Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #17 July 17, 2001

Health-Care Organizing Heats Up
As 100,000 Nurses Pick Federation

By Harry Kelber

The AFL-CIO moved a big step closer to organizing the 11 million workers in the health-care industry when it recently chartered the United American Nurses as its 65th international union affiliate. The UAN, which represents 100,000 registered nurses in 23 state associations and bargaining units, is the labor arm of the American Nurses Assn., the oldest and largest professional organization of RNs.

In recent years, at least eight AFL-CIO unions have been trying to organize hospitals and other health care facilities. They have won union representation for 1.1 million workers.

When UAN delegates voted on June 28 to accept an AFL-CIO charter, they gained two advantages: the labor federationšs protection against raids by other unions, and political clout when pursuing federal and state legislation for nurses.

The AFL-CIO, for its part, welcomes 100,000 new members and partially offsets the loss of 450,000 due to the withdrawal of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Since only 86,314 new members joined AFL-CIO unions in the first half of 2001, according to the federation’s weekly Work in Progress, the addition of the UAN members makes the federation appear to be a lot better at organizing than it was before.

“This new partnership with the AFL-CIO and its member unions can have a tremendous impact on health care in this country,” said UAN President Cheryl Johnson. “With their vote to accept our AFL-CIO charter, UAN delegates sent a message loud and clear that we are ready to roll up our sleeves and get down to the business of solving — together — the patient care crisis in this country.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told the delegates: “Together, the UAN and unions of the AFL-CIO can provide a powerful and effective alliance that will take on the current health care system’s inadequacies, unfair policies and unsafe conditions that plague both American families and health care workers.”

The UAN’s organizing activities will be aimed exclusively at registered nurses, of whom there are 2.7 million — mostly without union representation. The union may conduct joint organizing campaigns with the Service Employees and other AFL-CIO unions. But since some of these unions have been organizing entire staffs of hospitals and other facilities on a “wall-to-wall” basis, it’s unlikely they would turn over members to the UAN. Some unions may at least be willing to work out partnership arrangements in return for the nurses’ participation in their organizing drives.

Meanwhile, five independent nurses’ associations in California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maine and Greater St. Louis, representing 60,000 RNs, are planning to form their own national nurses’ union. Their representatives met in Baltimore on May 23 to endorse a statement of principles for the new organization, including a guarantee of “autonomy and independence of the individual member organizations” and “support for universal health care with establishment of a single-payer-style national health care program.” One of the independent group’s goals is the creation of an institute to teach nursing activists how to organize and bargain.

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