Why the pandemic has energized hospital unions
COVID-19 is strengthening the hand of unions looking to organize more healthcare workers.
During the pandemic, unions representing nurses and other front-line medical staffers have stepped forward to advocate aggressively on behalf of their members. They’ve called attention to shortages of personal protective equipment and staffing ratios that they say endanger both workers and patients. In some cases, they’ve won paid sick leave and hazard pay—and nonunion workers are watching.
“People who have not been part of organizing campaigns and never were part of a union are upset about the issues at their workplaces—issues related to COVID and how their administrations have handled it,” says Dennis Kosuth, a registered nurse at Cook County Health’s Provident Hospital and a member of National Nurses United.
With the coronavirus raising new safety and health concerns, unions are gearing up for a big organizing push. Such efforts come as hospitals and health systems navigate dwindling patient volumes, higher operating costs and lower revenues. Successful campaigns, and even concessions employers might make to fend off unionization, could put more pressure on hospitals’ bottom lines.
Kosuth says he’s been in touch with dozens of workers who’ve expressed an interest in organizing. He also recently participated in a National Nurses United call with around 20 nonunion nurses from three Chicago-area hospitals to provide more information on the process.
National Nurses United declines to say where the nonunion nurses work. “As soon as we name that institution,” spokeswoman Jessica Fujan says, “they start a lengthy and oftentimes costly series of activities that almost certainly lead to the termination of employees fighting for better conditions for their colleagues.”
The Illinois Nurses Association and Service Employees International Union Healthcare say they, too, have seen interest from nonunion workers increase as a result of the pandemic, citing more calls and social media inquiries.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has jump-started an existing SEIU organizing campaign at the University of Chicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial Hospital, where clinical associates and other hourly workers want hazard pay and lower clinician-to-patient ratios. The number of workers who’ve indicated they plan to join the union is up more than 60% since February, SEIU says, noting that an “overwhelming majority” of the unit’s 350 workers have signed union cards. A formal vote on unionization is scheduled for later this month.
University of Chicago Medicine declines to comment on the union push.
Other SEIU efforts that started before the pandemic, including campaigns at Advocate Christ Medical Center, Holy Cross Hospital and Norwegian American Hospital, also are gaining momentum in the wake of COVID-19, says Kim Smith. The patient care technician at Northwestern Medicine and union steward is helping workers at the other facilities organize.
“We’ve all felt this pandemic upfront and personal,” Smith says of fellow hospital support staffers, including transportation and housekeeping workers.
Livable wages and affordable healthcare, she says, “are things we’ve been fighting for, and it took the country going into a crisis—where people were being infected with a virus (for which) there’s still no cure—for our governor and everyone to say we are essential workers.”
Holy Cross and Advocate Christ say they’re not aware of union organizing efforts. Norwegian American declines to comment.
“We respect the rights of our team members to decide for themselves whether they want to be represented by a labor union,” a representative for Advocate Christ says in an emailed statement. “At the same time, we greatly value our direct relationship with our team members, which is key to providing a collaborative work environment and one that delivers the best outcomes for patients.”
Medical professionals on the front line have an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. More than 9,500 healthcare workers across Illinois have been infected and more than 60 have died, according to the state.
“Stories of healthcare providers who’ve gotten sick from the virus and died, those kinds of stories will probably strengthen the spine of workers who might have been on the fence” about organizing, says Robert Bruno, director of the labor studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Now, as conditions begin to improve—and particularly when the industry gets billions of dollars in subsidies from the federal government—it’s going to be harder to say you don’t want to sign a union contract. . . .That’s a strong environment for labor to be organizing in, and labor is aware of that.”
SEIU Healthcare Illinois President Greg Kelley attributes the increased interest from nonunion workers partly to SEIU’s high-profile win for nursing home caregivers last month. About 6,000 workers at 64 facilities called off a planned strike after reaching a tentative agreement with employers for higher base pay, hazard pay, adequate personal protective equipment and paid sick days related to COVID-19.
Now the hospital industry is closely watching negotiations between Amita St. Joseph Medical Center and the Illinois Nurses Association, which represents about 720 nurses at the Joliet hospital. The nurses late last month voted to authorize a strike if they’re unable to agree on a new contract with the hospital. Among their demands is retaining up to 12 weeks of sick pay at “a crucial period of time for front line health care workers at heightened risk of COVID-19 infections,” the union said in a statement last month.
Amita Health did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, employers could end up spending millions of dollars to fend off organizing efforts, Bruno says. Even proactively meeting workers’ demands for hazard pay and sick leave, among other things, could cost them.
“Like almost all other U.S. businesses, health care employers have difficult decisions ahead and will necessarily need to pursue savings and efficiencies” due to losses from suspending nonemergency surgeries and other financial pressures, says William Schurgin, an attorney at Seyfarth Shaw who represents employers. “Hopefully health care unions will recognize these challenges and partner with health care employers to find mutually acceptable solutions.”