UW hospital nurses fight for union security

November 18, 2015

UW's medical center wants nurses, but no nurses' union, explains Steve Leigh.

MORE THAN 50 members and supporters of the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA) picketed the office of University of Washington Labor Relations on November 12 to back up their negotiators. Registered nurses who work at the University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC) have been without a contract since July 1.

Some takeaway proposals by management have been fended off, but several issues remain on the table. WSNA members are paid between 5 and 10 percent below other hospital nurses in the Seattle area. This results in higher-than-usual turnover. "Raising wages would help management, too," said one nurse. "They should want to have a stable staff."

Staffing levels are another key issue. "Everyone is dedicated to providing the best service possible to our patients, but having to cover so many patients stresses nurses out and makes mistakes more likely," said the nurse. As the WSNA website says, "Management continues to resist the inclusion of any contract language which creates enforceable safe staffing."

Nurses at the University of Washington Medical Center rally for a fair contract
Nurses at the University of Washington Medical Center rally for a fair contract

In addition to benefits, a major concern for nurses is the issue of union security. Right now, the nurses don't have a union shop. This means the union is required to bargain for and defend all nurses in grievances, but those nurses aren't required to join the union. The WSNA is seeking "agency shop" or "fair share," in which all covered nurses would eventually have to pay at least partial dues to support the association.

The WSNA has even put forward a compromise--only newly hired nurses would have to pay an agency fee. Over time, more and more nurses would decide to join the union or pay a fee, resulting in a stronger union.

As one nurse said, "Management is resisting even granting demands that wouldn't cost them anything, like union security."

Though management would not have to pay directly for this, it resists union security because it opposes a stronger union. Managers know that if the WSNA has more numbers and more active involvement, it will be in a better position to win other gains.

UWMC management is so opposed to union security that it rejected a WSNA proposal to put agency shop to a vote of all covered nurses, whether union members or not.

This resistance to union security reflects a widespread and growing trend. Several previously strong union states in the Midwest have gone open shop recently--mislabeled "right to work" by proponents, or as unions call it, "right to work for less." Anti-union groups have taken a case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could end up outlawing agency shop for all public employees in the U.S. by next spring.

Since public employees are now unionized at five times the rate of private workers, this case could deal a major destructive blow to union power in general. The wages and conditions of unionized workers help set the standard for all workers, so all workers, whether union or not, have a stake in opposing this attack on unions.

The WSNA is fighting not just for its members, but for the health of patients and for increased pay and conditions for all workers. They deserve everyone's support.

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