December 7, 2009 / 8:46 PM / 8 years ago

U.S. nurses unions merge, back healthcare overhaul

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Three nurses unions merged on Monday to form the largest-ever labor organization for U.S. medical professionals, which is expected to wield greater clout in collective bargaining and the national healthcare debate.

Organizers said the new 150,000-member National Nurses United, comprising union locals from Maine to Hawaii, would use its strength to fight for patients' rights, higher healthcare standards and better working conditions for nurses.

Deborah Burger, president elect of the NNU and head of its largest constituent union, the California Nurses Association, called the merger a big step.

"It's a huge day ... not only for the nursing profession, but also for our patients," she said. "We will be able to go to the halls of Congress and advocate for stronger patient protection, for better healthcare."

The merger, approved unanimously by delegates at a founding convention in Phoenix, unifies the CNA, which has 83,000 members in California and several other states; the United American Nurses, with 45,000 members, mostly in the Midwest, and the 22,000-member Massachusetts Nurses Association.

The move comes as President Barack Obama is battling to rally support for his top domestic priority, an overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system that extends coverage to millions of uninsured people and curtails spiraling costs.

He faces sharp divisions among lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Congress over his proposal for a new government-run insurance plan, or public option, an approach fiercely opposed by Republicans and private health insurers.

NURSES SEEK STRONGER HEALTH OVERHAUL

Burger said the merger would likely lend powerful support for the more progressive aims of the overhaul, but she said Obama's plan would not go far enough.

"What we've got now isn't really healthcare reform, it's a reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic as far as our patients are concerned, and we're going to make sure that we ... have universal healthcare that is truly universal and has eliminated the insurance companies," she told Reuters.

Aside from a bigger voice in the healthcare debate, the merger is expected to give nurses greater leverage in collective bargaining after decades of growth in national hospital chains that have largely resisted union organizing.

Organized labor sees a big opportunity to bolster its ranks in the healthcare industry, a sector that has continued to create jobs during the recession and is expected to see 20 percent employment growth above 2006 levels by 2016, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics.

"This is where the jobs of the future lie," said Chris Tilly, director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Baby boomers like me are aging and will soon need a lot of nurses, so this is an area where there's going to be a lot of expansion. There's going to be a lot of hard political decisions to make, and they're anticipating that and forming this broader coalition to get into those debates," he said.

Plans to organize nonunion nurses will go hand-in-hand with a campaign to set national standards for lowering nurse-to-patient ratios, union leaders said.

"Today we are 150,000 strong, dedicated to a united mission: to organize every unrepresented direct-care registered nurse in America within the family of the National Nurses United," Karen Higgins, president of the Massachusetts nurses, said in a speech to the delegates.

They want "to ensure that every American has access to one single standard of high quality healthcare based on patient need, not corporate profit," Higgins said.

Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, editing by Chris Wilson

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