Healthcare and unions: 9 things to know

Union activity has always been prevalent in healthcare. Amid today's industry challenges and after going through a pandemic, however, workers have become especially vocal about issues such as pay, staffing and working conditions.

With this in mind, Becker's has put together a collection of information on largest healthcare unions, largest strikes, longest strikes, trends in physician unionization, and trends in union activity.

Here are nine things to know about healthcare and unions: 

1. SEIU Healthcare, the healthcare arm of the Service Employees International Union, describes itself as the largest healthcare union in North America. The union has more than 1.1 million members in 29 states and two countries, according to its website.

2. National Nurses United describes itself as the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in U.S. history. The union has nearly 225,000 members nationwide, according to its website

3. A strike by Kaiser Permanente workers in multiple states concluded Oct. 7. More than 75,000 workers began a three-day strike Oct. 4 at Kaiser hospitals and medical office buildings in California, Colorado, Washington and Oregon, and a one-day strike in Virginia and the District of Columbia. The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions deemed the strike as the largest healthcare worker strike in the U.S.

4. Nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Mass., ended a 301-day strike in January 2022. It was the longest nurses' strike in Massachusetts history, according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association. The union also described it as the longest nurses' strike the United States had seen in more than 15 years.

5. Unionization is gaining traction among physicians. A number of factors are driving the trend. Physicians are seeking greater investments by hospitals in working conditions, staffing and pay.

Hospitals and health systems, meanwhile, emphasize their commitment to quality care and these professionals. They also express their respect for workers' rights, while maintaining their preference to work directly with workers.

6. Among the latest examples of physicians unionizing is at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, Ore., where physicians voted to join the Pacific Northwest Hospital Medicine Association, a hospitalists union represented by AFT Healthcare and serviced by the Oregon Nurses Association. Medical residents and fellows at Somerville, Mass.-based Mass General Brigham also voted this year to join the Committee of Interns and Residents, a local of the Service Employees International Union.

7. Physicians who are already unionized have also rallied for better pay. This includes resident physicians and fellows who rallied Oct. 4 outside the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. 

8. Healthcare workers have increasingly authorized strikes. However, some strikes have been averted after deals are reached. Some of those deals included significant raises. For example, last December, members of the Michigan Nurses Association at Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo approved a new three-year contract after authorizing a strike. The contract includes average raises of 20.5 percent in the first year of the contract, resulting in a new wage scale ranging from $33.44 per hour to $48.72 per hour, according to a union news release. 

9. Overall, the Ithaca, N.Y.-based Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations' labor action tracker shows 104 strikes involving workers in the healthcare and social assistance sector since January 2021. This includes 39 strikes in 2022, an increase from 33 in 2021. As of Oct. 7, 32 strikes had occurred in the sector this year.

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