Though our nation’s economy has recently lost millions of jobs, the health care industry has continued to add them. Not surprisingly, unions are eager to sign up health care workers. In the last 10 years, the rate of union wins in the health care industry has grown faster than the national average. Unions are uniting to lobby for labor-friendly legislation to promote increased union membership in the health care sector.
In addition to traditional organizing, health care union organizers are using more radical corporate campaigns that target hospital donors, shareholders, community groups, and even patients. The unions push these target groups to put pressure on hospital owners to allow unions to organize their employees. Many critics have argued that some of these agreements with employers have greatly limited workers’ power and emphasized the union’s cooperation with management.
The following article provides an overview of the major unions involved in the health care industry, as well as strategies to ensure your organization is prepared and remains successful.
Service Employees International Union
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began in 1921 primarily as a janitor’s union and branched out to include government, security, and health care workers. By 2000, it was the largest, fastest-growing union in the United States, with much of that growth stemming from a series of strategic mergers with smaller unions. In June 2005, the SEIU and six other unions left the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to form the Change to Win coalition. Citing the need for a renewed effort to organize workers, Change to Win purports to be focused on achieving fair wages, health care benefits, and secure retirement for all employees. The coalition also encourages workers to unionize on an industry-wide basis, consolidating smaller unions within larger unions.
In 2007, the SEIU announced plans to launch a new health care union to serve approximately one million members, such as nurses and service workers at hospitals and nursing homes. SEIU Healthcare combined financial and personnel resources from the 38 local SEIU Healthcare unions. Of the SEIU’s 1.9 million members, 900,000 work in health care. In September 2008, the SEIU reported it would begin several high-profile projects to bring business leaders, health care providers, community organizations, and elected officials together to work on the nation’s health care system. SEIU leaders were part of a May meeting held by President Obama to discuss a health care overhaul. More recently, SEIU members attended town hall meetings to speak out in support of the proposed health care reform. In August, the SEIU was part of a group-largely funded by the pharmaceutical industry’s lobby-that launched $12 million in television advertisements to support Obama’s health care proposal. This group, the Americans for Stable Quality Care, could spend tens of millions more this fall.
SEIU and NUHW
The SEIU attempted to consolidate three local units representing home health care workers into one unit last December, taking authority away from the local units. The SEIU accused the local unit officials of financial misconduct, and in response, the leaders of the local units criticized the SEIU’s practice of centralizing power at its Washington headquarters and making corrupt deals with employers. In January, a 150,000-member SEIU local unit in Oakland was put under trusteeship by the SEIU, and the local officials of that unit were dismissed. The ousted officials formed a new union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).
The NUHW announced the first workers had cast votes in favor of representation by the new union in March. A majority of 350 union-represented workers at four nursing homes in northern California managed by North American Health Care wanted to end their labor relationship with SEIU and join the NUHW. The day after this announcement, the SEIU filed unfair labor practice charges against the four nursing homes, charging that administrators of the facilities had illegally withdrawn union recognition and colluded with a competing labor union. In that same month, a National Labor Relations Board regional director ruled against the NUHW, saying that the contract between the SEIU and the hospital chain prevented the effort by a new labor union to represent 14,000 Catholic Healthcare West workers. Despite the ruling, the founding convention to formally launch the NUHW took place in April 2009. According to the NUHW, approximately 91,000 California health care workers have signed petitions filed at the labor board, stating they would like be members of the new union.
The NUHW also claims that, in response to these decertification drives, the SEIU has resorted to harassment and intimidation and tactics similar to union prevention. The SEIU argues that the new group has unfairly restrained and coerced workers, as well as complained to the National Labor Relations Board. A decisive battle between the two unions will come in 2010, when the SEIU-UHW contract with Kaiser Permanente expires and the opportunity for decertification elections reopens. Kaiser, the largest health care provider in California, has 50,000 workers that could potentially become members of NUHW.