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Get Ready for Big Labor's Big Push

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, January 26, 2009

The election of President Barack Obama and the power shift in Congress towards Democrats means that organized labor will have new friends in high places. That, coupled with Americans' anxiety over the state of the economy and their own threatened job security, could usher in a new expansion for organized labor, with union membership potentially growing by the millions across all industrial sectors—including healthcare.

Jim Trivisonno, president of Detroit-based IRI Consultants, says executives at hospitals—where thousands of employees perform high-stress jobs that can't be outsourced—should understand that as one of the nation's few growth industries they'll be the targets of an intense union membership drive over the coming months and years. "This is a severe economic downturn. There is some real concern across the country about job security and losing benefits," Trivisonno says. "Healthcare in that respect is no exception. The unions can certainly leverage that anxiety for signing union pledges."

The Employee Free Choice Act, up for debate in Congress this year, is expected to be an early test of the newfound power of organized labor after eight years in the wilderness under the Bush administration. The bill was co-sponsored last year by then-U.S. Sen. Obama, D-IL. Defeating the so-called "check card" bill is also the highest legislative priority of business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Obama administration has also nominated pro-labor U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, D-CA, as labor secretary. That nomination is expected to go through, despite Republican opposition. And, Obama will nominate three people to fill now-vacant seats on the five-member National Labor Relations Board, which oversees and interprets the thousands of laws and regulations that bind unions and employers.

With the ground clearly shifting toward organized labor, Trivisonno says hospitals should take the time now—if they haven't already—to determine whether or not they are vulnerable to a union drive. "In its simplest term, maintaining a union-free environment is something called 'good management.'" he says. "Unions usually don't exist unless management has made a mistake and they've gone off course somehow. Workers rarely organize or vote for a union because of wages or benefits. It's usually management treatment, and employee involvement and engagement."

In other words, if you've got a union knocking on the door, it may be your fault.

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