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Deja vu, again

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As I walked down a curtained hallway on the second floor of Duke Hospital last Saturday night, a familiar cauldron of feelings was bubbling inside--a strong mix of hope and dread. My head was buzzing with memories by the time I'd entered the room where the votes for and against a nurses' union were being counted.

The scene unfolding in front of me was the same as one I'd witnessed almost 10 years earlier, when I was a member of a union organizing drive for reporters at The Pittsburgh Press. The employee observers and management representatives were lined up on two sides of a long table--just as they had been then--watching the labor board officials painstakingly count piles of paper ballots. There was the same tension in the room, the same feeling of heightened reality.

A cell phone went off and everyone jumped. "It's my husband," laughed Marge Dooley, a longtime Duke nurse and union supporter. "He's calling from UNC to tell me that he's heard it's all over and we've won. I told him, 'They haven't even finished counting yet, Jim."

But finally, at around 10:20 p.m., they were finished counting, and the crowd held its breath to hear the results: The nurses' union lost by a vote of 624 to 1062. Within seconds, it seemed, the ballots were being packed up, Duke hospital officials were handing out photocopied statements, and union supporters were heading off to the Hilton for a post-election wake.

Ten years ago, we lost our union election at the newspaper in Pittsburgh. The following year, in a chain of events that none of us could have predicted, our newspaper was sold to the competing daily, which promptly closed it down. As I walked out of the revolving doors at Duke the other night, I was remembering how I felt after that vote, and the changes that came in its wake. Win or lose, being part of a union drive is a rare adventure. And standing up for something you believe in is always worth it in the long run.

That's what I wanted to tell Marge Dooley when I saw her outside the hospital. But when I caught up with her, she'd been buttonholed by one of the managers who was rattling on about the need to work together in the future. "You know this was never about money. This was always about my patients," Marge told the woman. The manager walked away in one direction and we walked off in another, toward the parking garage. "She's not a nurse. She's got a business degree," Marge told me, holding my arm in a comradely way. "What an education all this has been," she mused. "What an experience."

I saw there was nothing I needed to tell her that she didn't already know.

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