Today, however, union organizers are singing “Kumbaya” around much larger campfires and banding together under new federations and cooperative anti-raiding agreements. Union leaders say they've been forced to grow larger to push their agendas in Washington and to compete with the ever-expanding corporate employers on the other side of the bargaining tables.
Organized labor, in other words, has discovered that its philosophy of workers finding strength in numbers can also apply at the organizational level as well.
Among the developments in the past year, two of healthcare labor's most vehement enemies have signed and publicized a peace accord; six state nurse associations have banded together into a new federation; and three more large nurse unions have joined together to form what they're calling the “super union” of nurses.
In the process, bitter enemies like the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union have suddenly found themselves with fewer degrees of separation.
“I think the staffing crisis across our industry, which is getting worse and worse because of chronic understaffing … is driving us to link arms with our sister unions,” says Mary Kay Henry, an international executive vice president with the SEIU, which represents more healthcare workers than any other labor group. “We think that's necessary now more than ever because of healthcare reform.”
Experts say developments in Washington have presented many reasons for labor to join forces in support of a single agenda. That includes efforts toward the future passage of some form of card-check legislation—known as the Employee Free Choice Act—which would establish a union if a majority of employees signed a petition or authorization card, bypassing the secret ballot. Then there are the pending Senate confirmations of three labor-friendly members of the National Labor Relations Board, and the already seated new secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis. Unions are also keenly interested in the passage of healthcare reform legislation to constrain the insurance costs that have been devouring money that might otherwise have gone toward wage increases.
“They're putting their differences aside because there's a bigger prize, and they're focusing on that,” says James Trivisonno, president of Detroit-based IRI Consultants.
For all the cooperation, though, the unions have not yet been able to leverage their newfound cooperative spirit into the ultimate goal—a larger share of healthcare workers being organized across the industry. Despite widespread expectations for healthcare union growth in 2009, workers have remained in a quiet period, with the overall number of union elections actually falling from the year before, according to IRI Consultants' semiannual report.
In 2008, healthcare unions held 299 elections, winning 72% of them. But in the first half of 2009, only 113 elections were held, with labor winning 73% of them, the IRI report says.
Although the number of petitions for elections is on pace to exceed 2008, trends indicate that most of these will be either withdrawn, dismissed or nullified before elections can take place. In the first half of 2009, 57% of election petitions were withdrawn.
Observers say healthcare union officials prefer to withdraw their petitions prior to elections if it appears they are going to lose a vote, which contributes to their higher-than-average success rate at the ballot box. Also, IRI authors noted that most of the recent uptick in union petitions is attributable to the anti-SEIU breakaway union, National Union of Healthcare Workers, which has seen nearly all of its petitions face legal challenges from the SEIU.
And for all the rhetoric about friendship and common goals, there remain several notable splits in the healthcare labor world that show no signs of repairing. The nurse “super union” actually formed after more than half of the members in one of the three founding organizations left the group in protest of then-ongoing merger talks with the large and ever-growing SEIU.
Skeptics say it's too soon to tell whether the newfound cooperative spirit will last in the long run, or if it's only designed to accomplish short-term goals and aggregate union dues into larger and more influential pots of cash.
“It's sort of much ado about nothing, quite frankly. We haven't seen the trend as a real trend. We've seen more of an opportunistic reason that is driving this among different labor organizations and labor federations,” says Chicago labor lawyer K. Bruce Stickler of Drinker Biddle & Reath. “The reality is that individuals are struggling, and they don't see the link to organized labor to improve their situation at home.”
Stickler said that on Oct. 26. But in a sign of how quickly the environment was evolving, he softened his skepticism in an interview just a week later, when the third and final of the three unions that are joining to form the “super union” overcame internal dissension and formally voted to join the larger group.
“Take heed, the time for preparation is now. We have been set up for a strong right hook called ECFA that may never come, while we may be counterpunched with all this consolidation between unions,” Stickler said Nov. 4, referring to the Employee Free Choice Act. “All of it augurs for preparation now. Just be prepared.”
Opinions are split on whether the long recession will benefit organized labor. Proponents say the downturn will cause people to seek out the job security and higher pay offered by unions, while opponents say nonunion workers don't want to lose even more of their income to union dues, especially when unionization has not prevented layoffs at hard-hit hospitals.
National politics are another part of the reason for all the newfound collaborative spirit. Observers agree that President Barack Obama, who enjoyed huge union support in 2008, has made clear his desire for unions to set aside their differences and speak with one voice as they press for all the things they want from Washington. Former U.S. Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) in April convened the National Labor Coordinating Committee, in which the AFL-CIO, SEIU and nearly a dozen other labor leaders came together to talk about unification and common strategies.