John J. Sweeney, who heads the nation's largest healthcare union, was elected president of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor union federation last week.
AFL-CIO member unions selected Sweeney with 56% of the 13 million votes cast on Oct. 25 in New York.
Sweeney, 61, is a native of the Bronx and cut his teeth organizing service workers in New York City. Since 1980 he has been president of the Service Employees International Union. Under his leadership, the SEIU grew from 626,000 members to 1.1 million, representing more healthcare workers than any other union.
Sweeney shared his outlook on the future of organized labor in healthcare in an interview with MODERN HEALTHCARE reporter J. Duncan Moore Jr. conducted before the AFL-CIO vote.
Tell us about healthcare workers. What is their situation in the economy today?
I think our healthcare system is in crisis; therefore, healthcare workers are involved in a crisis. I think the industry, in trying to turn healthcare into a big business, has simultaneously profited from and deepened the crisis.
There are radical changes taking place in the industry. It has a dramatic effect on the work force in that industry. I also think that too many people are underinsured or without coverage at all, and too many patients are discharged from the hospital before they're well enough to go home. And too many have lost the right to choose their own doctors. As a result, too few receive the quality of care that our hospitals once provided.
We were leaders and supporters in the national healthcare reform debate last year. We haven't given up on any of those goals, but we understand the politics and we just want to see quality, affordable healthcare provided for all Americans.
Who are the healthcare workers you have targeted for organizing?
A large portion of our membership are healthcare workers, and we represent a wide range of job classifications. Our present focus is on our Dignity Campaign, which is organizing nursing home workers. We've also had substantial growth in the home healthcare industry.
What methods have you found effective for organizing these workers?
You really have to reach out to the workers to involve them in the process, to identify their issues, to do focus groups to identify the really personal issues that are meaningful to them. When I say personal issues, in that particular campaign, we've had different issues and different techniques that have worked. In Corning Hospital in (Corning) New York, where SEIU Local 200A won an election for 600 nurses and service em-ployees, we identified issues important to them.
In Fajardo Hospital in (Fajardo) Puerto Rico, we organized 300 workers. That was a completely different kind of campaign because of where those workers are, what their experiences are.
We had a real string of victories last month. We need to recognize issues workers want to be organized around, and work with them in shaping bargaining strategy in this time of upheaval in the industry.
The concerns are job security, the merger mania taking place, the relentless employer cost cutting, the chronic short staffing. And I guess the bottom line of it all is how it affects patient care and workers' concern for care of their patients.
Tell us about the special role of unions in the public healthcare sector. If they work in tandem with management, do they have a chance of preserving the safety-net hospitals?
I think so. But the most important consideration is that they're full partners in any process, that the workers themselves are involved in the decisionmaking and the changes that take place.
If you are elected president of the AFL-CIO, what are your plans for the healthcare sector?
I see the changes taking place in the healthcare system affecting every member of the AFL-CIO and every working family in the country, now more than ever. I think the AFL-CIO is the voice for working people, both organized families and unorganized, from the standpoint of insurance. Because we purchase insurance. Many unions run their own health plans, and many unions in the federation have members in healthcare, as we do.
Our goal is to replace the corrupt, inefficient status quo with a healthcare delivery and financing system that would provide high-quality care at a reasonable price for all Americans. And, as a representative of healthcare workers, we want to continue to organize healthcare and hospital workers on an unprecedented scale. I plan to campaign aggressively for national healthcare reform, as the only real solution to the nation's healthcare crisis.
How can you fight for wage and benefit increases for these workers at the same time that the healthcare industry is under severe pressure to reduce labor costs?
Because there are good reasons for fighting for and accomplishing both. Over the past several years the wages of American workers have declined. Our productivity has increased, and American workers-and this goes for all industries-have had the highest growth rates in productivity.
Corporations have benefited substantially from this. If they don't give up a little of their greed and share it with their workers-their most important resource-this wage situation is going to get worse.
It's a matter of controlling costs and providing more effective, quality healthcare. It can be done.
What can you do from the standpoint of the AFL-CIO to increase the political and economic power of unionized healthcare workers? That is, unions tend to be small, local and isolated from one another. Do you have any plans to pull them together or make them collaborate more effectively?
Yes. We've seen models for doing that in many industries. Mostly in the industrial unions you have seen coordinated bargaining, several unions coming together to bargain at the same table with the common employer. I think more of that has to be done in the healthcare industry. We have been approaching that with Kaiser, where several of our unions have come together to initiate discussions with Kaiser relative to improving lives of Kaiser workers, and working with Kaiser to provide an even better healthcare delivery system.
Some people say that the labor movement is mired in the past, in confrontational ways of doing business, when what is needed is fresh ideas, cooperation with management, a kind of partnership role. Is there any chance that you might follow that direction?
The key word is partnership. If that means real partnership, on a level playing field with workers having a full role at the table with management on so many of the issues that are crucial to their own lives, as well as to the healthcare system-if management wants to approach the process in that spirit, it can be very successful and very productive.
The dialogue the labor movement is going through right now, in terms of change and opening up the labor movement from the grass-roots to the top leadership, is a very good dialogue. Hopefully it will result in changes that will be beneficial to workers and management.
If the playing field is not going to be level, then confrontation will be necessary. There is too much greed.