The union arm of the American Nurses Association has joined with the Teamsters and other burly union groups to bring an ever-increasing aggressiveness to nurse labor organizing.
The ANA's 100,000-member United American Nurses voted last week to join the AFL-CIO, a voluntary federation of 64 of the country's most powerful labor unions, with the hope of gaining more collective bargaining power and influence on legislative issues.
For the nurses union, pairing with the influential AFL-CIO sends a clear message of strength to healthcare employers.
"When we blend with the AFL-CIO, they don't know what they're dealing with," said Cheryl Johnson, a registered nurse and president of the ANA's 2-year-old union.
The move to join the AFL-CIO comes at a time when nurses around the country are clamoring for higher wages, better benefits, improved staffing and better working conditions in the midst of what some say is a national nursing shortage.
The addition of the ANA's union means AFL-CIO member unions now will represent 1.2 million healthcare workers. Talk about joining the AFL-CIO had gone on for more than a year.
"Let me assure everyone today that the AFL-CIO stands together with you in all of your struggles," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said during a press conference in Washington announcing the new partnership. "We will stand with you as long as it takes until you win."
But to Bruce Stickler, a Chicago labor lawyer whose firm represents healthcare management in union negotiations around the country, the ANA's alignment with the AFL-CIO will make it more difficult for the nurses association to work with other provider groups.
"The patina of professionalism that the American Nurses Association has long hidden behind would be rubbed off when they become part of traditionally organized labor, utilizing all their tactics and all their traditional concerted actions in trying to pressure healthcare providers economically to accept higher wages and benefits," he said.
Stickler is representing 436-bed Washoe Medical Center, Reno, Nev., in a labor dispute with its nurses, who are represented by a local of the International Union of Operating Engineers, which is part of the AFL-CIO. Last week, the Washoe nurses staged a one-day walkout in six of the hospital's units over an unfair labor practice charge stemming from back pay the union says nurses are owed.
Bill Freitas, director of the healthcare division for Local 3 of the Operating Engineers, which is representing the Washoe nurses, said being part of a union that belongs to the AFL-CIO carries with it some heft.
"It provides the resources the nurses could never provide for themselves to take this fight on," Freitas said.
Those resources, Freitas said, include expert negotiators and support on picket lines.
It's the support that comes from being part of a larger labor group that has the Minnesota Nurses Association, an ANA member, supporting the affiliation with the AFL-CIO, said Jan Rabbers, MNA spokeswoman. The MNA recently threatened to strike 13 hospitals in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, but nurses at only two hospitals took to the picket lines before approving a new contract (See story, p. 15).
"It sends a message that we are serious about organizing because the environment is in such chaos," Rabbers said.
The ANA's move to join the AFL-CIO was passed unanimously by its union's 92 delegates at a meeting June 28 in Washington.
Stickler warned that competition will ensue between the ANA's union and other AFL-CIO affiliates that represent nurses.
"Every one of them is looking for more members and more dues money, so as a business they are going to compete with one another," Stickler said.
One group that won't belong to the AFL-CIO partnership is the 20,000-member Massachusetts Nurses Association, which voted in April to split from the ANA, complaining that it was too moderate (May, 7, p. 17). Two other groups, the Maine State Nurses Association and the California Nurses Association, also have broken off from the ANA.
Julie Pinkham, executive director of the Massachusetts nurses group, said joining the AFL-CIO won't give the ANA the aggressiveness that her group felt was lacking.
"I don't think it makes a difference," she said.
But Mary Foley, a registered nurse and ANA president, said leaving the ANA, especially now that it has the AFL-CIO partnership, will leave nurses represented by these break-away groups behind on major national initiatives.
"I hope to make them regret the decisions" to leave, Foley said.