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Employee unions are comprised of employees who act together to promote and protect their mutual interests. They do so through a collective bargaining process which involves negotiating and administering written agreements between union and administrative officials.
Central Service employees in some healthcare facilities are unionized, and then human resources practices must comply with applicable labor contract terms. As well, Central Service managers must work with other top-level facility officials to negotiate and administer the agreement, and much time may be spent in assuring compliance with it.
In this first of a two-part series on managing unionized employees, we’ll explore reasons why some employees want to join a union, provide a brief history of unions, and discuss basics of the unionization process.
There are several common reasons why employees may want to join a union. Sometimes employees perceive that their employer shows disrespect, disciplines them unjustly, and/or does not correct problems in a reasonable or consistent manner. In other cases, workers believe (rightly or wrongly) that their compensation is unfair, and that union affiliation will address this concern. Others believe that a union will help them gain promotions, preferable days off, overtime, or even job security based on their seniority.
Unions can increase the bargaining power of their members because unified demands on the healthcare facility become possible. Unions also allow members to communicate and interact with higher-level managers in unique ways. For example, a grievance process is spelled out in the union contract that formalizes communication procedures which specify how managers will interact with employees if problems arise.
More control over work rules and greater job security are additional factors that some employees believe are better addressed with union affiliation. Still other employees join unions because of peer influences and/or “union shop” provisions of some union contracts: if all employees in a department are unionized, new employees in covered positions will be required to join the union and pay dues to it.
When employees are represented by a union, Central Service managers can no longer make unilateral decisions, and those that are made will be applicable to all (rather than to specific) union employees. All staff members must be treated equally if they are in the same (or similar) positions regardless of their knowledge, experience, or skills. Frequently, seniority (the status of employees based upon their length of employment with an organization) becomes the most important factor in many personnel decisions.
Unions do not generally attempt to organize small organizations with relatively few employees. Also, some employees are disinterested in unions because of:
There may be some facility benefits to unionization. Central Service managers will likely develop and/or improve policies or procedures which affect relationships with union employees, and these personnel management tools will benefit the facility. They will deal with one representative of unionized employees rather than individual staff members. Also, when top-level administrators recover some decision-making responsibilities that were delegated to supervisors, the centralized decision-making that results may also benefit the facility. Brief History of Unions
The historical purpose of labor legislation has been to maintain a balance of power between labor and management. Until the 1930’s, unions were discouraged by court rulings because of concerns that employee groups interfered with the right of employers to run their businesses as they desired. Most employees were hired with the understanding that they would not join unions or engage in union activities.
During the Great Depression (1929 throughout most of the 1930s), many politicians began to believe that poor treatment of workers was a significant factor that contributed to the nation’s economic woes. The National Labor Relations Act (1935), also called the Wagner Act, prompted the growth of unions. Employees were allowed to affiliate with unions, union activities could be promoted, and union agreement violations could be reported without reprisal. Also, employers had to undertake good faith collective bargaining about three issues: wages, hours, and employment terms and conditions.
The Taft-Hartley Act (1947) removed some of the power given to unions by the earlier Act. Several unfair labor practices were identified, and unions could, for example, no longer:
A local union is typically affiliated with a national-level union. It can represent all unionized healthcare employees performing specific functions in a single community, or it may only represent members within a specific facility. The union with which Central Service workers affiliate typically also represents other hospital employees as well. Local unions elect officers by a democratic vote of its members.
Full-time union officers are generally only found in large unions. Small employee unions have a president whose responsibilities may include part-time union duties. Union members elect union stewards who represent the unionized employees within a department. Both the president and union stewards hold full-time jobs with the facility and are paid by it. They typically use both job-related and their own time for union activities. Local union officials have numerous responsibilities including negotiating labor contracts, filing grievances, assuring that the bargaining agreement is complied with, and calling for work actions (such as strikes), if necessary.
Some unions have regional organizations that coordinate their affiliated local unions. They establish basic policies, provide necessary services, collect information, and administer strike and retirement funds. These organizations may employ staff specialists such as attorneys and others who carry on key responsibilities.
Central Service employees become unionized as the result of a several-step process:
What should (can) Central Service managers do during a union organizing drive?
Personnel from the facility’s Human Resources Department will be involved in the unionization process. Central Service managers should take direction from them and keep them informed about all union organizing activities.
Many labor agreements contain union security arrangements designed to attract and retain union members who pay dues. Under the most stringent arrangement (union shop), all employees hired for unionized positions must join the union or quit their jobs after a specified probationary period. However, approximately twenty states have right to work laws that generally do not permit union agreements in which employees are required to join or pay dues to a union. An “agency shop” arrangement requires non-union employees to pay the union the equivalent of applicable fees and dues as a condition of continuing employment. The union then represents all employees regardless of membership. The least desirable security arrangement (from the unions’ perspective) is the open shop: union membership is voluntary, and those who do not join are not required to pay dues or fees.
In the second part of this two-part series, we’ll discuss the collective bargaining process and contract administration details.
This column was written by Jack Ninemeier, Ph.D, CHA of the Eli Broad Graduate School of Management at Michigan State University. Dr. Ninemeier is the editor of Central Service Technical Manual (5th Edition), Supervision Principles: Leadership Strategies for Healthcare Facilities (2nd Edition), and Material Management and the Healthcare Industry, all published by IAHCSMM.
Susan Klacik, ACE, CHL, CRCST, FCS