Ordinarily when we think of labor unions and their activity, we focus on their ability to secure better wages and benefits for their members. This is a critically important function of collective bargaining but hardly exhausts what unions do. Workers generally want to do their jobs well – indeed they are often more concerned about the quality of their craft than management, which is focused primarily on the bottom line.
We saw an example of this last Thursday when National Nurses United (NNU) led actions in front of hospitals across the country – public and private, Catholic and secular, for-profit and non-profit – to draw attention to a staffing crisis in American hospitals.
The nurses contend that patient care is being undermined by a shortage of nurses on duty in the nation’s ERs, and for years have called for staffing ratios limiting the number of patients assigned to each nurse. NNU regularly makes staffing ratios the centerpiece of its bargaining demands – it was staffing ratios that brought 7,000 NNU nurses out on strike in New York City a few weeks ago, and that dominated bargaining for 12,000 NNU nurses in Minnesota last September. The union persuaded California legislators to enact staffing ratios in law in 1999 and is pursuing safe staffing laws in other states.
Seeing a union taking action for the common good rather than narrowly focused on economic gains for its members may be surprising for some, but it should not be for Catholics. Historically the Church has seen unions as successors to the medieval guilds. The guilds served to establish prices and work rules in their trades, to be sure, but they were also created to preserve standards of quality and practice in their craft. As Pope Leo XIII noted in Rerum Novarum, the guilds “were the means of affording not only many advantages to the workmen, but in no small degree of promoting the advancement of art .” Clearly the Holy Father was hoping that the “workingmen’s unions” that he praised in the modern industrial economy would continue to do so. Nurses advocating for safe staffing ratios fall in this tradition.
Hospital administrators often object that they are doing their best and are struggling to hire and retain nurses as it is. Solving the problem may well entail offering nurses improved wages and benefits – after all, that’s how the market usually resolves labor shortages. But the nurses have made a sound and important choice – instead of leading with their economic demands, they have prioritized the issue of staffing ratios. Now they are trying to start a national conversation on the topic. Will we listen?