You may well have an opinion of my union, the Service Employees International Union.
That opinion could come from the news: We're the home union of John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO's aggressive new president. We're the "bridge-blocker" of the militant Justice for Janitors organizing campaign (Oct. 16, 1995, p. 46). We're the noisy protesters at Hillhaven Corp.'s national shareholder meeting.
Another basis for that opinion might be your own daily encounters with an SEIU affiliate in a unionized healthcare facility (we're the largest union of healthcare workers in North America). Maybe your opinion is shaped by instinctive or experience-tested distrust of organized labor.
But there's a lot you may not know about the SEIU, particularly our commitment to being partners for change in the healthcare industry. We've decided that we have an obligation and an opportunity to help improve the American healthcare system.
We want a healthcare industry that is better and more equitably funded, more cost-effective, with higher quality and more universal availability than our current system. We believe that healthcare workers, through their union, should be able to maximize their contributions to that system as well as secure their own economic futures.
We've put that commitment to work in many arenas. We led the labor movement's fight for national healthcare reform. Now that reform has collapsed into market-driven restructuring, we've put our commitment and our principles to work in the communities and facilities where our members live and work.
Our Local 285 in Boston, for example, led the successful fight to preserve the public mission (and public accountability) in the public-private Boston City Hospital-University Hospital merger. In the resulting Boston Medical Center, Local 285 is mobilizing a multi-union partnership to negotiate job redesign and merging of healthcare services.
Many of our locals (including my own Local 113 in the Twin Cities) have already joined hospital managers in the hard work of streamlining jobs and work processes, a task made easier in our case by an agreement protecting members from layoffs in such a redesign. We even participated in the difficult but necessary task of closing down a unionized hospital.
SEIU locals in Seattle; Cape Cod, Mass.; and other parts of the country also have extended the hand of partnership to employers who need changes to stay competitive.
We extend this hand to management because our members consume and pay for healthcare services and deserve our individual and collective attention to their needs. We extend this hand because all our patients deserve the same attention. Most importantly, we extend this hand because our members demand a meaningful voice in the decisions that affect their jobs and the quality of the care they can provide. Healthcare workers know they have a right to influence how they spend their working hours, and they know their input will vastly improve the quality of the decisions.
We recognize that participating in decisions requires us to take responsibility for those decisions. We also recognize that we must develop new skills among our leaders and new understandings among our members.
The SEIU is committed to taking on these new roles and skills; our international executive board already has a committee on workplace participation, of which I am vice chair. I also head the SEIU's Committee on the Future. That committee is part of a national union planning process that has recommended even more attention to these matters, calling for the creation of a Department of Workplace Democracy within our national union to support these goals.
But we are not the only ones who need to change. Managers must let go of the often arrogant power of solitary decisionmaking. They must recognize the contribution that workers, through their chosen organizations, can make to improving the quality and cost-effectiveness of the enterprise.
Managers must recognize that the democratic process of union decisionmaking will ultimately strengthen the quality of, and support for, change in the workplace. The union is the only legitimate organized voice of the bargaining unit; managers need to see it as a valued partner in the change process, not as an impediment or an unfortunate fact of life.
Most importantly, healthcare managers must recognize that the long-term health of their institutions depends on the quality and commitment of their employees.
Employers who provide the greatest possible economic security through jobs that deliver career enhancement and growth, and who respect workers' opinions and workers' organizations, will get that quality and commitment. They also will get the SEIU as an honest and active partner for positive change.*nBetty Bednarczyk is secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, whose 1.1 million members in North America include 475,000 healthcare workers.