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Latest News - April 2015

April 22, 2015
NNU's aggressive path to hospital labor wins
By: Adam Rubenfire

National Nurses United's call Monday for strikes at the University of Chicago Medical Center and eight California hospitals follows a slew of fights picked with management recently that the union says are about better staffing and patient care.

Labor experts say conflict is in the union's DNA.

“National Nurses United is a more militant union in general, in terms of how they've decided to carry out their work, and they have been a very successful organizing union in recent years,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Berkeley. 

NNU has helped drive a strong uptick in labor activity and organizing in the industry since its founding in 2009, and the latest squabble is just a continuation of a pattern, Jacobs said. 

Sacramento, Calif.-based Sutter Health, which has five facilities included in the strikes planned for next week, has always had a difficult time negotiating with the NNU's California Nurses Association and the Service Employees International Union, Jacobs said. But he noted that the NNU has also frequently sparred with Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser, after deciding not to be a part of the hospital giant's Labor Management Partnership, of which SEIU is a member.

“NNU tends to like to function as an adversary ... and the SEIU tends to be more collaborative," said Joanne Spetz, a labor economics professor at the University of California at San Francisco. "That is part of the reason why the NNU and SEIU often are at odds with each other, because they do have a different approach as to how they want to address these issues." 

When the NNU called for a strike after accusing Kaiser of not adequately preparing its nurses to handle potential Ebola patients, the SEIU partnered with the system to host educational events for employees who could come into contact with the virus. 

The California Nurses Association is one of three unions that will soon appear on a unionization ballot at Kaiser Permanente's Los Angeles Medical Center, but the CNA does not currently represent the nurses it's calling on to strike there. Nonetheless, Kaiser said it is preparing for the possibility that some nurses will walk out. 

"We believe it is entirely inappropriate to attempt to disrupt patient care or service as part of a union organizing effort," Kaiser said. "We respect the rights of our employees to choose whether they want to be represented by a union and, if so, which union will represent them." 

NNU declined to provide a count of how many strikes the union has held nationally, but officials acknowledge the organization does strike more than other healthcare unions. And they're unapologetic. 

“We're more determined. We're more focused. We are there to make sure that patients are getting the care they deserve, and we are not willing to step back from that,” said Karen Higgins, an intensive-care-unit nurse and NNU co-president. 

Healthcare organizations are getting larger, and they should be willing to invest in hiring more nurses and retaining experienced ones, Higgins said. 

Spetz, who works in UCSF's nursing school, said spreading the strike out over more than one state was an unusual move for the NNU. But the issues identified by the union remain the same. The NNU says the latest strikes are about better staffing, while the hospitals say the conflict is entirely over wages. 

Nurses get paid well in general and especially well in California, Spetz said. "I think as a union they would have to be really careful if they say, 'The problem here is that we're not getting paid enough,' ” she said. “I think they're legitimately concerned with workloads.”


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