Union Organizing in the Health Care Industry – New Unions and Alliances Among Rivals

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.

SEIU Healthcare
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).