Unions retool message to organize nurses

April 1, 2008

Healthcare executives have seen a significant increase in efforts by unions to organize nurses in the last few years. The national rate of unionized nurses currently exceeds 23%; in 1998, that number was less than 17%. In contrast, the national rate of unionized workers is just 12%.

Healthcare executives have seen a significant increase in efforts by unions to organize nurses in the last few years. The national rate of unionized nurses currently exceeds 23%; in 1998, that number was less than 17%. In contrast, the national rate of unionized workers is just 12%.

The conscious effort on the part of unions to unionize nurses (and other healthcare workers) is not surprising given that nurses are a desirable source of new members for unions. On average, nurses make more money than many other workers, they work in a growth industry, and jobs cannot be easily outsourced or sent overseas. The aggressive pursuit of nurses by healthcare unions has resulted in more union campaigns, more union campaign victories, and more union dues.

Traditionally, nurses in many parts of the country have had little interest in unions. Nurses often view themselves as professionals, which is a sharp contrast to the blue-collar workers historically targeted by unions. Thus, to make necessary in-roads with nursing professionals, unions have been forced to reorganize their structures, refine their messages, and retool their agendas.

The refined message proffered by healthcare unions is one that focuses on an issue of importance to nurses - patient care. Healthcare unions are now playing on the fear of many nurses that recent changes in the healthcare industry (including the privatization of hospitals) have led to a general decline in patient care and are promising nurses a louder voice in issues relating to or impacting patient care.

In explaining why nurses and other healthcare workers need a union, SEIU Healthcare states that "as long as nine of 10 workers have no union, we are constantly in danger of losing what we have accomplished for ourselves and our patients, nursing home residents, and healthcare consumers."

SEIU Healthcare and other healthcare unions have also retooled their agendas to include the establishment of "minimum staffing standards limiting how many patients employees must care for in a particular area on a particular shift;" creation of "labor-management committees through which employees make joint decisions with administrators about staffing guidelines;" restricting "mandatory overtime to protect employees and ensure the highest quality patient care;" and creation of "guidelines for floating and other practices to ensure that employees are able to provide the best possible care to their patients, and to do so under conditions for which they were properly trained." Notably, healthcare unions are also downplaying the role of strikes as few employees, least of all professional caregivers, want to go on strike.

This retooled patient care agenda is in addition to the more traditional issues negotiated during collective bargaining, such as wages and benefits. To support the message that unions are needed to improve patient care, healthcare unions support at least one study that suggests patient care is better in union settings.