Minnesota nurses' Rx for union revival

Peter Rachleff explains that the Minnesota Nurses' Association contract campaign has lessons for rebuilding the whole labor movement.

Nurses at Minneapolis Children's Hospital on the picket lineNurses at Minneapolis Children's Hospital on the picket line

THE LAST 35 years have been disastrous for American unions. The percentage of the workforce represented by unions has declined from about 30 percent to barely 10 percent. As the unionized island in the center of the workforce has shrunk, every element of labor relations affected by unions--job security, promotions and layoffs, job descriptions, wages and benefits (pensions, vacations, health care, etc.), grievance procedures, attention to safety--has slid away from workers.

There has been a similar deterioration in union influence in electoral politics and public debate about key issues. Furthermore, as unions have shrunk in size and scope, they have become the objects of public scorn, accused of protecting "bad" workers, delivering "Cadillac" benefits to their members and pursuing their own self-interest at the expense of the wider community. In the midst of what can reasonably be termed a rout, many remaining union members have themselves lost faith in their organizations, questioned the efficacy of unions and ceased participating in union activities.

The current campaign by the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) to win favorable contract terms from a consortium of 14 Twin Cities hospitals provides an interesting prescription for some of the problems that ail other unions. These other unions would do well not just to support the MNA, but to observe their efforts and learn from them.

MNA's focus on patient/staffing ratios has promised members a real voice in the organization of their work. It has also connected nurses to the patients who depend on their skilled services. MNA's use of Facebook has built an internal communications network that connects union members to each other and to the union leadership and staff. And the support given MNA by National Nurses United offers a model of how a national union can strengthen the resolve and resources of a local union.

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WHEN UNIONS enjoyed their greatest strength in the U.S., the late 1940s through the early 1960s, most of them consented to a significant compromise that has come to the haunt them. In return for backing away from their earlier efforts to bargain about production issues--the organization of work, the nature and price of products, the introduction of new technologies, the speed of assembly lines and output quotas--they were given employers' assurances that workers would share in the gains of productivity increases through higher wages and benefits.

The door to this historic compromise was opened in 1946 when, at the end of the nationwide auto strike, General Motors rebuffed the United Auto Workers' demands that wage increases not be passed along to consumers in the shape of higher prices. GM CEO Alfred Sloan told UAW President Walter Reuther, "No one is going to tell me what prices I can charge for my products." Sloan then offered Reuther a substantial wage increase for his members, which the union president accepted.

Over the next decade, it became standard for private-sector collective bargaining agreements to include a "management prerogatives" clause, which declared that any powers and rights not granted in writing to the union were assumed to be in the realm of unilateral management decision-making. Indeed, this became so common that courts ruled that contracts without any explicit language whatsoever were assumed to incorporate this notion of "management prerogatives."

Such court decisions often referenced the U.S. Constitution's protection of private property (that factories, machines, raw materials, etc., were the property of the employer), which held them back from instantiating similar "management rights" in public-sector workplaces. Accordingly, when public employees unionized on a large scale in the 1970s, most of their unions took private-sector collective bargaining practices as their template and ceded away their possible rights to insist that management bargain over workplace issues.

And by the way, there was no contract language in either the private or public sectors that required employers to share productivity gains with workers, as many have discovered in the past decade as productivity has increased, but pay has not.

The consequences of this intrinsic notion of "management prerogatives" have been monumental. Workers often join unions because they feel they are denied a voice about their jobs and their workplace or how their labor is put to use, and not just because they feel they are inadequately compensated for their labor. But in the regime of "management rights," despite contracts, collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they still have little voice about the details of their work or the nature of the products or services they provide.

When workers discover that the union cannot help them do their jobs better--that they are forced, day after day, month after month, year after year, to do less than their best--they become alienated and disenchanted, and they turn away from the union. As professional workers--teachers, nurses, social workers, scientists and the like--have constituted a more significant presence in the labor movement, this problem has become particularly telling.

These women and men have chosen their fields and invested years in education and training because they believe in what their services are supposed to deliver. As individuals they have little clout with management, but as members of a collectively organized union, they expect to have influence.

MNA's prioritization of patient/staffing and resistance to management's demand for the right to assign individual nurses to "float"--that is, to move from their specialty and job assignment into some other department--is an explicit challenge to "management prerogatives." Nurses are claiming the right to a voice in how their labor is used, and they are seeking clear numbers and explicit contract language to protect that voice.

Without those protections, on the job, they know that they will find themselves at the whim of individual supervisors, who are themselves under the pressures of a bureaucracy which insists on cutting costs and making more money for the hospital, the insurance companies, the executives and the investors who have underwritten loans or bought stocks in these health industry enterprises. Thus, it is MNA, the union, which will support the nurses in using their education and training to do their best work.

MNA has explained that it has pursued this agenda in order to put patients before profits, thereby improving the quality of care. In doing so, they have sought to connect the nurses with the very people--patients, prospective patients, the families of patients--who are dependent upon the quality of that service, that professional care.

From the UAW's decision in 1946 to let GM raise the price of cars, to the New York City teachers' union opposition to a parental voice in their schools in the late 1960s, in a pattern repeated again and again, unions have not sought to make substantial mutual relationships with the people who depend on the products and services that their members provide. This has, of course, made it easy for management, politicians and the media to depict union behavior as on a spectrum from "self-interested" to "greedy."

Meanwhile, consumers of products and recipients of services have needed someone, some organization, some body of people, to defend their interests. The MNA's emphasis on patient care should awaken other unions to the value of connecting with those women and men who depend on their members' work--of recognizing that their "organized" status gives them an opportunity to act upon their shared interests, to stand up for those who need them.

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OVER THE past 35 years or so, unions have also lost their internal fabric, their cohesiveness, within local organizations and between local and national organizations.

Later this summer, Minnesotans will mark the 25th anniversary of the Hormel strike, one of the most important labor conflicts of the last quarter of the 20th century. It was a conflict that was decided, ultimately, when the national union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, indicated to the company that they would not support the local, Local P-9, and when about one-third of the local union's members decided to cross their own picket line and return to work.

While this situation had such drama that it gave birth to an Academy Award-winning documentary film (American Dream, 1991), it also led labor folksinger Anne Feeney to warn "United We Bargain, Divided We Beg."

From turnout at union meetings and participation in union elections to volunteering for phone banking, door knocking and the other nuts and bolts of union life, as unions have declined, so has membership involvement in those unions which persist. Frankly, most unions are a house of cards that could be blown over by a management cadre willing to risk the bad press to do so.

But MNA has found--or, more accurately, adopted--an internal communications vehicle that has transformed the inner life of the union: Facebook! Like many unions, MNA now has a cohort of members who are young enough to be computer-savvy, but also old enough to have family responsibilities that make attendance at frequent meetings difficult.

They are educated enough to be confident not only in their ideas, but also in their ability to articulate those ideas in writing. They are willing to let others--management, union officers and staff, fellow nurses, the general public--read their ideas.

Unlike any union's predominantly hierarchical internal structures (members/stewards/building leaders/bargaining committee members/staff/elected officers), unlike the constraints of a union meeting's efforts to regulate discussions and debates through Robert's Rules of Order ("Do I hear a second for that motion?"), MNA has used Facebook to create a horizontal field in which every participant is equal to every other.

An estimated 10,000 of MNA's 12,000 members have connected via Facebook, while some 1,500 have made use of the "page" as a place to voice not only their ideas, but also their hopes and fears, their anger, their questions and doubts, and, yes, even their criticisms of their own union.

Even though outsiders, including hospital management, can read the postings, MNA and its members continue their open discussions, exchanges and debates on Facebook. No wonder these nurses feel that their union has helped them to find their voice(s). Other unions might wisely explore new internal communications vehicles for their members, without trying to control or censor them.

It is also no small thing that their relatively new national union, National Nurses United (NNU), has been an unwavering and creative supporter of their efforts. Previous efforts to create a national nurses' union--the American Nurses Association, founded more than a century ago; the United American Nurses, founded in the late 1990s by the AFL-CIO--foundered for a variety of reasons.

The health care industry has changed in the last decade, with powerful national players such as insurance companies and HMOs, with changes in government involvement from Medicare and Medicaid to the new health care reform legislation of the past year, and nurses across the country have realized their need for a powerful national voice. The economic winds blowing through one industry after another in the past three decades have placed autoworkers, textile workers, communications workers and more in competition with each other, spawning what some commentators have called "a race to the bottom."

More and more nurses know that they need an effective collective voice to fend off such economic winds, but they also value, as they always have, their ability to shape their policies and practices at a local level. The new NNU seems to respect this local authority, even as it offers experience, ideas, solidarity and resources. In the relationship between MNA and NNU other unions might find models for rethinking their own efforts to connect the local and the national in ways that empower and invigorate rather than hamstring and hinder.

To be sure, not all of the factors that have weakened unions in the past 35 years are in the power of unions alone to address. Indeed, even with its creativity and internal life, MNA is not assured of winning major gains at the bargaining table in 2010. But, MNA has offered a prescription for union revitalization that other unions would be foolish to ignore.