Strength in Numbers

To bolster union strength, we must harness the power of our members.

By Adrienne Coles

The unionized workforce has been under constant attack for years by anti-union forces determined to tear down our infrastructure. To reinforce our infrastructure and increase our muscle, we must tap into the power of our members.

One way to do this is through member mobilization

Many locals and affiliates are facing these challenges by turning to their members for help. AFT President Randi Weingarten says the power of unified members and the solidarity of working members will drive us to the right answers: “As circumstances change, our nation changes, the world changes. We too must change.”

Many of our locals are utilizing the new unionism model of community engagement, improving the quality of services that members provide, organizing internally and mobilizing members, and organizing the unorganized. An active membership is the counterweight to an adversary who wants to divide us, says Weingarten. 

In many of our affiliates, leaders are working with their members to craft campaigns that focus on a broad agenda that addresses professional issues such as improving staffing but also connects with the community. Leaders want to achieve full union membership because they understand that there is strength in numbers.

Strength will be necessary as the labor movement faces the most recent attack on unions, which will be fought in the U.S. Supreme Court in the very near future. The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, asks the court to decide whether public sector unions can continue to charge nonmembers a fee equal to the cost of representing them to their employer. This fee is called “agency fee” or “fair share.” In states where there is no fair share, the union must sign up everyone as full members to keep the union strong. Many of our local affiliates have been taking actions to ramp up full membership for years, so if the court should rule against us, the work of our affiliates will be a road map for others. 

It’s about solidarity

Healthwire Summer 2015, WFNHP membersWFNHP members Jim Cichy, left, and Jeff Weber say one-on-one conversation connects co-workers to the union. Photo: John Saller

Building membership starts with having meaningful conversations with members. That’s what has worked for Jeff Weber, president of Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals Local 5001. Weber’s local represents nearly 225 registered nurses, occupational therapists and music therapists for the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division, which provides care and treatment to adults, children and adolescents with mental illness, substance use disorders and intellectual disabilities. Two years ago, state legislators passed Act 10, a law that requires public sector unions to recertify every year with the support of 51 percent of employees. Recertification gives the union legal recognition to bargain for wages only; and pay increases are capped at inflation, which is now at 2 percent. 

Some unions have opted not to recertify, seeing it as pointless because of the limits placed on bargaining. But the union is not about the ability to bargain, says Weber, it’s about solidarity. So he and his board identified members who could be counted on to champion the union. Each month, these “champions” meet to talk about the state of the union and are tasked with connecting with their union colleagues to talk about what’s happening in their units and find out what the union can do to help. 

When it was time for Weber’s union to recertify, the champions also reached out to members to encourage them to vote. “The face-to-face engagement really has an impact,” says Weber. “It makes a difference.” 

In a way, the need to recertify every year has been beneficial, says Jim Cichy, a registered nurse and a champion for the union. “A lot of people didn’t recognize what the union did for them, but this process has brought the idea of the union to the forefront. The conversation is constant, and because our union is visible in the fight for our rights as professionals, the energy for the union is also there,” says Cichy. “I’m sure that [Gov.] Walker and his people are surprised that many of our unions are still going strong in spite of it all. People recognize our importance, and that’s why we are still here and we are still strong.”

“It’s important to remain strong together and show solidarity,” says Leslie Roberts, an acute care nurse and a WFNHP member, who is also a champion. “Of course, the state and the county would prefer if we just fold. And for some people that would be easier, because there is so much pressure not to bother. But I am not giving in.”

Roberts points out that WFNHP continues to speak out on working conditions and standing with the community on issues that affect residents. “Those things are important, and we have been successful in our efforts.” 

A concerted effort to fight 

Over the last two years, AFT Healthcare-Maryland has seen a significant increase in the number of health professionals switching from being agency fee payers to becoming full-time members of the union. The increase in full membership is because of the union’s work to rebuild its steward structure, says AFT Healthcare-Maryland president Debra Perry. 

The union recruited members who have been activists to be stewards and began working with other members to champion issues like staffing and workplace violence, which has been a big problem in many state-run healthcare facilities. 

“Our members were also concerned about the direction of the state—with policies that targeted state employees and cuts to the state budget,” says Perry. 

Healthwire Summer 2015, Steward training AFT Healthcare Maryland. AFT-Healthcare Maryland has offered increased training for new stewards to help build membership. Photo courtesy of AFT-Healthcare Maryland.

In fact, AFT Healthcare-Maryland members were able to fight back the recommendations of the state department of legislative services that would have decreased a previously agreed-upon 2 percent COLA increase and pushed back attempts to delay step increases. Also, in coalition with other unions and interest groups, AFT Healthcare-Maryland was able to get a bill passed in the Maryland Legislature that will help prevent workplace violence in healthcare facilities. “People are upset and they are looking for answers, and we are trying to provide them. We are making a concerted effort to fight back, and our stewards are leading the charge,” says Perry.

Debbie Chesser, an AFT Healthcare-Maryland member who accepted the challenge to lead and stepped up to be a steward for members at Eastern Shore Hospital in Cambridge, Md., says she became a steward to educate her colleagues about the union. Chesser, a registered nurse who works in infection prevention, says the steward structure at the hospital is still a work in progress. But she has managed to persuade a significant number of fair share members to become full-time members. “When I approach people about the union, I focus on issues that are important to us all—like workplace safety and staffing,” she says. The union has done a lot in those areas, Chesser adds, and members are excited about that, and so they are open to what the stewards have to say and they want to take part in what we are doing. “The fact that our union has been proactive in addressing our priorities has had an effect on the membership. It has awakened a voice that we may not have had a few years ago.” 

We have a voice

Jessie Frymyer, a registered nurse at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, and president of the local at the university, wants to unify her members. Frymyer says the push for nurses to earn a bachelor’s degree has caused some friction between members, but she sees this as an opportunity to bring her members together. The local has launched a campaign it calls “I am a nurse,” which encourages all members to recognize each other as the professionals they are. “We are all in the profession for the same reason,” says Frymyer. 

In addition to addressing the academic rift between members, the OSU local’s campaign is expected to be used to help with the nurses’ professional issues, like staffing, as well as to make the union more visible. There are 3,000 nurses in the union and about 200 are agency fee payers. “Most don’t realize that they are fair share payers and that they just need to sign a form to become full members,” says Frymyer. “When nurses get their ‘I am a nurse’ gear, we’ll encourage them to check their membership status as well. We are spreading the word and getting people engaged in the work of the union,” adds Frymyer. “We have a powerful voice, we just need to use it.” 

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