the most progressive union in the country,” says Nader, who
first worked with the nurses on a failed health-care measure, Proposition
216, in 1996.

But in the process, CNA has not been afraid to step on toes, and not only
Republican ones. The union has clashed with Democratic campaign consultants
and has angered others in the labor movement, who have accused the union of
going outside state lines to try to steal potential members.

But those aggressive tactics have paid off. While most union rolls have been
steadily shrinking, the nurses association has tripled in size in the last
13 years, peaking at more than 70,000 members this year. But the union’s
political clout comes not from its size but its aggressive,
take-no-prisoners approach to politics. For the nurses, you’re either with
them or against them.

“We have as a maxim that you can’t be on the side of the patients and the
side of the corporation,” says DeMoro, executive director of the CNA and a
former Teamsters’ organizer, who is not a nurse. “Those things are
diametrically opposed.”

Perhaps nothing illustrates the nurses’ anti-corporate militancy better than
this year’s Proposition 86. Placed on the ballot by the California Hospital
Association, which has sparred with the nurses over staffing ratios, the
measure would levy a cigarette tax to generate more than $2 billion annually
for various health-care causes, including $91 million annually for nursing
education.

The CNA has refused to endorse the measure, officially voting to remain
neutral. Privately, many say that is a consequence of the hospital industry
authoring the initiative, though the nurses’ official line is that they do
not favor regressive taxes and a funding source that will inherently shrink.
The California Emergency Nurses Association, California Association for
Nurse Practitioners, and the Association of California Nurse Leaders have
all endorsed the measure.

“It diffuses your message as a health-care organization when you are off
fighting those battles,” says Dustin Corcoran, vice president of government
relations for the California Medical Association. “Health care is such a big
issue to deal with all on its own.”

But the nurses insist that their signature issue in 2006–taking money out of
the politics–is a health-care issue. After the pharmaceutical industry
dumped $80 million to campaign against a prescription-drug measure in 2005,
it became clear that to reform health care, the political system needed to
change too, says DeMoro.

For the nurses, changing that system is a two-step process, starting with
Proposition 89, which would dramatically reduce the clout of corporate
contributions, and ending with a second universal health-care initiative,
not opposed by massive corporate spending.

Allan Zaremberg, president of the Chamber of Commerce, says the measure is
patently unfair.

“It is a virtual ban on corporations from participating in the political
process,” says Zaremberg. “The intent is to eliminate the ability for
certain segments of California’s economy to communicate with voters.


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