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A disenchanted profession asks: are unions the answer?

Until now, most laboratorians who so desired have been able to avoid the very thought of unionization. They could, if they wished, shy away not only from working in unionized labs but even from discussing or contemplating the prospect. For them, unionization has been a non-issue. Whether it can remain one indefinitely seems less certain these days.

To understand laboratorians' feelings about unionization and their experiences with it, MLO conducted a survey in the late summer and early fall of 1991. Respondents were MLO readers who have agreed to answer such surveys (see "Survey methodology," right). Because most who receive MLO are department heads and above, statistics cited in this article largely relect the experiences and opinions of middle and upper lab management.

Part I will present the status of unions in respondents' labs: their prevalence, history, and certain attributes. Part II, which follows, will discuss panelists' perceptions of unions in general and of the probable future of unions in the lab. Both articles will distill thousands of reader comments written in reply to open-ended questions.

* Experience tells. At the heart of laboratorians' perplexity, responses show, is widespread lack of direct personal experience with unionization. Nevertheless, many are employed by medical facilities in which other groups are unionized, including professionals such as nurses. Such lab workers see the benefits and drawbacks of unionization from one step removed, and commonly desire the former while fearing the latter.

Although nonunion laboratorians yearn for higher salaries and more job security, they have trouble identifying with their long-held image of the union member. They picture a factory-like atmosphere in which excellence goes by the board. They cringe at the thought that seniority alone would govern promotions, with lax workers gaining most from greater job security.

That hypothetical environment largely describes the impressions of laboratorians who are not unionized. With some outspoken exceptions, those in unionized labs find unions far more benign.

* Extent of unionization. In nearly one-fourth (24%) of respondents' institutions, at least one department is unionized--nearly half of these (48%) including the laboratory (Figure I). Respondents whose labs are unionized represent 10.9% of the total. Among the unionized group, 41% work in not-for-profit hospitals, 33% in Government or VA hospitals, 7% in health maintenance organizations, 3% in independent or referral labs, 2% in physicians' office labs, and the remainder in other labs.

Most of respondents' unionized labs (81%) have been unionized for at least 10 years. Nine percent of union labs have had unions for five to nine years; 4% for three or four years; 5% for one to two years; and 1% for less than one year.

Unionization was far more common in hospital laboratories (29%) than in independent or group practice labs (3%). The likelihood of unionization, which increased with hospital bed size, was lowest in the South and in rural settings and highest in the East and in urban areas. Virtually all nonunion labs represented in the survey (at least 97%; 1% of respondents were unsure) had never been unionized.

* Members. Who belongs to the union in unionized labs? Among respondents employed by such labs, 75% said technologists, 72% said technicians, 68% said phlebotomists, 63% said clerical staff, and 57% said lab aides or assistants. Section supervisors are union members in 22% of the labs of such respondents, only 15% of whom said they were union members themselves. (It should be noted that most survey participants have job titles above bench worker.)

Representing lab workers to the greatest extent are the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of Goverment Employees (AFGE) (Figure II). In 70% of respnodents' unionized labs, all categories, levels, and credentials of technical laboratory personnel are represented by the same union. More than one union is in place in 29%, and 1% were unsure.

The proportion of laboratorians who are union members varies tremendously. Fully 100% of lab workers are unionized in 17% of cases. More than half (52%) of respondents said that 51% to 99% of lab employees belonged to the union. Over one-fourth (27%) said that no more than half of lab workers were union members. A breakdown of the job categories of those participating in union membership is shown in Figure III.

* Why unions? Asked why their labs had become unionized, respondents pointed most often to inadequate salaries, inadequate benefits, and lack of appreciation by management. Figure IV outlines respondents' reasons, spelled out in more detail in Part II of this article. As will be discussed, the last straw is often a relatively minor complaint--added to years of major ones. A large labor relations firm recently reported that lab personnel were 16% more dissatisfied with their pay than other hospital workers, 10% more dissatisfied with job mobility, and 4% more negative about supervisors and communications within the hospital. Furthermore, the are 6% more dissatisfied with their jobs than other hospital workers. [1]

* Pros and cons. The biggest drawbacks of a union, according to the majority of panelists who feel that unions have drawbacks, are protection of incompetent employees (75%), encouragement of petty grievances (58%), introduction of strike threats (52%), and reduced professionalism (52%). Other complaints: unions provide advancement or promotion through seniority rather than skill or merit (47%); reduce efficiency (39%); and increase paperwork (35%). Eight percent indicated other reasons.

Over one-third (35%) of respondents' unionized labs have experienced strikes. (No strikes had occurred in 63% of respondents' union labs, and 2% were unsure.) Even more--48%--said lab employees are not forbidden to strike, although almost an equal proportion (41%) said they were. Eleven percent were unsure.

* Organizing attempts. Nearly one in four respondents working in nonunion labs (24%) said attempts had been made to organize there. (According to 71%, no such attempts have been made; 5% were unsure.) A preponderenace of such organizing attempts occurred in hospital labs (29%); 12% of independent or group practice labs had experienced efforts at unionization. Organizing attempts were more likely in large or midsize (33%) than in small facilities (24%) and less prevalent in the Southern states (11%) than elsewhere (30% collectively).

For the most part, no more than an attempt or two were noted in any individual lab. No surge took place during the nine months of 1991 before the survey, although the numbers have crept up steadily since 1986 to a high of 16% last year.

* Which unions are eager. Respondents were asked which union had made the most recent attempt to unionize their labs. A substantial proportion named Local 1199 of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (28%) and SEIU (16%). Since NUHHCE merged into SEIU as of March 31, 1991, the combined figure of 44% suggests that SEIU may make additional inroads.

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) represents 12% of union presence currently in respondents' labs and 10% of the latest union efforts to gain entry. Other unions cited as having recently knocked on the door include the Retail Clerks International Association (RCIA), 5%; Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), 3%; American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), 2%; Engineers and Scientists of California, 2%; and American Association of University Professors, 1%. Among those listed as "other" by respondents (40%) are the Teamsters, painters' unions, and a collection of national and state nursing unions. Union interest, if not necessarily widespread, has been broad based.

* Response by management. Once a union has announced its intentions, how does management react? In only 17% of cases, panelists said, management did nothing apparent to foil organization bids. The rest of the time, they tried by many means to keep the unions out. These strategies are ranked in Figure V, which also indicates which ones panelists considered most effective.

* From the horse's mouth. Some of the questions asked of survey respondents working in union labs were designed to address common concerns among nonunion laboratorians about the effects of unions. For example, does seniority alone determine advancement and salary at your lab? No, said 72%; yes, said 24%. Four percent were unsure.

How well do union and nonunion employees work together? Very well, said 34% of respondents; fairly well, said 31%; extremely well, said 29%; poorly, said 6%.

Do lab supervisors have the same degree of technical oversight over technologists that they had before unionization? Yes, said 74%; no, said 2%; and nearly one-fourth (24%) of respondents were unsure.

Do lab superisors still conduct performance appraisals? Nearly all (93%) said yes. Only 7% said no.

Is a specific policy currently in place regarding progressive discipline and the grievance process? Almost all panelists working in union labs (99%) said yes; 1% were unsure. Most (58%) also said their institutions had labor-management committees. About one-third (32%) did not, and 10% were unsure.

Among the respondents in union labs who worked in the same place before unionization (one-third of that group), about 41% said the current situation was somewhat or much better than before the union arrived. Just over one-fourth (26%) said things were about the same; 30% said the situation was somewhat worse than before. No one described conditions after the union arrived as much worse than before.

What factors, if any, were excluded from union intervention as a whole under the terms of union contracts at panelists' union labs? More than one-fourth (28%) of respondents in union labs said that none of the procedures listed were excluded. The rest named staffing (31%), striking (29%), physical conditions (17%), pay levels (16%), benefits (12%), leave policies (12%), and other (7%). Eleven percent were unsure.

Similarly, respondents were asked to indicate which grievance procedures, if any, were excluded from union intervention under the terms of the contract. More than half of the respondents (52%) said non of the procedures listed were excluded. Excluded in 14% of cases were performance evaluations and promotions. One percent cited disciplinary actions; 5% said "other"; 18% were unsure.

That covers the extent of unionization in the laboratories where MLO's panelists work. Comments revealing respondents' personal and widely divergent views follow in the second part of this article.

[1] Paxton, A. Supreme Court ruling could mean more laboratory workers will organize. Management Briefs, pp. 4-5. Clinical Laboratory Management Association, June 1991.

General references:

Barros, A. Action builds on ther union front. MLO 14(1):98-110, January 1982.

Brennan, L. Unionization: An update. MLO 6(6): 39-42, September/October 1974.

Brennan, L. Are unions the answer? (Special Report on Money and the Laboratorian, Part II). MLO 8(9): 89-101, September 1976.

Buhr, D.N. The case for unionization in the lab. MLO 11(8): 107-112, August 1979.

Friedheim, M.K. Negotiating a union contract. MLO 14(2): 58-62, December 1984.

Hallam, K. Special Report: Laboratory unions. MLO 14(12), December 1982. Part I: Most employees still say no, pp. 34-40. Part II: These employees say yes, pp. 46-54.

Lopex, M. The pros and cons of managing union and nonunion labs. MLO 14(2): 69-71, December 1982.

Paxton, A. NLRB rule's effect on labs uncertain CAP Today 5(7): 5-7, July 1991.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related articles; The State of the Unions in the Clinical Laboratory, part 1
Author:Barman, Marcia Ringel
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:A management primer on labor relations.
Next Article:Impassioned stares at a crystal ball.

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