Two Views of Workers’ Unions

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(Ellen David Friedman) The registered nurses at Fletcher Allen Hospital are beginning to organize a union. Staff shortages, too many demands, and not enough respect are what’s driving this effort.

A few years ago the nurses at Copley Hospital in Morrisville organized a union, followed by the nursing assistants at the Berlin Health and Rehab Center. Many health care workers feel that managed care has produced intolerable conditions, both for patients and for staff.

A Fletcher Allen nurse with twenty-seven years of experience recently told a Senate committee: “The crisis is not a shortage of licensed nurses; it’s a shortage of nurses willing to work under conditions that are unsafe.”

So the Fletcher Allen nurses are organizing, and the hospital’s management has said they will fight it. This is an employer’s legal right. But I think health care employers have something much better to do with their money. I’d hope they would refrain from expensive anti-union efforts, and just let the nurses decide in a free and fair manner.

And I’m not alone. This week a letter signed by fifty legislators and another one signed by more than 25 religious leaders went to William Boettcher, the CEO of Fletcher Allen asking him to honor just this request. Their letter said, in part, “We believe it is a great injustice for the hospital to use its financial resources to fight nurse’s efforts to organize a union, while thousands of Vermont families go without health care.”

Let’s remember, too, that a union can help the employers and their employees work together to improve our health care system. Frontline health care workers possess, after all, the credible voice of direct experience. We will all benefit if they get to have their say.

I’m Ellen David Friedman.

(Frank Bryan) I cannot speak specifically to the health care situation in Vermont. But lessons from other sectors warn us that unions are not always the solution to the problems they are created to resolve. Often they create a whole new set of problems.

The worst of these is an increasing litigiousness, which feeds off the adversarial atmosphere that the formalization of conflict between groups inevitably produces. More and more details of a worker’s life become bargaining chips at the negotiating table. Stakes are raised to ridiculous proportions in a dance of deceit that is time consuming, depressing and expensive. Egos become increasingly involved and the adversarial character of workplace relationships is escalated to still higher levels. The potential for commonsense, compassion and cooperation is replaced by the reality of controversy, contentiousness and conflict.

I see this happening at the University of Vermont where I am a faculty member. A union means higher salaries – we are told. Perhaps. Work place conditions will improve we are told. No, workplace conditions will not improve. How can human relationships improve when human beings are set apart from one another locked into roles that are inherently divisive?

With every e-mail I get from the union I am more and more convinced it wants me to believe that the management at UVM is unfair, unresponsive and fundamentally uncaring about the faculty. Baloney.

Nor do I believe one of the arguments by union organizers last year. “All faculty members at the University of Vermont are equally deserving.” Baloney. Could I use a little more money in my paycheck? You bet. But not at the cost of eating baloney.

Ellen David Friedman is vice chair of the Vermont Progressive Party and has been active in the labor movement for 25 years. Frank Bryan is a writer and teaches political science at the University of Vermont.

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