December 8, 2009 / 12:03 AM / 9 years ago

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.

A nurse feeds a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit at the Virtua Health facility in Vorhees, New Jersey, November 19, 2009. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer

Leaders of the new 150,000-member National Nurses United, comprising union locals from Maine to Hawaii, said their top priority would be to seek to organize the overwhelming majority of registered nurses who remain without union representation.

Of roughly 1.5 million nurses who provide direct patient care in U.S. hospitals and clinics, about 80 percent have no union contract, NNU officials said.

The merger, approved unanimously by delegates to the founding convention in Phoenix, unifies the California Nurses Association, with 83,000 members in California and several other states; the United American Nurses, with 45,000 members, mostly 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

Deborah Burger, president of the California nurses group, 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.

The labor movement sees an 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,” he said.

Plans to organize nonunion nurses go hand-in-hand with ongoing efforts to end mandatory overtime for nurses and other cost-cutting hospital practices that nursing advocates say have stretched patient care too thin.

The focus on patient care also figures in the union’s aim to seek passage of federal legislation setting national standards for nurse staffing levels.

Dian Palmer, president of the Nurse Alliance of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 85,000 nurses, hailed the merger of the three unions, saying it would help “ensure the delivery of safe, quality care for everyone in our country.”

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

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