For this month's installment of Still Working, our oral history series, we spoke to Rita Brennan, RN, president of United Nurses and Allied Professional (UNAP) Local 5082 at Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island and longtime maternity nurse in the hospital's Birthing Center. Rita has been a leader in the fight against Care New England's plans to close the Birthing Center (see story on page 1). In our interview, Rita reminisced about her early days at the hospital in the 1980's, when as a young nurse she became a leader in the successful drive to organize the hospital. She also offered her personal perspective on the value of the Birthing Center at Memorial Hospital.
Rita Brennan: I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. When I was a teenager I moved to Swansea, Massachusetts. I ended up moving back into Rhode Island. I went to Saint Xavier's high school, in Providence, and after I graduated I did not know what I wanted to do. I started to work as a secretary/accounts receivable person in a manufacturing company in East Providence. After being there for just about nine years, the company closed, shifted ownership, and I was laid off. I found myself unemployed, collecting an unemployment check. Initially I started going to URI for accounting, but I really didn't like that.
Finding a career in nursing
My mother had recently passed away. She had been a patient at Roger Williams hospital, and I was observing her nursing care, and it opened my eyes to nursing. I thought, "Wow, I could never do that." That's really what I thought. I was in awe of them.
I was in my late 20's, and some of the nurses were much younger than me, and that was eye opening, because I thought, "They have so much responsibility." Everything seemed effortless to them, but I realized what their responsibilities were, and I was in awe of these young women who were in my mother's personal space, providing this incredible care, while I was an onlooker.
Shortly after that I had some friends who were nurses, and they said, "Why don't you go into nursing." I said, "I don't think I could do that." They said, "Sure you could." That was the beginning, that's how I started.
I went to CCRI, and I graduated in 1985 with an associate's degree. In 1984 I realized I should probably start working in a hospital to get a sense of what it's like. Because, to be honest with you, I had never even used a thermometer before. I didn't have any children, and I was totally clueless.
I got a job a Memorial (Hospital). Back then they let you work kind of as a student nurse. I just floated from unit to unit, wherever the need was. I did it part time, and then I knew in my mind as I was going through school that I was drawn to maternity. I was told initially that I could not start initially in maternity, but when the time came for me to graduate, they actually had an opening on the maternity unit and had decided to try giving a new grad with no experience a shot at coming to this unit. They offered me the position, and that's where I started, and I never left.
In 1985, early 1986, I still didn't have a year under my belt. The majority of nurses I worked with at the time were somewhat older than me, and they had many years on that unit.
I was new, I was very quiet. I had heard that they had tried to organize Memorial Hospital two times, and they'd lost the union vote and failed. I thought, "What a shame." One particular night at dinner break, one of the other nurses asked me, "What do you think of unions?" And I was like "Oh my god, I love unions, why?" They were shocked. They said "We were trying to figure out how you felt because we want to start an organizing drive here."
I said, "Of course, I'd love to help because my dad had been the president of his union for years, so that's what I grew up with." My mom and dad were both factory workers, and my dad was the president of his union. His name was Raymond Brennan, and he a member of the International Association of Machinists, AFL-CIO. He initially was the president of the union at St. Regis Paper Company in East Providence, and then that company was purchased by G.T. Sheldahl at the same location, and then it was purchased by Glocester Engineering, which is the manufacturing company that I started to work in, in the office.
Jack Callaci, at the time worked for the American Federation of Teachers, and the FNHP -- Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals -- was like a little subsidiary under the AFT umbrella. A couple of the women I worked with were already thinking about what union they wanted to go with, and I think they have already tried to organized with (SEIU) 1199 and failed. Then they decided to go off into the AFT. They made an initial appointment with Jack.
I want to say there were maybe five or six of us who met with Jack, and I knew from the minute that I met him -- this is the truth -- that we were going to win. The very first time I met him, his office looked across at Pawtucket Memorial. As we sat with him across the table, his back was to the window. When we were done speaking he just turned his chair, pointed at Memorial and he said "I want that." The minute he said that I thought, "We're going to get the union in this time."
Then it was all about forming our committee. What Jack had suggested was that before we came out publicly, we really needed to branch out and have a good, strong organizing committee, and we needed to be very quiet about it, just working our way into to other areas, finding like-minded people, and starting to come together. We would meet anywhere anybody wanted to meet. "You want us to come to our house? You want to come to the office? You want to go to a bar?" Wherever you wanted to go, we would meet in little groups, and we managed to get somebody who was an organizer in pretty much every unit.
One of the most difficult things was trying to get people who had tried to organize before to agree to do it again, because they were so... broken about it. They had supported it before, and they got knocked down. One interesting thing is we started right around the same time was when that movie came out, Norma Rae (about organizing a textile mill). Actually they nick-named me "Rita Rae."
When I used to float as a nursing assistant, before I became an RN, I sometimes worked on the floor with Rita Owens, who had been very active in a previous organizing drive. I was always in awe of her as a nurse, and so in my mind now I'm this neophyte on my maternity unit, and also with organizing, and I thought, "That's the nurse we need to get, because she already did it before, and she's very well respected. So there was a line in Norma Rae when the gentleman who was doing the organizing -- this sounds so odd, but it is so true -- he said to Sally Field (playing Norma Rae), "You're the fish I wanted to catch."
In my mind, I thought, "(Rita Owens is) the person we need to have," because I knew she already had an in with all the other people who had already tried to organize the first time, and I knew, how could you ever leave that? If you were somebody who had the heart of a union person, and you wanted to organize your workplace, defeat would never defeat you, because you would still always have that mindset that you were still going to attain that goal. I ended up one night just calling her up cold, and she was very reluctant, and then finally agreed to be one of the organizers. I said to her, "I'm gonna use what he used on Sally Field and I said 'You're the fish I wanted to hook.'"
It probably took a whole year to get through that whole methodical organizing process. We used to have an office in Pawtucket off Main Street in Pawtucket, a little tiny second floor office somewhere over there, and literally we had these poster boards, all over the wall, and it was every unit with all of our people on there that we knew were going to be in the group we were going for. It was not going to be just an RN group. We had a yes column, a no column, and a maybe column, and you could never move into the yes column unless you were somebody who was one of our organizers, or you had been overheard verbalizing in front of somebody in management that you were for the union.
So if you said to me, "Yes, I support you," I really didn't know if you were saying the same thing to management, because they used to come around and pull the fence-sitters, the maybes, and take them into a room and almost bully them. If I knew there was no going back for them because they've already said it in front of the manager, then they went into the yes column. Jack was very strict about that because his whole thought was when we go for that vote we have to know that all these people are definite yes's.
When we went for the vote we called everybody that day. "Are you going? Do you have transportation? Are you going to be able to get there to vote yes?" If anybody said they had a babysitter issue, we had people already lined up in the office that were our own people, we'd say "That's fine, we're going to send somebody over there, they'll watch your kids to make sure you get out to vote." And, we won. We got our first contract in 1987.
I can tell you a true story -- I'm not insinuating that anybody from hospital management that did this. It could have been someone who was anti-union, because as strong of a union person as I am, there were people who were equally as opposed to having a union.
At the time I drove a little Honda Civic. I had just seen a movie called Silkwood with Meryl Streep, and oddly enough, she drove a Honda Civic (in which the union activist was killed in a suspicious accident). I had just watched that movie, and I came out one night into the parking lot. You pulled your cars in, nose to nose, up against these big cement blocks, with a pole in the middle, with a chain that went across. When I got to work I pulled in.
When I got out of work this particular night, when we were punching out, somebody happened to yell "Hey Brennan, how does it feel to have a bullseye on your back?" Well, nothing bothered me because I'm actually a quite ballsy person. I'm not easily intimidated. It was like, "Whatever, you're anti-union, it doesn't matter to me."
I got out into the parking lot, and I was meeting someone to talk to them. That's what we would do, "What questions do you have that I can answer to make you comfortable to vote yes for the union?" When I'm finished I open my door, get into my little Honda Civic, and when I put the car into reverse, one of those cement blocks with the pole and the chain came forward and leaned into the hood of my car, so I was like "Whoa!" Somebody had taken the chain off one of the poles and wrapped the chain around the bumper, and hooked it back up, so when I backed up, it did a little bit of damage to my car.
When I pulled out of work that night I remember thinking when I was driving home, "Oh my god, I just watched that Karen Silkworm movie, and she was driving the same car as I'm driving." I think it was probably somebody in a unit that we were trying to organize that was opposed, and they had a little malicious streak.
We have our patients that are from the Blackstone Valley community, and they want to deliver at their community hospital, and they trust the delivery of care that we give there, and that's where they're comfortable. That's what they know. They know the community hospital, and it is where they want to have their baby. It is probably where they were born, and that's where all of their neighbors and friends were born. And they're going to receive the same birth as the second group of patients are going to get.
Then there is this other group of patients who seek out a specific kind of maternity care. They want to deliver in a small community hospital, but beyond that, they also want to have a birth plan that is honored. They want to, let's say, be up and ambulating a lot. They want to have intermittent fetal monitoring. They want to bring their dula in and their support person. They don't want to feel rushed. They want their labor to be able to progress naturally.
Many of them may choose to have unmedicated birth, which oftentimes can mean to have that you need a lot of hands on, because there's a lot of attention that goes into that, versus just coming in to get an epidural. Some of them may end up getting an epidural, because that's then what they choose, and we would support them in that.
They have their own plan in their head, and we try to honor their plan. They also see the same group of nurses. If you're on a busy labor and delivery unit (in another hospital), once you deliver, you're kind of moved quickly out of that bed to get you to that post-partum unit, because they've got a lot of other patients that are waiting to get in there, which is not the case with us. It is a little bit more laid back. There's a lot of time spent with the nurse and the patient on breast feeding.
We try to delay any kind of intervention we're going to do with the baby to allow that continued bonding period. When the time comes and you move out to your room on the maternity floor, most of the time the nurse that did your delivery is going to go right with you out there until your shift is over, she's going to be the nurse that is going to be with you. If possible, when she comes on for her next shift, the next day, you're going to get that nurse again the next day, so there's a lot of continuity of care. It is like your primary nurse travels with you as much as she can throughout your hospital stay.
It is intimate. When you come in for your ante-natal testing, you come right to our unit, so if you're coming for a non-stress test, you're actually coming to the unit where you're going to be seeing all the nurses that are going to be taking care of you. Some of the people at the hearing when they got up to speak said "By the time I went in to have my baby, I knew pretty much every staff member that was there," because they may be coming in for labor checks, or the night shift, it is all the same group of us that are there.
Some people seek us out for that, and they may come from Nantucket, because this is what they want. Our patients that are right there in our community that didn't come in with a birth plan, that maybe have come in on the fly, or that plan to come there, the care is the same. People don't get a special package.