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California Nurses Go it Alone Strategy Reaps What it Sows

New Orleans   In the alphabet soup of labor, the National Federation of Nurses with 34,000 members in Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Ohio, announced that they were merging with the American Federation of Teachers, coupling the AFT’s 48,000 nurses to bring that union up to 82,000 nurses.  They said they wanted to go to a union that “grows by organizing” which is usually not the way anyone thinks of the AFT.  The Service Employees (SEIU) wisely was “no comment” about the merger with their 90,000 nurses, but the National Nurses’ Union (NNU) with 185,000 nurses, largely powered by the 100,000+ branch in California called the California Nurses’ Association (CNA), as has become its habit could not refrain from trashing out this new labor marriage.

As usual, Steven Greenhouse of the Times had no trouble helping NNU read their usual prescription of putting their foot firmly down throat before looking at the situation by gratuitously harkening back to the long settled “trades” versus “industrial” union perspective as applied to healthcare and their status as the elite group with hospitals.  And, as usual they took a shot at another union, this time the AFT, just to prove that their commitment to going solo still trumps any notion of solidarity ever.

Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United, did not hide her union’s disappointment. “We believe that nurses and patients are better served when nurses are in a union that understands nurses and just serves nurses,” Ms. Ross said. “The American Federation of Teachers, considering what has gone on with attacks on public sector unions, has a lot going on without adding the issues that we nurses face.”

So, why did the Nurses’ Federation, obviously a labor organization that was all about nurses as well not understand fully the NNU, nurses only and forever siren song?  Well, there is the matter of the growing and legendary reputation of the NNU to grow by raiding other unions, first and foremost, and even NNU had to admit that the little matter of having raided 35,000 members from the Federation in New York and effectively chopping that union in half might have stuck in the Nurses’ Federation’s craw somewhat deeply.

Ms. Ross acknowledged that there was “bad blood” between her union and the National Federation of Nurses over membership. And Ms. Crane, head of the federation of nurses, said her union preferred joining with a union that grew by organizing, rather than raiding, or trying to win away, nurses that had already joined other unions — a slap at National Nurses United.

If your modus operandi is going to be raiding nurses and spitting in the eye of other unions, then it seems odd that NNU would be surprised when they are not feeling the love from their sisters and some brothers in other unions.  Certainly they have never minded partnering with other unions to help raid while building in California, notably the Steelworkers of all folks, whose alliance with nurses seemed anything but natural.  More recently, they abandoned a “peace” agreement they had for three years with SEIU which had been triggered by blowing up a series of hospital organizing drives in Ohio initiated by SEIU, so that they could finance a partnership with an independent, break off group from SEIU to try and expand their weight within the Kaiser healthcare network in California facing a re-run decertification election on more than 40,000 workers later this year.  The price for that deal was giving the challenging union the benefit of the CAN contract access to Kaiser facilities to campaign, and without doubt in exchange they would be guaranteed all Kaiser nurses in the future.  The fact that their spat in Ohio and now in California with SEIU were both connected to the same leader should also not go unnoticed.

Meanwhile the majority of nurses are not members of unions.  The AFT has no particular strategy that would change that fact, regardless of its new partnership with the Nurses’ Federation, but neither does NNU.   Eventually NNU’s strategy of divisiveness will run its course and they will either have raided or alienated most of the nurses in other unions, and then they will face the same problem of organizing the unorganized which will then be inescapable regardless of the badmouthing and go-solo rapping, so what then?  It seems undeniable that until the NNU strategy changes, rather than being the leader in labor that they might be and should be, the union will continue to reap what it sows in bitterness, strife and division, helping employers in healthcare throughout the country and leaving the majority of nurses, despite the NNU rhetoric, without representation and power on the job.