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Political muscle

October 11, 2006 - Recent press items have underlined the remarkable political influence that the California Nurses Association (CNA) has built in recent years. On September 28, KGO-TV (the Bay Area ABC affiliate) ran Ken Miguel's "Nurses Association Carries Political Clout." The report describes CNA's victories over California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on staffing ratios and other legislative issues, and the union's recent push for the state campaign finance initiative, Proposition 89. Today, The Los Angeles Times' blog "Political Muscle" reported that CNA would run an ad during an upcoming "The Tonight Show"--on which Schwarzenegger was to be a guest--accusing the Governor of failing to rid the state of special interest influence. CNA's use of political and media tools is not what people expect from nurses, but it may be an effective way for nurses to advocate for patients and themselves during this difficult time.

The KGO story suggests that CNA's powerful role in California politics over the last decade runs counter to the overall decline in labor union clout. The item notes that CNA is "the dominant voice at many political rallies," even though its 70,000 members are only about a quarter of the state's nurses. (Of course, the report might have noted that CNA is not the only union for California nurses, and that even 25% is significantly higher than the overall U.S. unionization figure for nurses.) The piece gets comment from University of California at Berkeley labor and politics expert Harley Shaiken, who says that "[t]he nurses have been very innovative, very bold; capitalized on the public respect for nurses and used that very skillfully."

The piece describes two major CNA victories. Gov. Schwarzenegger tried to limit the effect of the state's mandatory nurse staffing ratio statute, arguing that it was too expensive. CNA went to court stop that move, and also went after the Governor directly, organizing 107 rallies in eight states where he was traveling. The piece includes the Governor's well-known response to the nurses' presence at one appearance: "The special interests just don't like me in Sacramento because I am always kicking their butts." However, as one nurse notes in the piece, the nurses "kicked his butt"--they prevailed and the ratios went into effect. The piece offers some good quotes from CNA president Deborah Burger, RN, on the staffing battle:

The nurse's job doesn't just stop at the hospital door...We were told we couldn't win when we went out to take him on. We were told that we were crazy, that we were fringe, a fringe group. We had to [hold the rallies] because it was one of those things that we had to do, because our patients' lives were at stake."

Shaiken notes that Schwarzenegger "learned a very hard lesson. He went after the nurses -- aggressively -- he paid a very high price politically."

In 2005, the piece reports, Schwarzenegger pushed for a "special 'reform' election," asking voters to endorse several legislative initiatives. The piece does not give details, but CNA essentially viewed these initiatives as attacks on unions, public workers, and the interests of patients, and CNA and other groups opposed the measures vigorously. All the initiatives failed.

The piece closes by explaining that CNA is pushing Prop. 89, a measure to overhaul the current campaign finance system by providing for public financing of state political campaigns by "rais[ing] taxes on corporations." The piece suggests that "political analysts suspect the nurses are on a roll and may change the course of future California elections this November." (Prop. 89 failed by a wide margin, and Schwarzenegger was easily re-elected, but we get the point.)

Today, The Los Angeles Times blog "Political Muscle" reported that CNA had purchased time on an upcoming "The Tonight Show," on which Schwarzenegger was to be one of Jay Leno's guests. "Nurses Turn Tables on Schwarzenegger 'Tonight Show' Appearance" explains that CNA is placing a 30-second ad in some major California markets with footage of the Governor "promising to sweep away special interests from California -- a task, [Prop. 89 supporters] conclude, that has failed."

A basic theme of these pieces is that CNA has become a major political force in California. Though the pieces do not say so explicitly, a key part of CNA's growing influence is its aggressive and astute use of the media, from paid 30-second television commercials to the placement of demonstrators outside office holder appearances, which can result in significant earned media (unpaid press coverage). CNA's work shows how helpful the media can be in advancing the interests of nurses and their patients.

We thank Ken Miguel, KGO-TV, and the Los Angeles Times for these helpful pieces.


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