After their first attempt was thwarted, a group of New Jersey physicians again is petitioning the National Labor Relations Board for the right to unionize.
If successful, the doctors would be the first private practice physicians in the country to win collective bargaining rights. Employed physicians can join unions, and unions may act as third-party negotiators for private practice physicians, but antitrust laws prohibit independent practitioners from collective bargaining.
About 450 private practice physicians in Cape May and Atlantic counties hope to join the Trenton, N.J.-based United Food and Commercial Workers Local 56. The doctors first approached the union more than a year ago because they wanted union representation in negotiations with Mount Laurel-based AmeriHealth of New Jersey, a local HMO.
The union requested a hearing with the NLRB in October 1997, but the local board in Philadelphia rejected the request. The physicians appealed the decision, and the national NLRB reversed the ruling, granting the physicians a hearing before the local board. Testimony began in November, and a ruling is expected later this winter.
"The witnesses will prove beyond what we consider a reasonable doubt that physicians are employees of the HMO by the fact that HMOs control the decisionmaking process," says physician leader Art Nahas, D.O.
For its part, AmeriHealth argued the physicians have never been more than independent contractors-and antitrust laws clearly indicate that independent contractors cannot unionize.
"The question is not whether they are de facto employees, the question is whether they are de jure employees," says AmeriHealth spokesman Jim Panyard. "We don't feel doctors qualify as employees, so we feel confident the ruling by the regional director earlier this year will be upheld by this process."