The Service Employees International Union formed a coordinating body for its physician unions last week and announced it will commit more than $1 million per year to organize employed doctors.
The new National Doctors Alliance will cover 15,000 to 16,000 physicians and residents represented by the SEIU and its affiliates (See box). That amounts to about a third of all unionized physicians in the country, according to union officials.
Alliance President Barry Liebowitz, M.D., said his group will help unionized physicians fight "the abuses of corporate medicine" by providing resources including funding for lobbying and litigation.
Late last week the alliance counted a victory as St. Barnabas Hospital, Bronx, N.Y., withdrew its objections to union representation for attending physicians it employs at New York's Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center. The physicians recently voted to join the United Salaried Physicians and Dentists, an SEIU affiliate.
Citing increasing physician interest in unions, the alliance established a toll-free phone number and a World Wide Web site, www.ndaseiu.com.
"Our intention is to organize every doctor in this country who is eligible to be organized," said Liebowitz, an experienced union organizer who has headed the New York-based Doctors Council since 1980. He said that amounts to about 300,000 salaried physicians.
The alliance reflects an effort to create a united front among the nation's physician unions, directly challenging the American Medical Association, which is barred from engaging in collective bargaining.
In a prepared statement, AMA President Nancy Dickey, M.D., said the national union organizing effort was "not wholly unexpected."
She said AMA officials "do not believe that traditional trade union practices ensure the integrity of the patient-physician relationship or help physicians achieve the best decisions for quality healthcare."
The alliance stemmed from the Doctors Council's recent decision to join the SEIU. Plans call for it to merge with the USPD and become the SEIU's bargaining unit for attending physicians. Another SEIU affiliate, the Committee of Interns and Residents, represents physicians in training.
In some cases, affiliates of the SEIU and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have competed to represent workers despite AFL-CIO bylaws meant to prevent such occurrences. However, physician union leaders interviewed last week pledged not to encroach on the turf of other unions.
"We are not going to waste time, energy and resources by fighting with each other," Liebowitz said.
Jack Seddon, executive director of the Tallahassee, Fla.-based Federation of Physicians and Dentists, an AFSCME affiliate, agreed. The 8,500-member federation is targeting non-salaried physicians who own their practices; SEIU affiliates have avoided organizing private practitioners, citing the potential for an antitrust challenge.
The alliance is touting itself as an alternative to medical societies. Liebowitz said it's the only national union run by physicians, citing his post and the group's all-physician board.
Executive Director Mark Levy said the alliance is structured to give residents and interns their own voice, including veto power over policy decisions. That distinguishes it from the AMA, he said, which can overrule its residents' section.
"Residents shouldn't be overruled by attendings. They have their own vision and their own interests," Levy said.