Hospital-union negotiations heat up

Disputes between labor unions and hospitals have long existed. However, amid today's healthcare challenges, and after going through a pandemic, workers have become especially vocal about issues such as pay and staffing. 

Workers are taking actions that range from informational pickets to strikes. Some are also holding marches, rallies and other events to amplify their concerns. 

Staffing, pay and working conditions are often at the center of union members' decisions to participate in actions. They often cite what they say are needs for improved staffing and competitive pay to recruit and retain workers. Hospitals say they respect union members' rights to participate in such labor actions. At the same time, healthcare organizations emphasize their commitment to employees, their efforts toward staffing and wages, and what they see as generous offers to unions.

"I don't think [the issues] are entirely different [from] what we saw before," Johnnie Kallas, a PhD candidate and the director of the Ithaca, N.Y.-based Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations' labor action tracker, told Becker's in June. "It's pay. It's staffing. It's health and safety. I'd say those are probably the three main issues. But I think workers are now more emboldened to act on that."

The Cornell labor action tracker shows 99 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 Sept. 21, 27 strikes had occurred in the sector this year.

Some actions are one day or several, while others are more prolonged. 

Members of United Steelworkers Local 4-200 held a march Sept. 9 in Maplewood, N.J., where RWJBarnabas Health President and CEO Mark Manigan resides, amid their labor dispute with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J. Union members have been on strike against the hospital since Aug. 4.

In California, members of SEIU Local 121RN held a picket Sept. 14 at HCA Healthcare's West Hills Hospital and Medical Center to raise awareness about their concerns over staffing, retention, patient safety and working conditions. Union members and the hospital have been in negotiations for a new labor contract since May, according to a news release shared with Becker's. The union and HCA's Los Robles Regional Medical Center have also been in negotiations. 

And in Michigan, members of the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 40 began a three-day strike Sept. 11 at Ascension Providence Rochester Hospital, part of St. Louis-based Ascension. Union members voted to authorize a strike earlier this year. The union and hospital have been at the bargaining table since 2022 under extended contracts, according to the union's website.

These, of course, are just a few recent examples, and negotiating circumstances and contract details differ at organizations across the U.S. But labor disputes will likely continue as both workers and leaders navigate emerging challenges in healthcare.

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