DeMoro retires, embeds her dramatic star on Labor’s Walk of Fame
By DEBORAH A. MILES
While public-employee unions in states such as Wisconsin and Michigan were getting decimated by laws restricting their collective bargaining right, nurses in California were pushing their legislators to sign the Safe Staffing Ratio bill that eventually became law.
This historic law enacted in 2004 which took 13 years of energetic lobbying and perseverance was advanced by the National Nurses United (NNU), with RoseAnn DeMoro at the helm. In newspaper stories across the country, NNU has been touted as “one of the most innovative and boldest of U.S. unions.”
DeMoro, who was loyal to her friends and intimidated her adversaries, retired this year, passing the leadership baton to two registered nurses and NNU Co-Presidents Jean Ross and Deborah Burger.
During the last 32 years, DeMoro inspired not only her union colleagues by redefying the role of a union boss, but ran NNU with dramatic and theatrical flair. She pushed old boundaries aside and engaged traditional foes such as anti-union managers, Republicans in Washington and beyond.
NNU took a ‘Jill-of-all-trades’ approach to organizing rallies, enticing all its members to turn-out. It wrote and ran radio ads on certain legislative propositions, held press conferences, and selected just the right banners for the backdrop. Mainly, they never gave up.
NNU was created in 2009, but its origin dates back to 1995 when DeMoro headed the California Nursing Association which broke off from the American Nursing Association. Its goal was to fight hospital management with aggressive tactics to gain better working conditions.
The union became a formidable force within California’s political arena. It torpedoed the 2010 former gubernatorial candidate and billionaire Meg Whitman for hiring an undocumented maid, who contacted NNU for help after being fired.
DeMoro earned a reputation of forgoing old-fashioned picket lines. Instead she implemented theatrical-strategy campaigns that Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, called “brilliant.”
For example, NNU nurses followed Whitman around California with a living prop, a pearl-draped actress dressed as “Queen Meg” riding in a horse-drawn chariot.
The nurses also fought former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on safe patient-to-staff ratios, and won. DeMoro and her nurses dogged him with 107 demonstrations within a year. They also threw a New Orleans style funeral in Sacramento for the concept of patient care. Those efforts also shrunk his once-sky-high approval rating.
DeMoro launched the ‘Heal America, Tax Wall Street’ movement in 2011 asking for 0.5 percent tax on stock trades and credit swaps, which could raise as much as $350 billion for health, education and jobs programs. To drive home that point, she and 1,000 red-shirted registered nurses streamed onto Wall Street to promote the tax and protest corporate welfare. That rally inspired the birth of Occupy Wall Street.
Every event planned by DeMoro ricocheted throughout the news and social media earning either applause or diatribes.
Since 2009, NNU organized 20,000 new nurses in 50 new hospitals by 2014. Some were in right-to-work states such as Texas, where less than 5 percent of workers are represented by unions. Now NNU has more than 185,000 members in every state, and is the largest union of registered nurses in U.S. history.
DeMoro has been more than a union leader. She was a builder of social movements.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders called her a “very tough” and “an invaluable ally.”
“When the country adopts a single-payer health care system, people will look back and say RoseAnn DeMoro and the National Nurses Union helped do that,” Sanders said.
DeMoro has said not achieving a single-payer system is a great failure, but single-payer will remain one of NNU’s highest priorities.
In her final days at NNU, people across the nation hailed this ardent and vocal supporter of nurses and the working class.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said she has an “iron will.”
Filmmaker Michael Moore said DeMoro is a “pain-in-the-ass labor leader all workers need fighting for them.”
Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California Santa Barbara, said, “With RoseAnn DeMoro and the nurses, their whole history and tradition and culture has been in confrontation. They have been quite aggressive, but they have been successful.”
In one of her last media interviews as NNU president, DeMoro said, “It’s not like I am disappearing from the face of the earth. I told them I’m permanently on call for anything.”