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.

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Gunning for the Teachers and Their Unions

map of union strength according to Thomas Fordham Institute

New Orleans   Even as all of us hit the dawn patrol to vote and get out the vote on the US-Election Day, it is sobering to see that the rightwing forces are amassing at the border, regardless of the outcome today, in order to carry the fight into state legislatures around critical issues, like education, primarily by targeting unions.  I downloaded the 400-page report (mostly charts) produced by the Thomas Fordham Institute and funded and assisted by various conservative outfits which sought to measure the variable strength of teachers’ unions in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The Institute claimed that its purpose was to get to the heart of whether or not unions were really the obstacles to education reform in states and districts around the country.  They claimed the report was data-driven along more than 30 categories of comparison.  Truthfully as frightening as it was to behold, it was also compelling in its comprehensive inspection of education based unions.  The Institute’s conclusions were mundane, though interestingly they were probably surprised to find such a weak correlation between union strength state-to-state and the progress or lack of it on their criteria for educational reform.  They figured out that collective bargaining laws are important as is the right to strike, and that money and resources make huge differences.  They also found that on the state level outsiders thought unions were significant in the educational reform debate in 20 states, but only the key player in two states.  Like I said, there were occasional pearls to be found in this pig pen.

What was most fascinating to me about this entire avalanche of “data” was the way education, which has always been the most local of all political and community institutions, has now almost totally become a battleground at the state level.  Certainly, the way my own state of Louisiana totally usurped the local elected school board is a daily insult here, but this is also the legacy of the Bush II program of leaving children behind and empowering the states to determine how to lower the boom on school systems.  Looking at unions, it seems where unions have understood their fights to be at the legislatures rather than local school board; they have been at significant advantages in dealing with this devolution of resources and power.

Hawaii is an excellent example where this is a statewide union (NEA) with a statewide collective bargaining agreement, rather than a local one, is the strongest because clearly they are always “bargaining” with the state legislature.   Florida’s weakness was a surprise but spoke to the same phenomena.  Florida is rare in the South because there is a collective bargaining law with mandatory provisions, including checkoff, and there is an enormous union there because of the effective merger of AFT and NEA in that state.

It reveals starkly that part of the issue that underlies the Fordham numbers is the residue of fundamentally different organizing strategies by the NEA and the AFT, which have ironically left them – and us – in this perilous situation.   AFT for decades successfully ran an organizing program based on only working in cities with school districts which were large enough that they employed at least 200 to 250 teachers, which they thought sufficient to support a “stand alone” local union in that district.   NEA on the other had organized teachers in districts regardless of their size and had often emerged into collective bargaining after decades as a statewide, lobbying-based, professional association of teachers and sometimes, as in the Southern states, a batch of principals, administrators, and random educational personnel.

The Fordham Institute was clearly perplexed why you would have strong union involve at the state level in places like Alabama in the South, Montana and North Dakota in the West, Washington on the Pacific Coast where NEA also dominates, and obviously Hawaii.  They want to see one clear pattern based on the kind of urban wars where the battle cries have been the loudest in places like New York City, Washington DC, and Chicago.  Unfortunately for them and maybe for the rest of us, none of this is simple, because the union strength may be most noticeable in the urban areas where AFT has been strongest, but the fights have shifted to the states where NEA is in the best position to protect its members even though they might in other ways seem relatively weaker.

Both were great organizing strategies and build unions for teachers with millions of members in one of the greatest organizing successes of our generations, but politically, unless there is a way to play catch-up and reconcile the interests and objectives of both the cities and the unions, it leaves us poorly positioned to defend against the frontal assault coming at the state level and in the legislatures in place after place.

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