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FEATURE An Ounce of Dissension Texas nurses get organized with help from a California labor activist BY KATHLEEN SHARP 0 n a gray March day, 250 rambunctious nurses wearing rose-colored smocks and waving blue picket signs marched up Congress Avenue. They ascended the Capitol steps in sneakers, clogs, and high heels, determined to cajole legislators into supporting a bill that would cut the number of patients a nurse can be required to care for at one time. Recounting gruesome tales of how skeleton staffs cause misery and pain for patients, the nurses argued that Texas hospitals force them to oversee more sick and dying people than they can handle. “Safe ratios save as many as 72,000 lives a year,” said Beverly Leonard, a critical-care nurse from Austin. Registered nurse Nancy Davis agreed “I’ve worked all around the country. But the problems here in Texas are horrendous.” Though its fervor was contagious, the ragtag crew apparently didn’t sway many lawmakers to support the Texas Hospital Protection Act of 2007. Sponsored by Houston Democratic Rep. Garnet Coleman, House Bill 1707 was referred to the Public Health Committee on the last day of February and has stalled there without so much as a public hearing. Still, it may prove downright foolish for lawmakersand the state’s hospitals and health care providersto dismiss the fledgling movement. The reason is Rose Ann DeMoro, a veteran labor organizer from California, a savvy political player who has already brought California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to heel, turned California nurses into folk heroes, and sparked a nascent movement of nurse activists. The dark-haired 58-year-old is executive director of the California Nurses Association and its subsidiary, the National Nurses Organizing Committee. In the past year, DeMoro has turned her attention to Texas, bringing along her colorful, anti-corporate show. If history is instructive, the marching nurses are merely the advance guard for organizing efforts that could dramatically change health care in Texas. DeMoro has been called Wonder Woman by admirers and Nurse Ratchet by enemies, of which she has plenty. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, to an Irish beautician and Italian pizza maker, the working class girl attended Catholic school and wound up marrying her junior high crush. They moved to California for graduate school, Rose Ann in women’s studies, and husband Don in economics. When her two children were old enough, DeMoro 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MAY 18, 2007 Rose Ann DeMoro all photos by Jana Birchum left school to organize supermarket checkers. In 1984, she became the first female organizer for the Western Conference of Teamsters, where she persuaded independent film producers to join the trucker union. But she chafed inside the “good old boys club,” says Joe Kaplon, a former Teamsters attorney. So when the CNAthe state’s largest nurses’ unionoffered her a job in 1986, she jumped. At the time, California had fewer registered nurses per patient than any other state. Night-shift nurses in some hospitals cared for as many as 12 patients at a time, and hospital staffs turned over regularly. Care became so bad that patients dialed 911 for help, according to published accounts. Starting in the early 1990s, CNA began pushing for a state law that would limit nurses to five patients. Yet every year, California’s wealthy hospital industry killed the bill. Finally, in October 1999, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed the nation’s first safe patient-ratio law. Phased in over several years, it meant that nurses would eventually care for five patients, and sometimes fewer, depending on the patients’ conditions. It also gave nurses whistleblower protection, which should have been the end of the story. In 2003, Davis became ensnared in a recall election and lost his job to a