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The Running Man

November 11, 2005 -- Today The Washington Post ran a fairly good Reuters piece by Adam Tanner reporting that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ended his fight with the California Nurses Association (CNA) over the state's nurse-patient staffing ratios, in the wake of the recent defeat of his ballot initiatives. As the piece notes, the move is a major victory for CNA in its long fight for full implementation of the ratios, which became law in 1999. In countering Schwarzenegger's unwise suggestions that nurses are a special interest group whose "butt" he "kick[s]," CNA seemed to exploit stereotypes of nurses as selfless bedside females. But the union showed what nurses can do when they speak up collectively and tenaciously. And that's no stereotype.

The article, "Schwarzenegger ends fight with California nurses," explains that the state has withdrawn its appeal of a court ruling as to an emergency order delaying the full implementation of a 1:5 ratio, which was scheduled for January 2005. It reports that CNA has "hounded" the governor with protests since he delayed implementation of the staffing measure, which made California the first (and still the only) U.S. state to require hospitals to maintain specific minimum nurse-patient ratios in order to protect patients. After Schwarzenegger issued the emergency measure in November 2004, CNA started picketing him at events and filed suit, arguing that the measure was unjustified. In March 2005, a lower court agreed, and the 1:5 ratio went into effect.

Meanwhile, in December 2004, Schwarzenegger called the nurses a "special interest" group, and added: "I kick their butt." (See our analysis of that story.) Of course, nurses are a special interest group, just like any other distinct group of workers who seek fair and safe working conditions. But because of the public's warm and fuzzy feelings for nurses, they are well placed to claim otherwise. Schwarzenegger's use of macho action movie language against a group that is composed overwhelmingly of females the public considers bedside angels was also unwise. Arguably, Schwarzenegger's basic mistake was paying nurses the compliment of treating them like any other powerful group whose agenda was adverse to his own. Society and many of its nurses are not ready for this compliment, especially not from someone with a history of sexual assault claims--he would have been better off with some angel stereotyping--and CNA effectively used the error. Of course, nurses may have a stronger argument that they represent the public interest than the large corporations that motivated Schwarzenegger's action. But the same would arguably be true of many other groups of workers who perform vital services. In its efforts to exploit the remarks, CNA appeared to play on the notion that nurses are pure, selfless, bedside females with no unique interests. That is not just inaccurate, but arguably pernicious, because it would seem to decrease real respect for the profession in the long term.

The piece notes that the move came after Schwarzenegger was "chastened at the ballot box" earlier in the week, when all eight ballot initiatives he supported had failed, including one limiting union political participation and another benefiting major pharmaceutical companies. Of course, CNA and other unions had been active in opposing the initiatives. Unsurprisingly, CNA was quick to claim credit, with executive director Rose Ann DeMoro hailing the abandoned appeal as a "tremendous victory." For his part, Schwarzenegger was described as "contrite." He asserted that he was "not anti-union," and he pledged to work with the Democratic state legislature now that the ballot measures he designed to circumvent their power had been defeated. The piece does not say so, but Schwarzenegger is running for re-election in 2006, and this fight is presumably not one that he wanted to continue into next year. Health and Human Services Agency spokeswoman Sabrina Demayo Lockhart reportedly claimed the withdrawn appeal was prompted by the emergency measure's expiration, and the fact that fears of hospitals closing ED's or curtailing services had not materialized--which suggests that the measure itself was at best premature.

See the Reuters article "Schwarzenegger ends fight with California nurses" by Adam Tanner in the November 11, 2005 edition of the Washington Post.

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