Nurses Fight to Retain Right to Unionize

By Moberg, David | In These Times, August 2006 | Go to article overview
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Nurses Fight to Retain Right to Unionize

Moberg, David, In These Times

An NLRB ruling will undercut workers' rights

WHEN AN ORGANIZER FIRST talked to Kathy Haff three summers ago about joining a union, the veteran cardiac nurse at Chicago's Our Lady of Resurrection Hospital wanted to sign up immediately. "I wanted to improve our staffing, which is lousy," Haff says, complaining that the hospital managers assign too few nurses to care properly for the patients. "With a union, we'd have some say in what's going on. Often they change things without even asking us or running it by us to see if it's a good idea."

But this summer, if the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules as many labor lawyers expect, Haff may be denied her rights under federal labor law to join a union. This is because Haff, like many registered nurses in hospitals, occasionally works as a "charge nurse" in addition to her regular nursing work, filling out paperwork, making sure there will be enough nurses for the next shift and dealing with patients' families. The NLRB is expected to rule that such duties make her a "supervisor," thus revoking her right to act collectively at work and join a union.

It's a cruel irony for Haff to be denied a voice at work in crucial matters about patient care on the grounds that she's already part of management. "I can't do any hiring or firing or make any decisions," she says. "I don't have any real authority."

This seemingly arcane question of who is a supervisor could lead to 300,000 nurses losing the right to be in the unions to which they already belong, and could stymie ambitious plans to organize nearly 2 million more nurses. Although many unions have tried to organize nurses, over the past two decades they have only managed to keep pace with the growth of the profession, which remains about 16 percent unionized. Nearly all hospitals, even religious and nonprofit institutions, fight unionization relentlessly unless unions succeed in pressuring them to adopt a neutral stance.

The feared ruling by the NLRB could lead to the loss of the right to a union for millions of other workers, according to AFL-CIO organizing director Stewart Acuff, including many foremen in the construction industry, along with team leaders at factories, mines and docks. And AFL-CIO Department of Professional Employees president Paul Almeida argues that a large number of engineers and technical workers could be denied their rights to unionize at a time when prospects for their organizing have improved. "There are a lot of people in engineering and other professions who perform a similar role [to a charge nurse], do it sporadically, like a lead on a particular project," he says.

The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, calculates that pending NLRB cases could affect 1.4 million workers, and if the board uniformly adopts a broad interpretation of what it means to be a supervisor, 8 million more workers would lose their right to unionize.

The ruling "potentially has a very broad effect," says former NLRB chief counsel Fred Feinstein, because the structure of the typical workplace has become much more fluid and less clearly hierarchical since Congress first enacted the basic federal labor law in 1935.

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