Health professionals want to unionize
The first thing most newly unionized health professionals will say when asked why they chose to join a union is that they want to improve patient care. Health workers want their hospitals to put patients before profits, and that desire is fueling a wave of union action in the industry. In the last two years, the American Federation of Teachers has welcomed more than 3,000 health professionals who have voted to join AFT healthcare affiliates across the country. This summer, health professionals from Connecticut, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington state joined the AFT’s ranks.
“Healthcare professionals across the country want a voice in their jobs, and they see that this comes with forming a union,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. Healthcare workers often face difficult conditions, such as understaffing and budget cuts as well as the effects of hospital consolidation and acute public health crises like the opioid epidemic or the Zika virus, Weingarten notes. “They see that union representation gives them a vehicle to advocate for respect, voice, and fair pay and benefits for themselves, and for better conditions for the patients they serve.”
‘Taking matters into our own hands’
Katherine Vaughan, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) in New Jersey is one of those workers. Vaughan is one of 125 health professionals who work at Sunrise House, an addiction treatment center in Lafayette Township, N.J., who voted to join Health Professionals and Allied Employees, an AFT affiliate, in June. Sunrise House is part of the national for-profit chain American Addiction Centers (AAC).
Although the staff at Sunrise House strived to provide the best of care, Vaughan and her colleagues noticed a change in the quality of care over the years. When AAC purchased the center in 2015, the staff hoped promises of increased staff and salary would make things better, but those promises were not kept. Even worse, in March 2016, the New Jersey Department of Human Services cited the AAC for 30 deficiencies at three locations; many were at Sunrise House. The deficiencies mirrored many of the staff concerns, including a failure to maintain staffing levels of licensed or certified counseling staff, lack of required staff training and lack of direct clinical supervision. “As nurses, we are obligated to advocate for the best possible care,” says Vaughan. “That’s why we wanted a union.”
“We tried to go the traditional route to address our problems, but things got to a place where we needed to take matters into our own hands,” says LPN Sheila Schicker, who has worked at Sunrise House for 10 years. “Being respected and having a voice in what affects patients and their families can only make Sunrise House better for everyone,” she says.
Fighting for the treatment we deserve
“Healthcare workers are choosing union representation now more than ever due to rampant understaffing. By working together in a union, we can create safer conditions for workers and patients,” says Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals executive president Dawnette McCloud.
Over the summer, a group of technical professionals with the PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, Wash., unionized in an effort to improve patient care and create a culture of stability and security for workers at their hospital. The PeaceHealth techs want to address several priorities through their new union, PeaceHealth Southwest Caregivers United. They are most concerned about worsening conditions like short staffing and lack of access to educational opportunities. Over the years, there have been cuts to technical professional staff, which has made providing high-quality patient care much more difficult. In addition, benefits such as paid leave and health insurance have been cut.
Eric Quinn, a CT tech at the hospital, says voting for the union is a chance to turn things around at the hospital. “I saw potential for real change, for us to have a voice,” he says. “I work hard. I want to do my job and not have to worry about staffing levels. My motivation is to have a stable, safe working environment.”
The techs also chose the AFT because there is strength in numbers. “The nurses and techs together make us stronger,” says Ali Shaw, a respiratory therapist who has worked for seven years at PHSW. Quinn agrees: “A win presents a united front of all hospital employees.”
Kemauli Brown, a medical assistant at Community Health Services in Hartford, Conn., also liked the idea of having a stronger voice to address issues with patient care. His union, CHS United, represents medical and dental assistants. They voted in June to unionize and affiliate with AFT Connecticut, the largest union of acute care hospital workers in the state. Doctors and registered nurses at CHS-Hartford are already represented by AFT Connecticut. “Unionizing is important not only because it will make all of the healthcare professionals at CHS closer as a group, but we will have a larger voice that can be heard,” says Brown.
“Now that we are one, we will be able to fight for the treatment that we deserve.”
“Our priority has always been to protect our ability to provide high-quality care to this community,” says Dr. David Schwartz. He is part of a group of hospitalists at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield, Ore., who voted overwhelmingly to join the AFT in October 2014.
The Pacific Northwest Hospital Medicine Association is the first group of doctors who work exclusively in a hospital (hospitalists) to be represented by the AFT. The doctors union reached an agreement on its first contract with PeaceHealth management in June 2016. The agreement is a huge gain for PeaceHealth doctors and sets a strong precedent for a positive working relationship between labor and management.
“I believe that this contract gives our members a voice, not only as doctors, but as advocates and decision-makers for our patients,” says Schwartz.