In a ruling favorable to labor, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said last week that "charge nurses," or shift supervisors, aren't full-fledged supervisors under federal labor laws and, therefore, are eligible to join unions.
The ruling is the first by a federal appeals court on the nurse supervisor issue since the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the topic in a controversial 1994 decision. In that decision, the high court said nurses who supervised lesser-skilled workers were ineligible for union representation.
Labor unions, led by the American Nurses Association, feared that hospitals would use the high court's decision to strip nurses with even simple supervisory functions of their collective bargaining rights.
The case before the 9th Circuit involved an attempt by Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage to bar charge nurses from voting in a union election.
In siding against the hospital, the appellate court said that just because some nurses may tell other nurses and nurses aides what to do, they're not automatically supervisors and exempt from collective bargaining.
"To the extent a charge nurse gave routine guidance to other RNs, she did so more in the capacity of a leadman or straw boss" and not a supervisor, said the three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit sitting in Anchorage.
"It's an important win for us," said ANA general counsel Barbara J. Sapin, who argued the case before the appellate court July 16.
The Alaska Nurses Association had held a representation election at Providence on Aug. 12, 1994. If the charge nurses' ballots were counted, as the nurses association wanted, the union won. Citing the 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the hospital said the union lost because the votes by the charge nurses shouldn't count.
The dispute ended up before the Seattle regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, which sided with the nurses and ordered the hospital to engage in collective bargaining. The national NLRB upheld that decision, which the hospital appealed to the 9th Circuit.
Janet Oates, the hospital's spokeswoman, said the facility is considering its options. They include asking the 9th Circuit for a rehearing, appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court or dropping the case and bargaining with the nurses.