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Health-care unions small but gaining ground

Even though public sentiment, state laws and court opinions make labor organizing an uphill struggle in Florida, the number of unionized health-care workers in Florida has risen by a third over the past year.

National Nurses United reports that it enrolled 5,000 Florida nurses in that time, 3,000 of them in the past four months.

“We expect to keep growing,” said spokeswoman Liz Jacobs.

The Florida chapter of the Service Employees International Union, also called 1199 SEIU, reports that it gained 13 hospitals in Florida with more than 6,000 healthcare workers in the past year. At least 33,000 of Florida’s 730,000 health workers are now organized.

Most of the new unions have started in facilities owned by Hospital Corporation of America, which struck private agreements with national unions not to interfere with organizing at some of its hospitals in return for leaving others alone.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Workers say they want respect, higher nurse-to-patient ratios, due process when something goes wrong and better compensation.

“If they're asked to do something unsafe, which is often because of having so many patients per nurse, it's their licenses on the line,” Jacobs said.

Bhishma Ramdass, a caregiver in the mental-health unit at West Palm Beach's Columbia Hospital, said he and his colleagues feared getting fired when they joined 1199 SEIU, but are now glad they joined.

“If I have an issue I can actually go to the (hospital executives) and get a response,” he said.

The first round of negotiations between HCA and Florida's nurses union were in early March and the second is planned for March 22 and 23, said Julia Scott, an RN at Largo Medical Center and a negotiator for National Nurses United.

“We (nurses) are at a breaking point now. We have too much responsibility and no respect,” she said. “It will be much better when we get a contract.”

Asked for comment, HCA representatives read a prepared statement: “While we do not believe having a union is necessary for us to communicate with our employees over work issues, we respect our employees’ rights to make this decision.”

Facing off

From a hospital’s viewpoint, unions can divide the workplace, restrict management's ability to make decisions and cut profits, said Miami lawyer Bob Norton, who helps hospital administrators fight unions.

Look at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where employees are members of 1991 SEIU, he said. The hospital is plagued by administrative problems and $500 million in debt.

“You've got union people constantly going around and contesting the decisions made by their supervisors,” he said. “What that has done in terms of damage to the hospital is probably beyond repair.”

Many hospitals resist unions for years, spending tens of thousands on advice from attorneys like Norton. He suggests that hospital management deter unions by meeting one-on-one with supervisors, limiting when and where employees talk to each other inside the hospital and sending videos to employees’ homes to counter union messages.

“It's all about communication,” he said. “If people know the truth about unions they won't vote for unions on election day.”

Playing hardball

At Sunrise Nursing Home, where workers voted to join 1199 SEIU 14 years ago, contract negotiations are still dragging on. In front of the facility last week, 300 protesters held signs and chanted “Patients not Profits” as managers clustered outside and glared.

Hospitals sometimes tell employees that unions will divide employees at the hospital and cause it to close.

It’s illegal for employers to obstruct unions, but Florida's laws are weak and courts tend to side with employers, said Bruce Nissen, director of research at Florida International University’s Center for Labor Research & Studies.

“Tactics can range from public firings to telling employees that the hospital won’t be able to survive and they’ll all lose their jobs,” Nissen said.

Most unions can’t recruit if they can’t bargain for employers not to interfere, Nissen said.

“If employers stay out of it, unions win about 80 percent of the time,” he said.

Many employers find that having a union isn’t as bad as they feared, Nissen said. Research has found that unionized health-care workers have lower turnover and are more productive than their non-union counterparts, he said.

“I know that last one contradicts stereotypes,” he said. “But empirical facts are facts.”

--Reporter Brittany Davis, who is based in South Florida, can be reached at 954-495-6766 or Brittany.Davis@HealthNewsFlorida.org.