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A management primer on labor relations.

At seminars, workshops, and graduate courses on labor relations that I have taught to laboratorians since 1975, I have often been amazed at the naivete and lack of knowledge about unions displayed by my audience. They and their colleagues across the country have persistently resisted learning the basic information. Perhaps they were concerned that demonstrating any interest would imply acceptance. Many believe it is unprofessional to join a union or even to talk about it.

That attitude cannot continue. Whether we like it or not, labor organizations are zoroing in on health care institutions, especially hospitals. It is important to have a sense of labor/management relations and to know some of the key laws and regulations influencing them. Those who are against unions need to understand them to combat them legally. Those who believe in them, as well as all who work in unionized workplaces, must have enough information to assure themselves of the best deal.

* Why workers join unions. A search of the literature produces a host of articles and texts dealing with responses of health care institutions to NLRA changes in 1974 (see "Origins of the labor movement," page 23). Sheer panic drove hospital administrators to mount crash programs in an effort to ward off the union threat. Article after article consisted of mini-manuals on how to improve management practices to focus on better personnel relations and benefits. The articles quote studies that identify reasons employees turn to unions. The results of the studies contradicted the common belief that dissatisfaction with wages, work benefits, and top management were the only reasons for union interest. The focus was on personnel relations (Figure I).

Unions are quick to find management deficiencies and to build their campaigns around them. Whether a union contract can fill the gap is not the issue. It is enough that organizers will say they can. Employees, distrusful of what they see as unsympathetic management, will believe them. Unions do not go where they are not wanted. If your employees turn to a union to satisfy their needs, management probably invited them unintentionally.

* Impact of new regs. The bargaining unit designations deemed legal by the U.S. Supreme Court last April allow for eight separate units in a hospital (see "What is a bargaining unit?," below). Previously, typical units had consisted of professionals, nonprofessionals, and guards.

With only three categories, technologists had a difficult time proving their professional status. When lab managers and directors described technologist jobs as repetitive, requiring no independent judgment and discretion, they found themselves outnumbered in the nonprofessional unit. Not knowing how to petition for professional designation, many found themselves unionized.

The new unit designations should eliminate this problem if technologists' job descriptions clearly delineate their duties, responsibilities, and authority levels as compared with those of technicians. If not, technologists will probably find themselves assigned to the technical unit by management and union. The unit designated by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as "other professionals" (besides RNs and M.D.s) will contain the groups listed in Figure II; technologists will probably constitute the largest segment. Lab technicians will be grouped separately, under "technical workers."

The growing dissatisfaction and frustration in clinical labs creates a fertile field for convincing laboratorians that unions will solve their problems. In some places this may be true. For every advantage of unions, however--job security, increased wages, grievance policies, and so on--there are just as many disadvantages, if not more.

For managers, the presence of a union is an element of interference. It impedes the freedom to manage, develop, and recognize exceptional personnel and to introduce changes to improve productivity, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. For technologists who are motivated to grow and develop, the presence of a union penalizes above-average work, places seniority above other qualifications for promotion, and bases rewards on time rather than competence.

Staff members who see the laboratory as an 8-to-5 job are given job security as long as they do acceptance work. The position then rewards longevity more than it does above-average performance. Of course, the job is only as safe as the economic status of the employer.

* Response to new units. Even before the Supreme Court decreed the NLRB unit designations legal, hospitals began gearing up to fight what they saw as a threat to their operations. Labor relations consultants are having a field day putting together seminars and workshops to educate all levels of hospital management in dealing with unions. Primary emphasis is being placed on what managers and supervisors can and cannot do to avoid an unfair labor practice citation. Critical dos and dont's are provided in Figure III.

* On the rise. In 1990, even before the NLRB's new units were confirmed, the number of union representation elections at hospitals rose dramatically. In fact, hospitals registered the highest percentage of successful elections (57.8%) since 1985. [1] Because it is usually easier to organize small, homogeneous groups of workers than larger, more diverse ones, more elections and higher union win rates are expected under the new rules.

According to an NLRB report, 108 petitions to conduct representation elections in hospitals were pending before the NLRB during the first 10 weeks after the April 23 Supreme Court ruling, which took effect May 29. (In all of 1990, 127 such elections were held.) All 108 petitions--47 of which were filed between April 23, 1991, and June 30, 1991--sought to represent categories of workers recognized under the new rules. [2]

It is vital that professional clinical laboratory organizations participate in the educational process and serve as a resource for information. Providing information does not indicate support of unions. A professional organization can state the pros and cons better than onsite laboratory management can.

Lab managers and staff need to go beyond what their employers provide. Both groups must be well versed in all aspects of labor relations, positive and negative. Simply not wanting to be unionized is not enough to stay out of a union. Hidding one's head in the sand is more likely to foster union activity than to prevent it. Reading the reference materials listed below would be an excellent first step toward enlightenment on this pressing issue of the present and the near future.

[1] Burda, D. Union elections, victories increase sharply. Mod. Healthcare 21:3, July 15, 1991.

[2] Burda, D. Court ruling unleashes 47 union petitions. Mod. Healthcare 21:6, Oct. 28, 1991.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles on history and organization of unions
Author:Barros, Annamarie
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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