The labor situation in healthcare is likely to heat up in 1996 as cost cutting further impinges on rank-and-file workers in hospitals and nursing homes.
Although the number of strikes doesn't appear to be increasing, the grumbling will intensify. Nurses, particularly, are becoming more active in making their dissatisfaction known.
They are taking their case to the public. On Dec. 10, for example, about 200 members of the Illinois Nurses Association rallied and picketed at four hospitals in the south suburbs of Chicago in single-digit temperatures. They want a public forum to allow patients and nurses to discuss quality of care issues with hospital administrators. So far, the hospitals haven't responded.
The nurses union contends that hospital staffing is being cut to boost profits. That may be an oversimplification of a very complex issue, but the question is whether the public will be swayed to believe it. Hospitals, particularly those in large urban markets, are susceptible to public relations nightmares.
But does a smaller work force diminish patient care? It depends on the hospital and the manner in which it approaches retraining and reallocation of its human resources. Some hospitals may be carrying out necessary staff cuts and reassignments in ways that even staff nurses can see enhance patient care.
The fact is that morale is deteriorating rapidly at many hospitals. The pot is further being stirred by anemic pay combined with continuing news accounts of excessive executive compensation.
This could lead to more attempts to unionize healthcare workers, led by a rejuvenated and aggressive AFL-CIO. They will go after low-wage, low-status workers, with hospitals and nursing homes representing fertile organizing ground.
In October the AFL-CIO elected John Sweeney as president. Sweeney, former head of the Service Employees International Union, built that organization's membership largely by recruiting healthcare workers. The SEIU's Dignity Campaign on behalf of nursing home workers could offer a pattern for intensified campaigns by the AFL-CIO.
Last month Sweeney addressed the annual meeting of the California Association of Public Hospitals, which may mark an alliance between the unions and the managers of that segment of the hospital industry. They have a common interest in the survival of those hospitals in perilous times.
Labor activism will be especially interesting in public hospitals, which are under pressure to reduce staffing or even close, as in Los Angeles County and New York City. Many people think these institutions should be privatized. In Sonoma County, Calif., for instance, the board of supervisors wants to sell off Community Hospital in Santa Rosa. But public opposition is rising.
That opposition didn't just appear from nowhere. It was organized by the SEIU, which represents the hospital's employees.
Stay tuned. It won't be dull.