Solution-driven Unionism: Healthcare

THESE ARE CHALLENGING TIMES for healthcare professionals. Budgets have been squeezed; staffing has been cut; and nurses, therapists, X-ray technicians and others are being asked to do more with less. Almost one-third of the children our school nurses serve have chronic health issues, including diabetes, asthma and hypertension. In hospitals, clinics and nursing homes, an aging and overburdened workforce is caring for an aging and more critically ill patient population.

Meanwhile, healthcare workers face fierce and mounting attacks by anti-worker employers. Workers on the frontlines are often required to implement top-down policies made without their input, and then they are blamed when the strategies fail.

The challenges we face in healthcare demand an entirely different approach to unionism. They demand an approach that is relevant and appropriate to the 21st century, that is creative and visionary, and that unifies the members of our union with the people we serve. I call this approach “solution-driven unionism.”

Solution-driven unionism doesn’t mean we will give up our traditional strengths. Demonstrating for our goals and beliefs, speaking truth to power, organizing, lobbying, being heard at the bargaining table—these are the things we’ve always done. Solution-driven unionism means that we are also making a choice not simply to call out what doesn’t work, but to build on what does.

Solution-driven unionism is rooted in solving problems, not winning arguments, and many AFT affiliates are pursuing this approach with great results. It is our compass at the national union, as well. We know that this tough climate is no excuse for not having a proactive agenda; to the contrary—it demands it.

Throughout the country, our individual members, our state and local affiliates, and our national union are using solution-driven approaches to confront the challenges we face. The attempt to sell the nonprofit Christ Hospital in Jersey City, N.J., to a for-profit company is one example of unifying the members of our union with those we serve, and raising awareness about issues of shared concern.

The 140-year-old hospital, which serves a largely indigent and uninsured population, was struggling financially. When nurses belonging to the Health Professionals and Allied Employees Local 5186 found out the hospital was to be sold to a for-profit firm that would curtail services, they helped form a coalition of 16 community groups that eventually blocked the deal. As a result, Christ Hospital was sold to a buyer that ensured continued services to all members of the community.

In Connecticut, our state affiliate worked collaboratively to help create recently enacted statewide education reform legislation. That spirit of cooperation and teamwork strengthened our credibility with Gov. Dannel Malloy. So when 400 nurses at Backus Hospital in Norwich faced a vicious union-busting campaign, the governor stepped up and helped us secure that first contract. And because the Backus Federation of Nurses  had a history of sponsoring food drives and providing blood pressure checks, the union members enjoyed strong community support.

A dozen nurses, paramedics and EMTs from the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals traveled to Haiti in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake to provide much-needed medical assistance. Many paid their own airfare and expenses. Out of that initial visit, a vision for a union-run clinic emerged. In August 2011, the Workers Solidarity Clinic in Port-au-Prince opened its doors to provide vital medical services to the impoverished nation. The wellness clinic concentrates on immunization, mother-child care and preventive healthcare.

Solution-driven unionism takes many forms. At its core, it unites our members with the people they serve  and their communities, and, in so doing, it ensures that we don’t merely survive, but that we succeed. Our success also rests upon electing leaders who will stand with the middle class to create a better future for all, not just some, and who believe in problem-solving as opposed to finger-pointing. We are experiencing some of the toughest times I’ve seen, and the November elections can shape whether times get even tougher or give way to a climate of seeking solutions for the common good.

Healthwire, September/October 2012