Wall Street moguls might not care about values, ethics, morality, statutes, humanity, the environment, the common good, or world peace, but the U.S. Veteran Affairs nurses could benefit greatly from doing what they do.  Those who run The Street know how to protect themselves personally from risk, profit from information, produce wealth through relationships, accumulate power, shape the future to their advantage, and, except for a sprinkling of indictments here and there, always come out on top.  That is precisely what VA nurses need from their labor unions, but are not getting.  Here is why.

At the outset, we want to declare that we are focusing on the VA nurses’ unions only as an example.  All American labor unions, federal sector and otherwise, need a little more “Street” in how they operate.  The VA nurses are simply a group that most readers will understand and sympathize with.

Currently, five different unions represent the over 50,000 RNs within the VA system.  They are AFGE, NFFE, NAGE, SEIU, and NNU (National Nurses Union.)  In some places the nurses have their own bargaining unit, in others they share the unit with other VA professionals, and in still others everyone in the hospital is in the same unit. That is not the result of some grand union plan to maximize clout. The nurses just kind of stumbled into their current union structure like most other unionized employees. But the critical question is whether they could do better. FEDSMILL beleives they can. 

There is no doubt that RNs could boost their influence inside the VA if they were all members of the same union organized into a single unit of just nurses.  Moreover, such a structure would also position RNs to decide for themselves when a nursing priority takes precedence other bargaining demands. Their priorities would not have to be balanced at the bargaining table with those of all other VA professionals or other employees.  That may sound selfish, but remember selfishness is what drives Wall Street’s success. (Listed at the end of this article are just a few of the tangible benefits of a single union/unit of VA RNs.)     

So, if one nationwide, RN-only union is what’s best for the VA nurses, what will it take to get them there?  The short answer is that unions’ leaders have to start thinking like Wall Street investment bankers.  The leaders on The Street know that the most reliable way to maximize investors’ return on their dollar (ROI) is to consolidate the corporate players in an industry into one or just a few entities.  If that means hostile takeovers of competitors, replacing family control of a business with professional experts, ruthless cost-cutting, and almost no regard for any traditions that made the individual company what it is today, so be it.  While the market moguls have not delivered a utopian economy, most others around the world would call it a model economy.  Labor union clout in the labor market, on the other hand, equates to that of an Arthur Treacher’s in the fast food industry, i.e., most people are surprised when they stumble across one and have to struggle to remember why they would want to be there.

Unfortunately, internal union rules and traditions prohibit SEIU, NFFE, NAGE and AFGE from trying to take over one another’s bargaining units.  They operate under a non-compete pact made decades ago that has blocked unions from raiding one another even if that competition typically means that in the end the best organization survives and grows.  If company CEOs tried that, they would go to jail. Labor, on the other hand, convinced itself prohibing competition is a virtue even though it has proven as determinative of the future sustainability of unions as sexual abstinence did for the Shakers.

The only union currently representing VA nurses that could start raiding and taking over the others forcefully is NNU, which appears to reject the “no-raiding” commitment. However, while NNU focuses solely on RN needs, it has little to no expertise or experience in the federal sector rules, laws, or organizations that control VA working conditions.  NNU affiliation also means that VA RN interests are lumped in with those of state, county, municipal and private hospitals and other health care providers.  It is unlikely that NNU, or any union, could develop expertise, experience and power in each of those legal arenas.  we will say more about this shortly, but that is the reason why baseball, footbal and basketball players never formed one union.

It is possible that the union leaders currently representing VA RNs could agree among themselves to move all VA RNs in one union, but narrow self-interests put the odds of that happening on par with flying pigs or a working Congress.  Giving up members means giving up income, which is traditionally, but incorrectly, considered to be economic insanity.  In addition, labor laws make it virtually impossible for unions to swap bargaining units.  For example, AFGE could not just hand over its members in the Forest Service to NFFE in return for NFFE’s VA nursing units. Labor laws also prohibit all the VA nurses from demanding one nationwide election to choose their ideal union structure.  Currently organized VA nurses can only change unions during certain narrow windows of time, which are different for every bargaining unit.  Even then, they would have to overcome the legal presumption that their current unit is legally good enough.  It is not enough to prove they would be better off under another bargaining unit structure.

The only thing that can help the VA nurses improve health care and their own employment conditions is a White Knight—to use another Wall Street term.   This White Knight would be another labor union, unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO or others that have pledged to not raid other unions.  Ideally, the White Knight union would also bring something to VA nurses that they do not have among themselves, e.g., the legal, legislative and bargaining expertise to represent federal employees at the highest level of competence.  That union would make a deal with the VA nurses in one of the existing unions to leave their current union and join the new one.  Once the White Knight union had a base among VA RNs, it could begin trying to convince the VA RNs in other unions to join them as well.

Admittedly, the White Knight union could also try to convince the leaders of the various unions to give up their RN members, but the odds are against that with AFGE and SEIU.  Both are strong, well-funded operations—even if not ideally structured to represent VA nurses.  NFFE and NNU are another story.  NFFE is not financially strong, which generally means it should be open to a deal that would help its remaining units.  NNU is financially strong, but lacks the experience and expertise with FLRA, MSPB, OPM, OMB, GAO and other federal employee entities.  That puts them at a serious comeptitive disadvantage. 

 “The Advantages of a Single VA-wide Unit of RNs”

If VA nurses have any doubt about the value of forming one, nationwide, RN-only bargaining unit, they should ask themselves why other groups of professionals, namely, the athletes of the NFL, NBA, and MLB–

  • limited their membership just to the players, excluding other team employees from their union/unit or even athletes from the minor league level of their sport,
  • demanded to bargain at the league-level rather than with local individual team owners, and
  • rejected the option of forming one union composed of all professional athletes no matter the sport or league.

While it might be a romantic concept to unite all professional athletes under one union, it would be strategically foolish for the same reason the ABA and AMA do not merge nor do the high school teachers and university faculty members bargain together.  Unions do best when they have a right to deal as a single united entity with the highest officials of their employer—no higher and no lower.

 If VA nurses were united in one union and unit rather than split among five different ones, they could—

  • Deal directly with the top VA leaders without that leader worrying that he/she is illegally favoring one union versus another or setting a precedent that other unions will demand he/she improve upon for their nurses,
  • File one grievance for all nurses when there is some nationwide violation of their rights rather than the dozens that must be filed now to correct the harm for all nurses spread over many units,
  • Develop a priceless data base about practices and problems at all VA nursing facilities,
  • Put their most talented RN negotiators at a single national bargaining table to negotiate uniform nationwide management practices, e.g., for bonuses, shift seniority, reassignments, promotions, etc.,
  • Present themselves to the media and politicians as the sole national spokesperson for VA nurses—rather than one of five;
  • Possess a great deal of clout in any other union they chose to affiliate with so long as that union is not too big, and
  • Free themselves of a lot of limitations on their right to bargain.

That last point is worth a little more explanation.  There is a rule of law that says one union cannot even propose to bargain a contract rule which would impact employees in another bargaining unit or union.  For example, today, no union in VA could bargain a clause guaranteeing nurses the right to transfer to any nursing vacancy anywhere in the VA because that would involve nursing jobs under the current jurisdiction of five unions.  It may be hard to hear, but by dividing themselves among multiple unions nurses have gifted management power it could get no other way.  It is the old “divide and conquer” adage playing out yet again.

If not moved by our comparison to the professional athlete unions, just look at the virtually unmatched benefits NTEU has negotiated with the IRS that many other unions cannot even negotiate due to legal limits of how they are structured.  AFGE’s unit of federal prisons personnel is another good example as is NATCA’s work for air traffic controllers.   

On the opposite end of the spectrum, employees of the Forest Service, EPA, and others remained limited in what their unions can accomplish for them because they have multiple unions.  Defense is probably the worst example with the employees on some DOD military bases represented by eight different unions.

Capitalism and competition have their flaws, but until something better comes along they have demonstrated how groups of people can best organize themselves for a top return on the effort they put into something.

As we said at outset, our article is not just about VA RNs.  Most unions could benefit greatly by reorganizing themselves so that one union represents all the employees of an agency in a single nationwide unit and union.  The only thing stopping them is themselves.

About AdminUN

FEDSMILL staff has over 40 years of federal sector labor relations experience on the union as well as management side of the table and even some time as a neutral.
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4 Responses to

  1. Peter Winch says:

    Practical experience gained in hard won battles has proven to working people that it is better as rule to organize across a whole “industry” like health care in the federal sector, or “company” like the VA, rather than by “craft” like nurses- only. Craft divisions still exist in the labor movement, even though they went out of fvor generations ago, but they are not the “ideal” . When there are six or seven separate bargaining units for different crafts and categories of employees, as is often the case in private sector hospitals, management’s hand is strengthened over all.

    • AdminUN says:

      Generally, we agree that it is better to place all employees of a single employer in one unit. However, we also believe that there needs to be exceptions to nearly every rule in life–and nurses present a good case for one. Most often there are many more of them than any other profession in a hospital, they see themseleves primarily as members of a distinct profession rather than as members of an individual employer’s workforce, and their working conditions are very different from those of most other hospital employees. If they are more comfortable organizing as separate from others in a hospital (and there is overwhelming evidence that they do prefer that approach over throwing in with everyone else) then unions have to accommodate that. Unions must bend to the demands of employees, not demand that they adjust to an idealized structural model the union prefers. Otherwise, both nurses and unions lose–which is the case in the VA today. As we said, one need only look to the unions of professional althletes which exclude all other team employees from membership to see the value of an RN-only union.

  2. Peter Winch says:

    There already is one union that covers the vast majority of VA nurses in a single unit, namely the AFGE Council of VA Locals. They are doing a heck of a job on issues like Title 38 bargaining rights, bringing the whole clout of the union to bear on behalf of the nurses and other Title 38 employees. There are several other unions that represent single units of VA nurses besides those mentioned here, including the AFT (teachers), the RWDSU (Retail workers) and the Teamsters, all of whom added together and multiplied several times would not equal the number of VA nurses represented by AFGE. AFGE gains strength by representing the interests of all federal employees and not being limited to single job category.

    • AdminUN says:

      If you are not disagreeing with the assertion that having all the nurses in one unit represented by one union would be better for them, and no AFL-CIO union can do that, including AFGE, due to the limitations of the no-raid rule, then the result will always be that nurses are not as well represented as they could be. That is a metaphysical certainty; there is no room for argument. Given that AFGE has the largest unit in VA, it would be ideal if it could get them all under one roof–or at least better than the current situation. Until it can, is it not unfair for the VA unions to hold the nurses hostages to a structure the unions put in place?

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