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Is there a union in your future?

THE VERY WORD "union" can strike terror into the hearts of laboratory managers and supervisors. At one time, the term conjured up visions of factory workers joining the ranks to rebel against unfair labor practices. With the steady decline in blue-collar jobs over the last quarter-century, however, union organizers have turned their sights on the growing service industry. Chief among their targets: health care workers.

I feel fortunate that my department is nonunion. Having had a fair amount of contact with colleagues from unionized laboratories, I know all too well that working in such an environment is no picnic. While our titles and descriptions may be similar, our job requirements are very different.

* Threat to jurisdiction. I have much more flexibility to chart and steer the course of my department than do my unionized compatriots, who must rigidly adhere to the terms of a contract regardless of the situation. These managers and supervisors spend extensive time and energy on mundane tasks such as monitoring attendance and work assignments. Instead of making the tough and challenging decisions that we are paid to make, many of these professionals are reduced to indexing the personnel sections of their union contracts.

To make matters worse, unionized departments encourage an "us versus them" mentality. This is evident in the day-to-day interaction between management and staff and particularly noticeable when it comes time for contract negotiations. Dictating job descriptions and divisions of labor, union leaders create an atmosphere that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for managers to reassign staff members to different positions in order to maximize productivity.

* Professional paradox. For the average lab employee, the notion of joining a union raises a dilemma. On the one hand, laboratorians wish to consider themselves professionals and would rather identify with professional societies for a unified voice than with a labor union. On the other hand, the average laboratory worker today is deeply concerned with job security.

The enactment of CLIA '88 and its liberal personnel requirements caused many laboratorians to feel insecure--just what union organizers zero in on to build support from future members. Sadly, the failure of professional organizations to take a unified leadership role in this important piece of legislation may impel many of our people to look elsewhere for strength in numbers.

* Bright side? Are unions inherently bad for an organization? Not necessarily. Unions do help to keep employers honest with employees. With the threat of having to deal with a union grievance or arbitration hanging over their heads, managers and supervisors think twice before making quick decisions regarding employee relations.

Unions make sure their members receive a thorough hearing should any perceived unfair labor practice take place. It is harder for a manager to discipline or take action against a union employee than a nonunion employee. This benefit is enjoyed only by a small minority of personnel, however. Most union workers are saddled with inflexible management, divided loyalties, and costly union dues.

* Keeping unions out. Certainly we can take steps to prevent turning our workers into a bargaining unit. We must never foster an uncompromising atmosphere in which employees feel that they have no choice other than to seek external backing. As leaders, we should be proactive in areas where a union organizer could gain a strong foothold, primarily wages, working conditions, management responsiveness, and job security. The bottom line: We must deal with important issues voluntarily before a third party forces us to do so.

If you have not yet experienced a unionization attempt, consider yourself lucky. Even so, don't sit idly by and think it can't happen to you. Unless you and your organization vigilantly strive to maintain your employees' confidence, they may seek strength and security down at the union hall.

James M. Maratea is administrator of clinical laboratories at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia, Pa.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:labor unions
Author:Maratea, James M.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Words:637
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