To Unionize or Not to Unionize: That is the Question

  1. Over 170,00 nurses in the United States belong to a labor union. However, the debate about the benefits and negatives of unionizing wages strong. Find out about the current discussion at Johns Hopkins and the pros and cons of joining a union.

    To Unionize or Not to Unionize: That is the Question

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10.7% of all wage and salary workers in the U.S. were members of a union in 2017. UNIONFACTS.com reports that there are over 170,00 nurses in the country who belong to a labor union. This number has been steadily rising since 2011. The increase in union membership may surprise you. Some nursing and healthcare unions have pushed to increase membership even more over the past few years.

    The Union Debate at Johns Hopkins

    Nurses at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore have been in the midst of the union debate. A recent article in the Baltimore Business Journal reported that many of the supporters of the union had criticized the hospital for high turnover rates, low pay, inadequate staffing, and adverse effects on patient care. There have been reports that the hospital has prevented union supporters from discussing organizing in some hospital settings or unions.

    This might all seem like typical union banter. However, there's more to the story. The article goes on to report about another group of nurses, known as "Stand With Hopkins." These nurses don't feel that Hopkins is in need of a union. They feel that the union rhetoric could be hurting the reputation of their employer and that they need to be told the positives and negatives of unionizing along with any possible alternatives. One member of the "Stand with Hopkins" said that if the union is the best option, they are okay with it. The group says they only want to ensure that all possibilities are explored so that nurses can make an informed decision.

    The real question here is this - If you were in this situation, would you know how to vote? Do you understand the pros and cons of joining a nurses union? Here are a few things to consider.

    What is a Union?

    A labor union is an organized group of workers who come together to make decisions about factors affecting their work. Unions function to bring economic justice to the workplace by advocating on the workers' behalfs on issues such as benefits, working conditions, hours, and wages.

    There isn't just one union that represents nurses across the nation. However several unions represent nurses and other healthcare workers.

    Understanding the Pros of a Nurse Union

    Job Security
    If you're not in a union, you're probably an "at-will employee." This just means that you can be fired for any reason at any time. Employers can also make changes to your benefits and wages without notice. However, when you are in a union, the contract is binding, and it protects you from being terminated without cause. Many unions also negotiate guaranteed pay raises with each new contract.

    Guaranteed Representation
    Another benefit of being in a union is that if you are given disciplinary action or are in breach of your contract, you won't go to any meetings with supervisors alone. The same is true if you were to ever file a grievance against your employer.

    Better Pay
    Unions put forth much effort to fight for higher salaries. This is especially true under circumstances such as being understaffed or working in less than favorable conditions. While it's difficult to say just how much more you might make if you belong to a union, some sources report that union nurses make up to an extra $400 a week.

    Improved Working Conditions
    Unions represent the best interest of their members. As a nurse, this might mean improved safety protocols, access to needed equipment, and better nurse-to-patient staffing ratios.

    Understanding the Cons of a Nurse Union

    Risks to Your Job
    Many employers don't like unions and will do anything they can to keep their nurses from joining. While this isn't legal - it is the reality in some places. If a union calls for a strike, you might find yourself without a job, because if another nurse is willing to cross the picket line to work - they might be given your position.

    Fees to Join
    Most unions charge a percentage of your annual salary. Dues pay for services such as contract negotiations and representations. However, many nurses don't want to pay for these services and opt out for this reason.

    Unpaid Strikes
    Unions strike when they can't come to terms with the employer. During these times, you might go without pay.

    Seniority is King
    Unions often promote based on tenure at the job, rather than skills. You could get passed over for a promotion if a coworker has been there longer, even if you are more deserving of the position.

    Everyone is Equal
    This might sound more like a pro, but in unions, employers can't terminate nurses who are just not good workers. The employer has to jump through the hoops, which means that you can be stuck with a coworker who doesn't pull their weight.

    What's the Best Option?

    This is not an easy question to answer. Quite simply, every nurse needs to consider if being a member of the union is a good fit. This isn't a "one-size-fits-all" scenario.

    What do you think? Do you belong to a union? If so, would you recommend joining to others? Or, do you run for the hills everytime union membership is offered? We'd love to hear your thoughts.
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    16 Comments

  3. by   NRSKarenRN
    For 15 years, information on collective bargaining pro's and cons found in AN's Collective Bargaining / Union forum. Many spirited discussions!
  4. by   VivaLasViejas
    My personal experience with unions wasn't good. For one thing, unions almost always support liberal causes that I disagree with. For another, the one I had to join in order to keep my hospital job was flagrantly biased against older RNs, promoting only young nurses to positions of power within the union. They didn't represent us at all. It may not be that way everywhere, I'm only relating my own experience, but if I had a choice I would never join a union again.
  5. by   nursej22
    I have only worked unionized jobs and have no complaints about them. I have not seen bias against older RNs, in fact, I have seen the union in a past job step up and see that qualified persons were considered for positions before managers' hand-picked favorites. I was once falsely accused of sexual harassment, and I grieved it and the complaint was dismissed.

    I am glad to have someone step up to ensure that I get adequate rest breaks on the job and between shifts. I also prefer cost of living raises over promises of bonuses for performance based measures that are impossible to achieve.

    As for supporting liberal causes, my union monies do not go towards political causes. There is a separate PAC that members can contribute to.
  6. by   Jessy_RN
    I have always worked in right to work states. Without a union you can be fired for anything. Employers have no incentive to staff safely, pay you fairly, keep changing our benefits for the worse, practice very unilateral decisions and corrupt to no end. My union has been nothing but positive. Increased fair compensation, guaranteed representation when possible disciplinary action could occur, better insurance coverage that costs less to the employee and many more positives. I find that the people who complain and fear monger (in our hospital), are those who had so much to lose because they were part of the problem, had unilateral management protection (friends), paid way more than the rest of us, performed less job duties, had free reign of the schedule and we allowed to bully and run rampant within the hospital being toxic. The union are the nurses and it is up to them to negotiate a fair contract and instill positive changes within their institutions.
  7. by   klone
    Meanwhile, talk of unionization sometimes results in shenanigans like this:

    Daily Inter Lake - Local News, Nurses Association files charges against Kalispell Regional over layoffs

    The press release indicated the hospital intends to lay off more than 100 charge nurses. A charge nurse is a registered nurse responsible for the management of a patient-care unit.
    They're getting rid of charge nurses, but creating "shift supervisors." Supervisors are non-union. Hmmmm.
  8. by   klone
    Quote from Jessy_RN
    I have always worked in right to work states. Without a union you can be fired for anything.
    I think you mean "employment at-will" state. "Right to work" has to do with unions being able to require people to be members.
  9. by   Jedrnurse
    Quote from klone
    I think you mean "employment at-will" state. "Right to work" has to do with unions being able to require people to be members.
    I prefer a more succinct distillation, i.e. "Right-to-be-fired (at the drop of a hat)..."
  10. by   amzyRN
    I've worked in both union and non-union hospitals and prefer the former because I got better benefits and was paid more. Also, there is the matter of ratios and patient safety. A 1:10 patient ratio is unacceptable and things like not being able to take a bathroom break, going without lunch, working off the clock. Forget that! Totally unacceptable.

    With that said, my first nursing job was at a non-union hospital and our manager did try to improve conditions. There was a recognition of certain safety standards including ratios on day and evening shift. The night shift was a different matter though, those ratios were pretty crazy with the charge nurse taking patients too. They did have nursing assistants on nights though.

    I worked at one union hospital and they barely did anything at all, blatant violations of patient safety and employee safety. It's like they got a bribe or something and we're taking our dues and not giving us anything in return. No taxation without representation!

    So, I've had less than ideal situations working at unionized hospitals. I tell you one thing though, ratios are important and if those didn't exist where i live, I would switch to a different profession.
  11. by   Spidey's mom
    Quote from VivaLasViejas
    My personal experience with unions wasn't good. For one thing, unions almost always support liberal causes that I disagree with. For another, the one I had to join in order to keep my hospital job was flagrantly biased against older RNs, promoting only young nurses to positions of power within the union. They didn't represent us at all. It may not be that way everywhere, I'm only relating my own experience, but if I had a choice I would never join a union again.
    I agree. My answer to a union is no.
  12. by   klone
    I've now worked at 2 union facilities, and I've never seen a contract that addressed staffing ratios.
  13. by   nursej22
    Quote from klone
    I've now worked at 2 union facilities, and I've never seen a contract that addressed staffing ratios.
    My understanding is that legally unions can bargain for wages, benefits and working conditions. However, unions and nurses associations may lobby at the state and national level for staffing ratios or guidelines.

    Since the Supreme Court ruling on Janus, I predict that unions will lose bargaining power, and as a result, wages will flatten or decrease, and benefits like OT pay, shift differential and paid time off will dwindle away.
  14. by   amzyRN
    The contracts don't specify staffing ratios but do specify pay and benefits, training, and lots of other things. What the union in my state does have is the ADO (assignment despite objection) form which does go to management and will help mitigate liability to nurses if things go south with patient care due to unsafe staffing. They also push management to staff their units better.

    I don't think unions are required in all facilities, but I do think many employers try to exploit their staff and a union is beneficial. Unions in the US helped establish a lot of standards that exist today that would not be in place had workers not unionized. I'm not saying unions are perfect or that they do everything they are supposed to do, but across the board in my experience the Union facilities I've worked in paid more, offered better benefits, and established break nurses so that we didn't leave our patients unattended.

    Look at states like NY and the unsafe staffing issues, high ratios, low pay versus union states like CA, where nurses have ratios and make at least 100K per year and get to take a bathroom break.

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