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Healthcare Unions Steam Ahead in 2009

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, November 2, 2009

Healthcare unions aren't initiating as many organizing elections now as they have in recent years, but a new study shows that when organized labor picks a target, they usually win.

The latest Semi-Annual Labor Activity in Health Care Report found that unions won 75% of representation elections held in healthcare in the first six months of 2009.

"That tells me the unions are getting more efficient and adept at organizing. They are laying the groundwork and making sure they have a winner," says James G. Trivisonno, president of IRI Consultants, which compiled the report for the American Society for Healthcare Human Resources Administration.

"Every day the union has people coming to their door saying they are upset about something at their employer. The union has to separate the wheat from the chaff," he says. "It's an investment of between $2,000 and $3,000 per worker to organize, so they look for vulnerabilities and they look for emotional issues. Oftentimes pay and benefits don't generate that emotion. It's things like management treatment, communication, engagement, some kind of triggering incident. Sometimes it's race, or a safety and security beef. All of that is full of emotion and they are tough to deal with once you get that monkey on your back."

Trivisonno's report finds that 10 states accounted for 84% of all organizing petition drives in the first six months of the year, with California, New York, Massachusetts, and Michigan in the vanguard, and all of those states have large concentrations of healthcare employees.

"Traditionally right-to-work states have had less to be worried about," he says. "Though in the past Texas and Florida had little to be worried about but if you look at the last few years they have become targets."

Unions' success is not relegated only to the healthcare sector. The prolonged and deep recession is being blamed—or credited—with union growth across a broad swath of industrial sectors, according to the IRI report.

Trivisonno notes that organized labor in all industrial sectors won 65% of their organizing elections in the first six months of 2009.

"Non-healthcare union elections typically hover at around 50% and now they're at 65%," Trivisonno says. "In fact, last year, as a percentage of the total workforce, union density increased. They've actually added net numbers. That hasn't happened since the 1950s."

Now, as the nation appears, at least on paper, to be emerging from the deepest recession since the 1930s, Trivisonno says history shows that unions are poised to make even greater gains.

"The thing that we have seen in recessions is that people are willing to bite the bullet on the way down, accept benefits changes, etc., but once the economy bottoms out and starts coming back employees say, 'I was with you on the way down. Now I want mine back,'" Trivisonno says.

"The problem is that most organizations will wait as they are coming back on the other side for sustained evidence of growth before they will provide pay increases or add benefits. When the economy bottoms out, and the recession ends is when the greatest amount of union organizing occurs."

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