A broader role for unions, by Robert Kuttner
Source Dave Anderson
Date 99/05/01/18:48

/* Written 9:11 AM Apr 1, 1998 by in igc:labr.all */
/* ---------- "Boston Globe commentary" ---------- */
Forwarded message:
> From Tue Mar 31 15:29:02 1998
> Subject: Boston Globe commentary (fwd)
> A broader role for unions
> By Robert Kuttner, 03/29/98
> The California Nurses Association recently won a remarkable contract with
> Kaiser-Permanente, the nation's largest HMO. The contract puts nurses in the
> role of quality watchdogs at Kaiser hospitals. Under the plan, part of a hard-
> won, four-year contract, nurses can force management to deal with lapses in
> high-quality care.
> For now the contract affects only the 2.7 million subscribers in Kaiser's home
> territory in Northern California, and it must still be ratified by the union
> membership. But it could become a model.
> There are several larger lessons here. First, nurses are the hands-on
> caregivers in hospitals. With managed care, patients have to be sicker in the
> first place to get admitted, their stays tend to be shorter, and budgetary
> pressures keep reducing nurse staffing ratios.
> Nurses bear the brunt of all of this as workers, and consumers pay the price
> as patients. So it makes sense to align nurses' interests with patients'
> interests. This approach of quality control at the bedside could be a better
> counterweight to the excesses committed in the name of managed care than
> bureaucratic remedies.
> Second, please note that it was a union that fought for, and won, this
> innovation. And note that Kaiser, still a nonprofit, is among the best of the
> nation's HMOs. As a socially motivated HMO, Kaiser has a ''partnership'' with
> its AFL-CIO unions that involves unions in management planning and discourages
> work stoppages.
> Interestingly, however, the California Nurses Association is a more militant,
> independent union, not affiliated with the AFL-CIO. This agreement came only
> after a year of bitter skirmishes punctuated by one- and two-day nurses'
> strikes that hurt Kaiser's public image and cost the HMO many millions of
> dollars. So the watchdog agreement is the fruit of an unusually militant union
> reaching a settlement with an unusually public-minded HMO.
> This raises a third question. Can such institutions survive?
> Unions do best not just as self-interested workers with their hands out but as
> a broader social conscience on behalf of vulnerable people. Indeed, if labor
> fails to play this role, it is just another interest group, and it loses
> public support.
> The AFL-CIO national office in Washington displays a set of pens that
> President Lyndon Johnson used to sign historic Great Society legislation:
> Medicare, federal aid to education, Head Start, and the three great civil
> rights acts - not one of them, strictly speaking, ''labor legislation.'' But
> labor movement stood for a broader vision of the good society and fought hard
> for their enactment.
> By coincidence, California is also the opening battleground of a bid by
> business groups and the Republican Party to strip labor of much of its
> political power. A ballot initiative billed as a ''paycheck protection act''
> would bar unions from spending money collected in union dues for even
> nonpartisan political activity except through special levies collected from
> one member at a time.
> This initiative has inspired similar measures in other states and in Congress.
> Grover Norquist, head of the right-wing Americans for Tax Reform, underwrote
> much of the cost of collecting the necessary signatures to put the initiative
> on the ballot and has said his goal is to ''crush unions as a political
> entity.'' Corporations, of course, spend hundreds of millions in politics,
> without asking permission of their employees or shareholders.
> Since unions are the single most potent counterweight to organized business in
> politics, this proposal would only intensify the right-wing tilt of American
> politics. Though the AFL-CIO's $35 million spent in the 1996 election was
> widely publicized, business as a whole outspent labor by about eight to one.
> Most voters, of course, are not members of unions. Labor will beat this
> initiative only if it can persuade citizens that unions are advocates not just
> of their own self-interest, but of a decent society generally.
> Initiatives like the nurses' Kaiser contract help reinforce that now-tenuous
> bond. It also helps to have companies like Kaiser, whose values transcend the
> corporate bottom line. Most hospitals fiercely resist unionization. Kaiser, at
> least, welcomes unions as social partners and then negotiates hard about the
> particulars.
> Such institutions are oases of broader public values in a social desert of
> radical individualism, whose credo might as well be ''everyone for himself.''
> In recent decades, for-profit institutions have been crowding out nonprofit
> ones, and unions have representing a dwindling share of US workers.
> If labor recovers, it will rebound not just by redoubling its organizing, but
> by standing for broader public purposes. And if nonprofits survive, they will
> do so by demonstrating greater heart than their for-profit competitors.
> Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears
> regularly in the Globe.
> This story ran on page E07 of the Boston Globe on 03/29/98.
> Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.

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