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Will unions solve the lab staffing problem?

T Inequities in hospital wages, brought on by the nursing shortage and worsened by the recent rash of nursing salary increases, have created severe morale problems in ancillary departments. Laboratory employees feel the disparity more than others: Their salaries have never accurately re flected job duties and responsibilities or the qualifications necessary for competent performance.

Laboratory salary inequities cross all job classifications, from supervisors to the clinical and anatomical pathology bench staff to phlebotomists. Wage and salary classification studies seldom have recognized the significance of the work performed by laboratorians.

Hospital administrators blame the salary inequities on the-law of supply and demand. But nursing is not the only health care profession facing severe employee shortages, and administration has not offered similar wage incentives to other employees.

Will employees in less favored departments turn to unions for a solution? The unions think so, and the National Labor Relations Board recently published a ruling that suggests they will again be waging an all-out campaign to enlist health care workers.

The new NLRB ruling allows up to eight collective bargaining units in hospitals. This means that smaller groups of employees with similar work assignments can organize. The change will make it much easier for unions to enter hospitals and organize.

The bargaining units are divided along these lines: physicians, nurses, other medical professionals, technical service employees, skilled maintenance employees, office workers, guards, and all other nonprofessional employees. This expansion of the number of units applies to all acute-care hospitals, not just those with more than 100 beds, a provision that had been proposed originally.

One of the major barriers to union success had been the tight quota of bargaining units in hospitals, which worked to the benefit of employers. Units were typically composed of nurses, other medical professionals, and technical, service, and clerical employees. Many rulings had combined nurses with other professionals or recognized even broader units.

But unit designations had been difficult to draw in the laboratory because technologists were generally considered medical professionals, while other technical personnel in the lab were assigned to the unit for technical employees.

When Congress amended the National Labor Relations Act in 1973 to allow collective bargaining in nonprofit hospitals, administrators realized they would have to compete for employees' attention. They began improving wage and fringe benefit packages and upgrading personnel policies.

In some arts of the countrysuch as the Eastern seaboard, the industrial North and Midwest, and the Pacific Coast-health care unions were successful. But the rest of the nation remained immune to organizing efforts. Only 20 per cent or so of all health care workers are currently unionized.

Now, however, the odds favor unionization in hospitals. Even unions that traditionally have not represented health care employees will be trying to increase membership with these workers. For example, the United Steelworkers of America, based in Pittsburgh, has increased its hospital union activity in the past months. In Detroit, the United Auto Workers have targeted health care as a prime area for membership diversification.

Will laboratory employees respond positively, or will they reject union organizing? I believe they will see unions as a solution to their dissatisfaction unless laboratory managers give appropriate recognition to all employees and make other positive changes in personnel management.

The work force today is far different from that of 15 years ago. Younger laboratorians have different role models and more career-change opportunities than those who have been around for a while. They also differ in their opinion of what work is about.

A recent Harvard study found that employees under 40 years old believe work should be fun and provide chances to meet other young people. Older employees regard work as a duty and a way to make a living. Fairness on the job is important to both groups, but to younger employees, fairness means employers should tolerate a variety of behaviors and attitudes; to older employees, it means equal treatment for all.

Laboratory management should keep the following strategies in mind if it wishes to counteract union activities:

Learn all you can about union organizing tactics, collective bargaining, and employer-employee fights under the National Labor Relations Act.' Don't wait until the unions are on your doorstep.

Within the confines of unfair Labor practices regulations, educate staff about union pros and cons. An informed staff is less vulnerable to union propaganda.

$Develop, and encourage administration to accept, a revised wage classification system that appopriately recognizes duties, responsibilities, accountability, and contributions to patient care for all employee categories.

$Develop a job enrichment program that focuses on nonmonetary ways to enhance job satisfaction, employee recognition, and professional challenges.

$Institute team building activities to further involve employees in planning and decision making.

Lab management must recognize that unions will not go away. Unfortunately, today's measure of employee worth or status is salary, and unions have the clout to negotiate higher pay levels. There are, however, motivating factors that will sometimes serve as salary substitutes. Well prepared managers can use this knowledge to face the anticipated union challenge calmly and intelligently.
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Author:Barros, Annamarie
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:column
Date:Dec 1, 1988
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