News & Events

Heavy Doses

Hospitals Gain Bigger Foe in Nurses Union
By Brett Chase

Hospitals across the country have a new, more formidable opponent after the merging of three unions to form National Nurses United.

One thing we’ve learned from the example of the Service Employees International Union is that despite the demise of manufacturing in this country, labor is not dead yet. SEIU grew quickly and became a political force this decade by signing up janitors, security guards and other people in a host of low-paying professions.

In the health care world, hospitals have had to contend with the California Nurses Association, a well-organized union with national ambitions. In 2004, it added 900 members by organizing at John H. Stroger Hospital of Cook County in Chicago.

On Monday, the California Nurses expanded its reach, merging with two other unions to create National Nurses United. The 83,000-member California Nurses are now joined with the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the United American Nurses to boast a membership of 150,000.

That’s a far cry from SEIU’s more than 900,000 members, but, like SEIU, California Nurses have been politically active and shown an ability to make employers change their practices. Last month, Catholic Healthcare West, California’s largest hospital system, added swine flu protections into nurses’ contracts after California Nurses threatened to strike. California Attorney General Jerry Brown is investigating reimbursement practices among the state’s largest health insurers, including WellPoint Inc.’s Anthem Blue Cross and Kaiser Permanente, after a union report showed they denied 22 percent of all claims over a seven-year period.

Hospitals, which are often one of the largest employers in the communities they serve, are a logical place for unions to look for new members. SEIU and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have been trying to organize Chicago’s two largest hospital systems, Advocate Health Care and Resurrection Health Care for several years. SEIU has even tried to sway Stroger nurses to join its union.

Unlike manufacturing, health care is a growing industry. So look for the union battle over hospital employees to continue.