In 2018 the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association disbanded after fifty-two years and donated to the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor their records as well as a sizable grant to hire an intern to process their collection and create an exhibit about their history. The collection comprised more than thirty cubic feet of material in the form of three-dimensional artifacts, posters, brochures, booklets, contracts, letters, etc., containing a wealth of information about the union that fought for the rights of nurses, safer working conditions and excellent patient care. Researching their story has been fascinating and provides a glimpse into the lives of nurses in Youngstown, Ohio, as well as the ways in which they wanted safe working conditions to practice the best medicine possible. Their strikes were not only efforts to enhance working conditions in hospitals but were also ways to advocate for improved patient care and an adherence to excellence. As I researched the union, I discovered that the nurses were always promoting patient-centric policies.
The Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association was a union of nurses in the Youngstown area for fifty-two years. It was the first union of nurses in Ohio and the second union of nurses established in the United States. The nurses working at Northside Hospital organized in 1966 under the auspices of the Ohio Nurses Association. This union represented full and part-time nurses at that hospital as well as at Southside Hospital and Beeghly Medical Center until each of those facilities’ closures, the last being Steward Health Care (Northside Hospital) in 2018. The union originally formed as a way to ensure the highest commitment to patient care and adherence to medical ethics. The women, and men, who comprised the nursing staff over the years, were determined to provide patients and the community with the best their profession had to offer. Throughout their years of service, the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association provided the Mahoning Valley and its residents with a legacy of standards, care and community involvement which remain a testament to their profession.
The first concerted effort of health care began in 1881 with creation of Youngstown City Hospital Association which opened a hospital in 1883. They established a nurses’ training school in 1896. The Youngstown Hospital Association opened Southside Hospital in 1902. Northside Hospital opened in 1929 and Tod’s Children’s Hospital would open in the former YHA Nursing School building on the same campus. This hospital system, in addition to Beeghly Medical Center, St. Elizabeth Hospital, and Youngstown Osteopathic Hospital composed the health care options available to residents for decades.
In 2001, members of the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association strike to end the use of mandatory overtime which was a serious issue for patients as well as nurses.
When researching the profession of nursing and working conditions in hospitals, some generalizations come to light. According to Dr. Dorcas Fitzgerald, retired Professor Emeritus of Nursing at Youngstown State University, the nurses were overworked and underpaid, “…making less than $1.90/hour in Ohio in 1965.” Expectations were that this largely female workforce would work “long hours/rotating shifts” in a “hazardous…environment [that] had many unsafe substances (body fluids, medications, contagious illnesses, etc.)” Typically, full-time nurses lasted only two years then, due to personal circumstances such as a lack of childcare, had to reduce their work hours to part-time.”
These conditions and a desire for improvement coincided with the Civil Rights Movements in the 1950s and 1960s and the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, which both pushed for more rights, equality, and recognition of the importance of minorities in society and the workplace. At the same time, unions were a significant part of the Mahoning Valley, representing a variety of blue-collar workers such as steel workers, auto plant workers, factory workers, etc. Union membership in the 1950s and 1960s was at its peak and unions were quite powerful. What is significant about the YGDNA was that it advocated for “professional” workers who were primarily women.
Working conditions in the hospital became unbearable by 1966 as nurses realized that drastic changes were needed in order for them to do their best for their patients. The nurses, co-led by Mary Ellen Patton, decided to unite and fight for better conditions. To do so, the nurses pledged to resign their positions unless there were marked improvements in working conditions. The American Nurses Association, founded in 1896, was the organization supporting nurses in the country at the time and they had a “no strike policy” in place until 1968. This meant that the nurses had to resign their positions as a way to compel management to bargain with them. This was a
…13-day job action at…Youngstown, Oh, hospital to raise the wages and benefits of the nurses there —and [Patton’s] efforts ultimately elevated the economic and general welfare of RNs throughout her state and beyond. Her spearheading of the Ohio E&GW [Economic and General Welfare] program led to the Ohio Nurses Association’s first bargaining unit. She also championed the staff nurses’ role in determining their own work environment and how to best deliver care.
Nursing is a stressful, complex career, and allowing nurses to work in an optimal environment, where they have control over their surroundings, allows for a better atmosphere for patient care. When nurses are not over-worked, fatigued, or concerned about personal matters, they can focus all of their attention on their patients. This was their ultimate goal, per their mission statement,
to promote and preserve improvements in employment conditions and standards of professional practice; promote adherence to the Code of Ethics established by the American Nurses Association; and support the overall community in which it operates…
Throughout its history, YGDNA participated in six strikes and received community support for each. One of the most contentious issues, which never seemed to be decisively resolved, was mandatory overtime (MOT). MOT was an extremely important issue to nurses. They were adamant; they could not perform quality health care when forced to work six, eight, or ten additional hours on top of their original eight or twelve hour shift. Exhaustion and extreme fatigue were not conducive conditions in which optimal care occurred and nurses raised this issue again and again with successive hospital management companies over the years. In addition to striking over issues of ethics and patient safety, the union also worked to improve wages, benefits, and overall working conditions. They formed a cohesive body which fought collectively but also came together at social functions, community events, and “…through volunteering and organizing public health programs and events.”
Rally in support of the YGDNA and their desire for safe staffing levels to ensure patient safety and quality health care.
When contemplating the impact the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association had on our community, we see the void they left is immense; they truly cared for their patients and fought on their behalf, many times, to ensure that they provided them with the best professional attention. September of 2018 was a somber time for many in the Mahoning Valley. The closing of Northside Medical Center brought an end to the hospital’s history of providing quality health care and services to the Valley’s residents on Youngstown’s Northside. Members of the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association lost their jobs, as did many other workers at the facility. They also lost their ability to care for and provide outstanding medical attention to the community. These nurses are a part of the community as well as contributors to making it a better place to live.
This is just a sample of what will appear in the exhibit, entitled “Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association: A Legacy of Standards, Care and Community Involvement, “planned for this fall. There will be an accompanying digital exhibit on the history of YGDNA and nursing in the United States available on the Center of Industry and Labor’s website www.youngstownohiosteelmuseum.org
By Marcelle R. Wilson, Ph.D.
Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor, Site Manager
YGDNA “March on Washington” to gain support for the elimination of mandatory overtime.
There was the Mahoning Valley Hospital which was a short-lived alternative available to residents, 1887-1912. A History of Medicine in Youngstown and Mahoning Valley.
John C. Melnick, BS, MD, 1973.
PowerPoint presentation “Our History: History of Nursing in Youngstown.” May 12, 2021. Dorcas Fitzgerald, Ph.D., R.N.
 The Picket Fence.
October 2015, 2.