Labors efforts to organize healthcare made inroads last year among the industrys highly skilledand higher paidworkers.
Union membership among professional and technical healthcare workersregistered nurses, laboratory technologists, physician assistants and more than two dozen other occupationsincreased by 10.4% last year, new figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show.
The double-digit increase easily outpaced previous years gains since 2000, and surpassed employment growth, according to the federal data. Employment of healthcares professional and technical workers rose 2.7% last year, the labor agency said.
Moreover, labor experts said healthcare employers can expect continued pressure from union organizers.
The union gains came as no surprise to labor attorneys who noted organizers have increasingly targeted hospitals, home health and other providers to expand their membership. Indeed, key healthcare unions have jockeyed in recent years to woo new members, particularly RNs, and labor leaders have publicly vowed to pour more resources into organizing the industry.
The Service Employees International Union made a high-profile split with labors largest coalition, the AFL-CIO, in July 2005 over organizing tactics, and SEIUs officials at the time named healthcare as a priority for its growth. In February 2007, the union said it would consolidate its 30 healthcare locals, with about 1 million members, into a single union (Feb. 5, 2007). The California Nurses Association expanded outside its home state more than two years ago and has since won elections in Illinois, Maine and Nevada.
Were beginning to see some of the investments paying off, said Charles Birenbaum, a labor attorney and managing partner for Winston & Strawn in San Francisco.
Federal labor figures show 13.5% of professional and technical healthcare workers were union members in 2007. Thats compared with 12.5% the prior year. When data include nonunion member workers who are represented by labor, the figure climbs to 15.1% last year from 14.2% in 2006.
Wages were roughly 11% higher for union members compared with workers who are neither members nor are represented by a union. The median weekly wage for healthcares professional and technical workersa group that also includes licensed practical nurses, physicians and pharmacistswas $1,005 for union members, $906 for those outside organized labor.
The wage gap was also apparent among healthcare support workers, though union membership fell last year among those who work as assistants or aides in nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy and home health. Union membership fell 2.6% in 2007 among the industrys support occupations to 10.2% of those in the workforce. Overall employment among healthcare support workers also dipped, by less than 1%.
Birenbaum called the organizing trend unwelcome for healthcare employers who already struggle to control labor costs amid pressure from public and private insurers to curb healthcare spending. The San Francisco attorney advises employers to build strong relationships among staff to make union intervention unnecessary and to actively communicate with workers should organizers arrive. Still, he readily acknowledges the industrys attractions for labor.
Jobs cannot be shipped to a cheaper labor market and aging baby boomers will increasingly need care, Birenbaum said. Its a growth in the industry, growth in employment and growth in demand, he said.
The nations soaring healthcare costs do more than threaten to erode providers revenue as employers and insurers seek to curb spending. Healthcare employers face the same rising benefit expenses as others, said John Lyncheski, a healthcare labor attorney and a director at Cohen & Grigsby in Pittsburgh. More and more facilities are passing more and more of that cost onto the employees, and changing plans, trends that create uncertainty and make a union attractive, he said. Union organizing tends to go in waves, Lyncheski said. It picks up and slows down, and we are at the beginning of a wave, he said.
Lyncheski said health professionals, nurses in particular, have sought a greater say in staffing and scheduling as issues that affect their professional and personal lives. Its another trend that leaves the industry open to organizing.
Julie Perry, a registered nurse and coordinator of the American Federation of Teachers healthcare Midwestern organizing project, said the stress of a rising workload and staffing concerns are what led her to join a union as a nurse at 158-bed Menorah Medical Center in Overland Park, Kan., roughly seven years ago. The federation counts roughly 70,000 healthcare workers among its members. You find yourself running from room to room, trying to pick what is the next priority and never being able to get to them all, Perry said.