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Federal Government Wed Nov 12 2008

Chicago Health Care and Card Check

Give him credit for connecting dots: Crain's Chicago Business crack health care reporter Mike Colias reports on the potential for an increase in union organizing in the health care industry in Chicago if President-Elect Obama delivers on his campaign promise of passing and signing the Employee Free Choice Act, or EFCA, which is referred to in shorthand as "card check." Colias:

Mr. Obama is co-sponsor of a bill that would require employers to recognize unions if a majority of employees sign "union-authorization" cards, eliminating the current secret-ballot process. The House passed the Employee Free Choice Act in 2007, but Senate Republicans blocked the bill. It faced a certain veto from President George W. Bush. ... Chicago hospitals appear ready for a battle regardless of whether the bill passes. After spending much of the last two years campaigning for labor-friendly Democrats, local union leaders say they'll quickly shift their focus to organizing. A sweeping labor-reform law would boost those efforts, they say.


Employers use the language of a "secret ballot" to portray themselves as defending their employees' rights, conveniently ignoring the fact that it is every single step up to the secret balloting that makes America's labor law regime outright hostile to private sector organizing. Currently, workers need to demonstrate a "showing of interest" by signing authorization or union cards (or a petition), file it with the National Labor Relations Board (which, since 1976, has been more or less dominated by conservative appointees, thus creating reams of hostile case law), and then the fun part starts: deciphering which employees are reasonably considered in the same collective bargaining unit, which specific employees can't be included, negotiating the place and nature of the election, etc. etc. All the while the employer is targeting and harassing union activists, and forbidding activists from campaigning for the union while they actively campaign against it -- basically, it would be a "fair secret ballot election" if you consider an election where only one side is allowed access to the voters, is allowed to campaign, and can fire voters who disagree with them as a "fair secret ballot election."

Colias' piece focuses on two organizing efforts in Chicagoland: that at Resurrection Health Care, where employees are working with AFSCME Council 31, and at Advocate Health Care, an effort led by the recently-reorganized SEIU Health Care local. Like much coverage of union organizing drives, there is a tendency to portray the union as a cougar, and the businesses being organized as gazelles in the herd. Are they weak enough to be "picked off?"

But, of course, that is not how it really is. While unions certainly make strategic decisions about where and how they spend resources, organizing drives, particularly in health care, are worker- and community-led. There is a direct correlation between the intensity of an employer's anti-union intimidation efforts and the "traction" workers and their community allies have in expressing their right to organize. The labor law regime, particularly after a series of terrible NLRB decisions in 2006, makes organizing a difficult uphill climb for health care workers in particular.

Service providers operate best not only when they are fairly compensated, but when they have a voice in workplace policy -- this is as true for nurses as it is for teachers or cops. With the flight of manufacturing jobs, service providers are the modern blue collar worker -- call them purple collar -- and raising their quality of life improves the health of working class communities. Resurrection Health Care and Advocate Health Care are two very large employers in Chicagoland, and they also provide critical services to communities, services which degrade in quality when direct-care providers are overworked and underresourced.

In the health care sector, organizing a union is as much about patient advocacy as it is about dignity and respect for workers. Every dollar spent on a nurse is a dollar spent on patient care; every dollar spent on executive compensation is a dollar wasted. Thus why nurses statewide continue to come together to advocate for themselves and their patients, as with the RN2RN network. The mission of these large nonprofit tax exempt organizations is not just about bottom lines, but about a commitment to the community--thus why community and religious groups so often get involved in trying to force corporations like Resurrection and Advocate to be good corporate neighbors.

Colias' piece quotes two representatives of the local health care industry:

"The hospitals here are a huge target," says Christopher Cimino, a Chicago-based labor consultant who works with hospitals. "They're worried."


Whenever you read "labor consultant" that is probably a person whose job description includes interfering with your right to organize a union, a right recognized by the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Ms. Kelly [of the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council] says many hospitals have improved staffing and benefits in recent years, a big reason unions have not made further inroads. "It's a high priority for our hospitals in Chicago to focus on a positive work environment," she says.


Cf., above, "interfere with your rights."

"Card check" would hardly be a panacea -- although given how obsessed Fox News, particularly Fred Barnes, has been with it since Election Day, you'd never know it -- but SEIU Healthcare Illinois-Indiana President Keith Kelleher is right when he says, in Colias' piece:

"It would...give more incentive for hospitals to work with labor."


It would certainly take away the currently very easy option of just intimidating union activists and force employers to agree to a mutually-agreed upon process that allows workers to make a free and informed choice.


Additional Media:

Resurrection Worker Shirley Brown at the AFL-CIO Debate for Democratic Contenders in 2007 (also note Joe Biden's insanely tin ear response to an emotional question!)

"Center for Union Facts," an anti-union corporate astroturf group, uses both 1950s era stereotypes AND offensive Italian stereotypes to fear-monger against card check. Funny ad, though.

Senator Barack Obama on EFCA.

Disclosure: I have worked both for SEIU in Illinois and AFSCME Council 31.

 
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