Nurse Labor Unions: Do They Have a Place in Healthcare?July 30, 2013 • By Lynda Lampert RN
In April of 2013, the nurses at Quincy Medical Center in south Boston held a strike over their current union contract with the facility.
The nurses held out for higher wages, prompting the facility to employ replacement nurses for the one day strike.
The nurses picketed outside the hospital, attempted to block the arrivals of replacement workers, and were supported by several unions in the area.
Without a contract for an increase salary, the nurses went back to work the next day and negotiations continued.
Of course, all professions have the right to form unions and take actions to force management to act, but should nurses take part in these squabbles?
Patients depend on us to be there for them, and some may see striking as a dereliction of duty.
Some facilities may take advantage of this, though, and this could lead to poorer working conditions for nurses.
Already, conditions in some areas are deplorable. As with most things in nursing, you can find strong positives and negatives for the inclusion of unions.
Pros of Nurse Unions
Let’s face it: you can’t trust management. Even in not for profit facilities, you can be sure that the higher ups are looking for ways to cut costs.
Unfortunately, most of those cuts involve the salaries of hard working nurses as management generally does not understand how difficult nursing can be.
One of the insulting issues from the Boston strike was this quote about nurse salaries: “In today’s economy, nurses sitting by empty beds making $52 an hour is not feasible,” said Quincy Medical Center president Daniel Knell.
Honestly, how many nurses are sitting by empty beds? Is this quote saying that the nurses are paid too much for the number of patients they have? How many patients would justify $52 an hour? Seven? Eight? Twelve?
With unions, nurses can come together and use the leverage of their numbers to combat ignorant management ideas of how much a nurse is worth.
Nurses can use the threat of strike, bargain for better conditions, and sometimes leverage for more money.
Money is almost a taboo topic in nursing. We work because we are called, because we care, because we are givers.
Does that mean we shouldn’t get paid more?
Management that is focused on profit will take advantage of this weakness in the profession and use it to keep costs low at the expense of hard working nurses.
Cons of Nurse Unions
Several negatives also surround nursing unions.
Aside from the professional taboo against trying to improve monetary reward for our work, many nurses object to paying regular dues.
Unfortunately, the majority of unions are ineffective, and paying dues seems like putting out dwindling resources for no benefit.
Even the striking nurses in Boston didn’t get their contract after such an extreme action, and they had to go back to work the next day.
Some nurses would wonder what the point of it was and why they have to pay dues for a system that is at best flawed and at worst completely useless.
In addition, the idea of a strike isn’t well accepted by nurses. This means that patients are left uncared for, and the idea that less skilled nurses as replacements can tug at a nurse’s sense of guilt.
Walking out on the facility means walking out on patients, and this is at odds with the nursing code of conduct.
Many facilities actively work to squash any talk of unionizing, and it is possible that such nurses could be targeted for termination if the campaign picks up any speed.
The most damning evidence against unions, though, is that they don’t tend to work very well in healthcare, and nurses often feel it is better to “vote with your feet.” Essentially, this means leaving facilities that don’t care for their nurses.
With the current hiring climate, though, this method doesn’t seem the most well thought out, either.
Bottom-line about Labor Issues
Like healthcare reform, labor issues in nursing don’t have any easy answers. Management will be management, no matter what we do.
They will always try to cut costs, misunderstand the role of nurses, and operate from a capitalist perspective.
Expecting healthcare facilities to be different than any other business isn’t only short sighted – it’s naïve. Unfortunately, the current methods of labor unions are outdated and ineffective.
Maybe they worked when Hoffa was part of the scene, but they don’t seem to translate well to the 21st century or the healthcare paradigm.
Perhaps with the increasing governmental entanglements with healthcare, the hospitals will become less profit driven.
However, it doesn’t seem that health insurance reform will positively impact nurses, and for that reason, someone has to step up for the working nurses of America.