Should today’s leaders in healthcare and emergency services care about the unions? Yes. Unions are targeting these industries with full force. Remember, membership levels in the union as an institution are at an all time low. They are also in the BUSINESS of making money off of dues in exchange for unit representation. When membership is down, profits are down. When profits are down, business leaders find ways to bring them back into the black. Healthcare and emergency services are low hanging fruit which has historically gone relatively untapped. To the union, it is the equivalent of finding oil in their own backyard.
Hospitals, Nursing Homes and Extended Care Facilities
Union’s have been going after healthcare at a steady rate over the past 3 years. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in 2008, Hospital workers were only 17% unionized. Union’s saw 83% of workers in an enormous industry that were considered to be easy targets which equates to hundreds of millions of dollars in potential dues. In 2010, 28% of healthcare practitioners were unionized. Hospitals are like little cities full of nurses, techs, custodians, security guards and food service workers who are often overworked and deal with high levels of stress. Combined with the union’s ability to push nurse to patient ratios, the need for state-of-the-art equipment and general overall quality of patient care as a platform for organizing, it is very easy to build worker and public support. Union’s spend millions of dollars each year specifically earmarked for healthcare campaigns. There are several union’s dedicated to healthcare (SEIU, National Nurses United, California Nurses Association, etc.), but other unions, including mainstream unions like the Teamsters, UAW and Steelworkers) are going after them as well. In fact, many have worked on and implemented alliances with healthcare specific unions.
Emergency Medical Services
With unions successfully going after hospitals, nursing homes and long term care facilities they decided to look at other areas of healthcare they could recruit membership from. They turned to EMS. In 2008, 27% of EMT’s and Paramedics were represented by a union or working under a union contract. Again, they saw 73% that went untapped. But, they saw something else. They realized that many of these untapped EMS agencies were hospital based and with hospitals come an abundance of money.
Unions also knew that they could leverage the same patient care and equipment issues they did inside the hospitals. They knew that public pressure (or the threat of public pressure) would make it easier to get management to give in to their demand for recognition. They had another card up their sleeves. The IAFF has long been representing fire fighters who were doing the same service. They knew that many private EMS workers were using their job as a stepping stone while waiting for a spot on a career department. To a firefighter, the union jacket is a symbol of pride in their workplace. They could leverage that same image on EMS workers.
The IAFF generally won’t organize a EMS specific service since they are not fighting fires (there have been a few exceptions) which led to the creation of EMS specific unions like the National Emergency Medical Service Association (NEMSA) and International Association of EMT’s and Paramedics (IAEP), which is a spinoff of the SEIU. Additionally, like in healthcare, traditional unions such as the Teamsters, SEIU, UAW and Steelworkers began to make their push to snatch up membership.
Union vs. Non Union EMS (Fire Based vs. Private)
The IAFF has a long standing conflict with non-unionized providers. There are many instances where responses are affected because unionized departments refuse to call on the private companies. The IAFF has painted a picture that the privatized providers are less skilled and less professional than they are even though they all receive the same training to receive their license. (For the purposes of this article I simply want to state that this sentiment exists. Arguing for or against this will be addressed in a different article as it is a complicated subject of its own.)
This conflict has more relevance today than ever. Many municipalities are considering replacing union firefighters with privatized services because they can no longer afford the rich union contracts. Government workers have been put in the public’s eye and government officials can’t afford to turn a blind eye to the cost of these contracts anymore. There is a current paradigm shift happening in the perception of the union in public service. The union still has a majority of the public’s support yet at the same time; the public is demanding accountability for the economic state of their country, state and the city they live in. The union is not going to sit idly by and allow privatized companies replace their membership without some sort of recourse. For example, there was a bitter battle unraveling in North Las Vegas where the firefighters recently agreed to 14 million dollars in concessions to avoid privatization. They kept their jobs but this was not a pretty fight. Other small towns and large cities (like Milwaukee, WI) are still considering privatization.
As the efforts to replace unionized firefighters with private services grow, so will the push by the unions to destroy the reputations of the privatized services. This will also lead to an even greater increase in organizing efforts. The union institution will not allow non-union workers to move in on their turf (Just like the UAW has vowed to go after foreign automakers with plants on American soil).
So far in 2011, nearly 20% of all union elections have involved healthcare or emergency services. This means that unions have their sites locked on these industries. They desperately need to increase their membership and have dedicated several millions of dollars to accomplish their goal of reinvigorating the union movement. The union’s have been waiting on a national platform to build this campaign for membership. With the recent onset of Republican lawmaking efforts to put some controls on government union contracts, they have found their platform. Private sector unions have jumped onto the backs of the public union and are waving their battle swords. Healthcare and emergency services still have plenty of non-unionized targets for the union to go after. If you have plans on remaining union free, you should at least be aware you are a target. At best, you should prepare your organization now so that you have a chance of winning a campaign when your employees seek third party representation. Don’t think it can happen to your organization? Neither did 20% of the organizations that were unionized in the US in 2011 who are in the same industries as you.