Joining a nursing union can be challenging because no single union represents the nationwide healthcare industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 20.4 percent of RNs and 10 percent of LPNs/LVNs currently identify as union members.
Like anything else in life, there are both advantages and disadvantages to joining a nursing union. While nurses in unions tend to earn higher wages than non-union nurses, that should not be the only consideration. Here is a quick review of the pros and cons of unionizing.
In this article, we will cover:
The role of a nursing union
Unions have existed for more than a century. Interest in unionization among the healthcare industry has increased only recently, with much of the newfound interest fueled by the Covid pandemic.
Nursing unions give nurses such as RNs, and LPN/LVNs, the right to advocate as a collective. Unions push for fair contracts that ensure higher wages and safer working conditions while protecting nurses’ rights. Several unions represent the nursing industry, including:
- American Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (AFT): This union is the second-largest nurses union in the AFL-CIO. The majority of AFT Nurses and Health Professionals members work in hospitals, although they also work in nursing homes, home health agencies, laboratories, blood banks, and clinics. The division’s membership also includes approximately 15,000 school nurses.
- National Nurses United: This union is composed of registered nurses (RNs) in the U.S. Founded in 2009, they claim more than 175,000 members among their ranks. Three separate nursing unions combined to form this colossal union – the California Nurses Association, the United American Nurses, and the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
- Service Employees International Union – Nurse Alliance (SEIU): The SEIU Nurse Alliance “advances and strengthens the voice of registered nurses in our healthcare facilities, at our state capitals, and in Washington, D.C.”
- United Food and Commercial Workers International Union: The UFCW works for nurses by negotiating contracts that “enable hard-working women and men in order to provide the best patient care while being fairly compensated with the wages and benefits they need to take care of their own families.”
Pros of joining a nursing union
The adage that there is strength in numbers is what keeps unions popular in some industries. Unions use their leverage to negotiate enforceable contracts that:
- Define the role of nurses in fixing the standard of care to ensure better patient outcomes without creating a catalyst for nurse burnout.
- Establish a process for addressing complaints and other grievances that protects nurses from reprisal from healthcare employers.
- Guarantee wages and automatic pay increases that cannot be lowered by employers due to budget cuts or other fiscal reasons.
- Identify safe working conditions, including nurse-to-patient ratios and required breaks. Unions consistently advocate for lower nurse-to-patient ratios, improved safety protocols, and the elimination of mandatory overtime.
- Provide representation for nurses when their employers initiate disciplinary action against them. Union representatives act as counsel to defend nurses against any accusations and to ensure they receive fair treatment.
- Set benefits, overtime conditions, pay scales, and procedures for paid and unpaid leave. Sometimes unions can get healthcare employers to include education grants, insurance discounts, and other perks as part of an employment package.
Nurses have dedicated advocates to lobby for beneficial legislation that can improve the overall standards of care and working conditions within the healthcare industry. Having direct representation by union staff in the workplace can help nurses when employers take disciplinary actions or when working conditions require labor-management negotiation.
Cons of joining a nursing union
It is hard to ignore the many benefits of joining a nursing union, but that does not mean it is always the best decision. What seems like a perk of unionization can end up being a major disadvantage. For instance, collective bargaining is often touted as an advantage of nursing unions because it waives the responsibility of negotiating benefits, salary, and safety issues and places it in the union leaders’ hands. On the flip side, collective bargaining can reduce pay in the final years of a negotiated pay scale in favor of bigger upfront wages.
Here are some other pitfalls to nursing unions to consider before organizing:
- Entrenched seniority is a sticking point for some nurses. Unions benefit members with seniority the most. Senior nurses get preference for scheduling requests like time off and receive priority over newer nurses during staff reductions. Unfortunately, seniority takes precedence over performance in most unionized healthcare facilities, meaning even nurses who do not put in 100 percent effort still qualify for raises per the negotiated pay scale schedule. It also can be difficult to dismiss nurses who engage in unprofessional behavior.
- Mandatory striking without pay is how unions leverage their power over employers. When nurses join unions, they agree to participate in mandatory striking. If they refuse, they may experience retaliatory actions from their colleagues.
- Membership dues are arguably one of the points of contention many have with unions. Most unions automatically deduct monthly dues directly from nurses’ paychecks, which means less take-home pay. In addition to using membership fees to support members, unions can legally use them for political purposes. Some nurses may object to their money being spent to further candidates and legislation that do not align with their personal beliefs.
- Required mediation is another issue with unions since most force members to submit to mandatory mediation for every dispute, small or large. Sometimes this practice can make mountains of molehills by overcomplicating disputes with pointless processes.
Unionizing nurses where you work
Unionizing is not the solution for all nurses. The decision to join ultimately comes down to individual nurses and their preferences. Nurses who want to learn more about unionizing in their workplace can reach out to any of the unions mentioned above. Each has information on their websites about how to launch unionization efforts.
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