Inside the AFL-CIO
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Column #2 March 27, 2001

New Steelworkers-Nurses Alliance
To Challenge SEIU on Organizing

By Harry Kelber

The United Steelworkers of America has formed an alliance with the California Nurses Assn. to organize millions of hospital workers who have no union protection.

The new group, known as the Health Care Workers Alliance, will join a crowded field in which at least eight international unions have staked out jurisdictional claims by organizing at least one hospital. But the Alliance’s toughest task will be to compete successfully with the Service Employees International Union, which has organized 710,000 health care workers and is recognized by the AFL-CIO as the dominant union in the industry.

Instead of organizing hospital by hospital, the Alliance plans to target chains of hospitals and entire regions, as well as other segments of the industry, according to Steelworkers’ President Leo Gerard. The 700,000-member union has increased its organizing budget from $12 million in 1997 to $40 million this year, he added.

“We will be able to change the dynamics in the industry and make it a ‘caring system’ again,” said CNA President Kay McVay. “By working with the USWA, we will have additional power to protect the professional practice of nurses.”

In recent years, a “catch-all” organizing approach has become so prevalent that unions with no direct connection to the health care industry have been trying to organize workers all over the country. Operating Engineers, Food and Commercial Workers, Teachers, Communications Workers, Teamsters, Laborers, Public Employees, Steelworkers and Mine Workers have all jumped into the fray. The Service Employees, the largest and fastest-growing AFL-CIO union, have organized more health care workers than all the others combined.

Why the focus on hospitals? Because they have been relatively easy to organize. Unions can boast a win rate of about 60% of all National Labor Relations Board elections at hospitals, according to the SEIU, while the overall average win rate for 1999 was 51.3%. Lately, however, more hospitals are hiring professional union-busters who specialize in crushing organizing drives.

Gerard notes that only about 10% of the nation’s 11 million health care workers are organized and that employment in the health care industry is projected to increase to between 17 and 18 million by 2010. There are “tons of opportunities” for unions, he says, citing areas in New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Florida where the unionization rate in health care is only 2 to 3%.

The CNA’s aggressive organizing tactics have enabled it to double its membership to 35,000 in the past few years. The alliance with the Steelworkers will allow CNA to capitalize on its contacts with tens of thousands of pro-union nurses.

The Service Employees have not responded publicly to the challenge posed by the Alliance. But whatever its reaction, SEIU can be expected to charge the Steelworkers with violating Article XX of the AFL-CIO Constitution, which deals with jurisdictional disputes, since it has clearly established dominance in the health care field.

Within the AFL-CIO, questions are sure to be raised about the Steelworkers’ decision to choose the independent union as its organizing ally. CNA has a reputation for taking non-traditional stands on economic, social and political issues. For example, it supports universal health insurance and a national Labor Party, and it endorsed Ralph Nader for president in 2000.

The Alliance has launched its first campaign at two Columbia-HCA hospitals in San Jose, Cal. — Good Samaritan and Mission Oaks — where CNA already represents nurses and they will work with the Steelworkers’ organizers.

The USWA-CNA alliance is, in part, a response to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s complaints that the Steelworkers aren’t doing enough organizing. Adding to the USWA’s resentment is Sweeney’s frequent praise for SEIU, the union he headed before becoming the top AFL-CIO official in 1995.

Scattered within so many unions, hospital workers cannot speak with one voice about their needs and aspirations. Ultimately, there may have to be a conference of all unions in the health care industry to agree on a unified national organizing strategy. In the meantime, jurisdictional conflicts can and should be avoided, particularly since there are more than enough hospitals and nursing homes out there to keep organizers occupied for years.

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