News & Events

Organizing and the law: protecting your rights as a worker

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
May 2005 Edition

By Eileen Norton
MNA Director of Organizing

In past issues of Massachusetts Nurse we have presented research that shows that pay, benefits and patient care are all better in unionized hospitals.

Do you think it is a coincidence that in non-union hospitals nurses receive pay increases when unionized nurses working in close proximity negotiate a contract with increased benefits?

Hospitals have been employing this union avoidance tactic for years. They believe it is all about the money, but you know that is not the case. Many of us have been nurses long enough to remember when nursing supervisors really cared about the nursing staff and were there to support them. Do you remember when it changed? Now nursing managers support the view of the hospital and do all they can to protect the bottom line. Have you ever been told to “do the best” you can? Nurses without unions are on their own today, but they don’t have to be. When you work in a unionized facility you are not on your own. You have the protection of your contract and the support of your colleagues.

Of course I am not suggesting there are no problems in unionized facilities; we all know there are, but we also know that unionized nurses have a process to deal with problems that arise. You don’t have to fear losing your job when you advocate for safe patient care or for safe practice issues. You have a voice in all the decisions that affect you and the work that you do.

Workers have struggled for years to organize in their workplace so they would have a voice in improving their working conditions. Before we focus on organizing in healthcare and specifically in Massachusetts, it would be helpful to first briefly list the federal laws that deal with organizing.

1918/National War Labor Board: The first significant federal attempt to help workers in their struggle to organize was in 1918 when President Woodrow Wilson set up a National War Labor Board. One of the principles adopted by this board gave workers the right to organize in trade unions and to bargain collectively through their chosen representatives. This policy was vigorously enforced and trade unions flourished. 1926/Railway Labor Act: In response to several strikes in the late 19th century this act was passed by Congress in an effort to bring order. It was the first effort to develop a national labor policy. This act was expanded in 1936 to include airlines.

1932/The Norris-LaGuardia Act: It denied federal courts the right to issue injunctions in ordinary labor disputes. It also removed labor activities from the sanction of anti-trust laws and outlawed yellow-dog contracts. In passing this act, Congress noted for the first time the imbalance in power between the employees and their employer. 1933/National Industrial Recovery Act was adopted by Congress. It provided that fair labor standards were established by raising wages, shortening hours and eliminating industrial homework, child labor and other sweat shop practices. The act also provided that employees have the right to organize and bargain collectively, free from any interference, restraint or coercion. This act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935 because it attempted to regulate business transactions not part of interstate trade. President Roosevelt subsequently hired lawyers to redraft a replacement, the Wagner Act.

1935/The Wagner Act: Formally titled the National Labor Relations Act, it covers private sector firms that are large enough to have an impact on commerce between states. Employees covered by the act were guaranteed the right to organize through secret ballot elections and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. They also had the right to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection. In addition to these three rights, the NLRA listed unfair labor practices by employers, including financing of company unions (where management sets up a committee but retains full control, creating an illusion of workplace democracy), arbitrary dismissal of activists, refusal to bargain, blacklisting and employment of industrial spies. The Wagner Act had a significant effect on the labor movement in the United States. Private sector employees who previously were unprotected were now able to unionize and bargain collectively over wages, hours and conditions of work.

1947/The Taft-Hartley Act: Many saw this act as a way to restore the balance of power between management and labor; others saw it as returning the power to management. This law was actually a series of amendments to the NLRA and was formally known as the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA). The amendments that were created restricted Wagner Act provisions providing protection for workers who were seeking to unionize and also provided regulations to restrain unions. The restrictive legislation that was imposed by the Taft Hartley Act remains in force to this day.

1959/The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, known as the Landrum Griffin Act: It contains elaborate reporting requirements for unions, particularly on the handling of money. It also provides a union member’s bill of rights to apply in matters such as union meetings, elections, eligibility for office, and union disciplinary proceedings. It also amended the Taft-Hartley Act further to clarify and close loopholes in the secondary boycott provisions, which further restricted the range of legal union activity in the area of labor-management relations. 1974/Health care amendments: In 1974 the NLRA was amended to eliminate the exclusion of nonprofit hospitals and to bring the private, not-for-profit health industry under the jurisdiction of federal labor law. It included a definition of “health care institution,” which was broadly defined to include “any hospital, convalescent hospital, health maintenance organization, health clinic, nursing home, extended care facility, or other institution devoted to the care of sick, infirm or aged person(s). Related amendments designed to meet what was felt to be the special problems of health care institutions were also adopted.

  1. Nurses were assured the right to strike; however, to ensure continuity of care, a 10-day notice had to be given to the employer.
  2. Provision for federal mediation, by the federal Mediation and Conciliatory Service.
  3. Created Board of Inquiry, which allows mediators to delay a strike for a 60-day cooling off period, if deemed a patient safety issue.

The health care amendments were the last significant change to the NLRA.

Prior to the federal healthcare amendments, states were left to their own discretion. Massachusetts had its own state labor law, which allowed employees in hospitals to organize. Under state law, you did not have the right to strike. The health care amendments to the NLRA in 1974 supersede state law and brought private, nonprofit healthcare facilities under federal jurisdiction which provided employees the right to strike and the right to federal mediation.

Prior to 1974, MNA represented 35 facilities that included the state Chapter Unit 7. After 1974 many hospitals and other facilities, including VNAs and school nurses, organized. Today we represent nearly 23,000 members in 76 facilities, including more than 65 percent of all acute-care hospitals in the state. We are the third-largest nurses union in the country and are continuing to grow. Our newest members, the nurses at North Shore Medical Center in Salem, voted on March 3 to join the MNA.

The responsibility for overseeing and interpreting the NLRA rests with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The Board is appointed by the president and subsequently, similar to the judicial process, depending on the political party in power when appointments are made, it affects the decisions; i.e. when conservative judges are appointed we end up with conservative decisions, which are generally friendly to management. The NLRA is continually interpreted, and from these decisions there has developed what is known as “case law.” One clear example of this interpretation can be seen in the decisions over the years that affect the definition of who is a supervisor. The latest decision on this topic, known as “Kentucky River,” defined charge nurses as supervisors based on the hours they worked in a charge position. Where does this leave us today? Unfortunately, in the U.S., any significant changes to be made to the NLRA must be made at the federal level, where labor has historically had difficulty exerting enough influence to make changes.

The U.S. system, unlike other industrialized countries, can make it extremely difficult to organize workers. Though workers clearly have the protected right to form a union, the time it takes to process anything under the system, as well as employer campaigns, have proven in many cases too difficult to overcome.

Successful organizing requires overcoming many obstacles, but it has been proven that when workers unite together for the common good, anything is possible. Employers will use any and all tactics they can to control the workplace and to prevent you from organizing. One tactic is to create management-dominated committees, (i.e. shared governance and magnet committees). These committees give the impression that employees have a voice, but in reality, management retains all the control and makes all the final decisions. Workers can never exercise their voices within the confines of a management-dominated committee. True participation requires that management accept the legitimate role of unions and the capacity of workers to negotiate the terms of their workplace. Ask yourselves why management fights so hard and spends millions of dollars to thwart unionizing efforts? It is because once unionized and empowered workers are a force in the workplace, management can no longer make unilateral decisions that affect you and the work you do. You become an equal partner, you have a seat at the table and you have a legally binding contract.

It is unlikely given the history and the state of our country today that any significant labor law reform will occur in the near future. It is important, therefore, that we develop strategies that will work within our legal framework. At MNA we have adopted and believe in the union building model of organizing—sometimes referred to as rank-and-file organizing or one-on-one organizing. It is a model that believes in involving all the members of a bargaining unit and builds the union before the actual vote occurs. The union building model of organizing was devised to combat the consultant campaigns that are waged by employers. This model increases the likelihood of success because it generates worker participation and the commitment necessary to withstand the typical aggressive employer anti-union campaign.

A commitment to running this type of campaign is also a commitment to having a union where members expect and demand a more active role in the decision-making process of the union. By empowering members from the beginning of an organizing campaign you enable them to become stronger and to know without a doubt that they are the union. Once empowered, there are no limits to what members can achieve.