A masked woman walks by Maine Medical Center's south entrance in Portland on Wednesday Feb. 10, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — After a months-long campaign, nurses at Maine’s largest hospital voted to unionize.

In a mail ballot election counted by the National Labor Relations Board, registered nurses voted 1,001 to 750 to join the Maine State Nurses Association, an affiliate of the National Nursing Organizing Committee/National Nurses United. The decision affects roughly 2,000 nurses at Maine Medical Center, the Scarborough Surgery Center and the Maine Med campus in Portland.

“It’s a new day for nurses and patients across Maine,” MSNA and NNOC president Cokie Giles said.

Giles called on Maine Med leadership to “respect the democratic vote of the RNs and begin work with them to negotiate a first collective bargaining agreement that would be in the best interests of the hospital, the nurses and the community.”

Nursing staff began organizing a union push in fall of 2019, but the coronavirus pandemic gave shape to the campaign, as nurses sought more bargaining power about staffing, wages and access to personal protective equipment. They formally filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board in January, 2021.

The campaign faced stiff opposition from Maine Medical Center leadership. They hired a national firm specializing in fighting union organizing efforts, Reliant Labor Consulting, to hold in-person workshops and spread similar messaging through a website.

Maine Medical Center did not immediately respond to an inquiry. President Jeffrey Sanders and other hospital leadership maintained through the campaign that they supported nurses’ right to unionize.

Janel Crowley, a nurse in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, said nurses have been “very stretched thin” in their staffing since long before the pandemic, with some juggling weekly schedules containing multiple day and overnight night shifts. That kind of schedule makes it hard to sleep, Crowley says, making it not a safe practice for workers or patients.

NNU President Jean Ross welcomed Maine Med nurses into the fold, joining nurses who recently unionized in North Carolina and North Dakota.

As supporters of the union effort became visible in social media forums, some nurses fought against joining Maine State Nurses Association, which they called a “third party.”

“Here at MMC, our care to our patients is top notch,” said Jennifer Bussiere. “As a nurse, I have the appropriate PPE to perform my duties, I feel supported and respected [and] I have no concern about my benefits or pay.”

The decision comes weeks after workers at Portland Museum of Art voted to unionize.

Nearly 13,000 Mainers joined a union in 2020, bringing union membership to 82,000, compared with 69,000 in 2019. That means 14.7 percent of the state’s workforce belongs to a union, the highest level seen here in decades.