Unions Head To The Top Of The Healthcare Food Chain

by | Mar 2, 2023 | Bargaining/Negotiations, Healthcare, SEIU, Strikes, Unions

The healthcare industry’s union contagion continues to fuel the chaos that unions crave. It’s a field where resulting strikes, and even threats of strikes, often quickly bring about raises for workers, as Beckers Hospital Review recently detailed. Unions must be thrilled to reap more dues after landing a new contract with Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center for 40% wage boosts over four years. Likewise, a group of Pennsylvania registered nurses will receive 30% raises through their new contract.

Understandably, hospital systems remain keen to avoid those disruptive strikes, which lead to detrimental effects far and wide including scheduling dust-ups, diverted ambulances, and lost revenue. However, not all healthcare strikes lead to substantially boosted wages or any meaningful change at all, as we will soon discuss below.

First, a physician checkup. Last week, we followed up on the trend of doctors starting to unionize and noted how that trend is growing. Things further heat up this week, and this news feels like a sign of the times. Not only is the medical profession still strapped by pandemic effects, which worsened existing staffing shortages, but traditionally long work weeks have only grown longer for residents at hospitals.

Therein lies a key reason why doctors-in-training are vulnerable to union infiltration by default. They’re awash in the pressure-cooker hospital environment rather than working in private practice like many seasoned physicians. Residents lock into commitments with one hospital system, and unions gleefully promise to make their situations better.

It’s no wonder that Penn Medicine residents recently cited 80-hour workweeks and grueling conditions for their wish to become the first group of doctors to join a union in Pennsylvania. Let’s catch up on that story and more:

  • Those 1,500 Penn Medicine residents could set a precedent for organizing at the top of the healthcare pyramid. Yet the status of these doctors-still-in-training appears to mean everything. Residents and fellows carry specific workplace considerations while being bound to one facility, and that surely makes the decision to organize easier, given that they feel undervalued and underpaid without being compensated for extra shifts. One can only expect unions to pounce upon residents during high-pressure training time to reap their dues.

And although seasoned physicians have been trying to organize elsewhere, it remains unclear whether they can do so in large numbers like residents and fellows are increasingly trying to do. Not only do many doctors lead their own practice or independently contract with hospitals, but antitrust laws could also prevent them from organizing. Yet for residents, organizing news keeps coming…

  • 1,200 residents at the Montefiore Medical Center (a sizable teaching hospital) in the Bronx joined theCommittee of Interns and Residents (CIR/SEIU). 300+ residents and interns at University of Buffalo launched a union drive, too.

Will those residents ultimately be satisfied with their representation, though? 

Unions make big promises and often fail to deliver results. We’ve recently seen this happen in higher education and with Starbucks baristas, and some hospital workers have been feeling that same pain, too, while returning to work without settling core grievances. This raises the possibility of future repeat strikes, and on that note, we’ll begin a strike roundup while wondering what went wrong with Kaiser negotiations:

  • Hawaii: Kaiser mental health care workers went back to work after 172 days on the picket lines. This easily qualifies as the longest mental healthcare strike in U.S. history, and workers went on record to declare that their new contract is “better than what Kaiser was offering” but “still not enough.” Their main takeaway from the long strike will be 3% wage boosts in 2023 and 2024 along with 2% in 2025. That already feels standard for an annual raise, and one wonders whether those slight raises make up for all that time off the job.

In addition, one of the key Kaiser therapist demands – more manageable patient-therapist ratios – apparently failed to find a solution via contract. That disappointment, however, has not deterred 500 Maui County hospital workers, from nurses aides to housekeepers, who recently rejected a contract. They also went on strike while pointing towards the Kaiser workers as inspiration.

  • New York: 800 nurses voiced their intent to strike on February 27, although a last minute tentative dealappears to have quelled that threat for now.
  • California: Nurses in Ventura County rallied over safety issues and staffing shortages. And UCLA nurses declared their intent to rally this week to protest overcrowding in hospitals that leads to patients overflowing into hallway beds.
  • Texas: 600 Austin-area nurses gathered at the state capitol at the behest of National Nurses United to push for legislative and policy changes on issues of staffing shortages and burnout.

No lack of progress will seemingly deter union activity in the healthcare workplace, however. Case in point:900 University of Michigan and Michigan Medicine workers voted to join and establish the United Michigan Medicine Allied Professionals union, mainly made up of diagnostic technologists who support physician assistants.

Last but definitely not least: The labor laboratory of California happens to now be ground central for a proposed bill that would allow home health care workers to bargain directly with the state for higher wages and improved working conditions. That’s more proof that those fast times for fast food workers are spreading to other industries.

INK Newsletter