On March 19, 2009, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA) announced they had entered into a cooperative agreement to work together to organize all non-union Register Nurses (RNs) and other healthcare workers and to increase efforts to enact The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)—the card check bill. SEIU is the largest union representing healthcare workers, while CNA is the largest union representing RNs. Both unions fully support passage of EFCA, which would significantly ease their efforts to organize more employees.

Although these two unions have targeted healthcare, non-healthcare employers must take note of the lengths to which formerly fiercely competing unions will go to achieve their ultimate goal of growing union membership in this country. SEIU and CNA/NNOC have competed with each other for years to organize RNs. With this agreement, both unions will refrain from seeking to raid members or from interfering with internal union affairs.

“This marks the beginning of a new future for nurses and other healthcare workers and their patients throughout this nation,” said Andy Stern, president of SEIU, the nation’s largest healthcare union. “We are lining up to make sweeping changes to this country’s broken healthcare system, and as we wait for the starting gun it is imperative that we put the past behind us and move forward by putting all healthcare workers in the strongest possible position to define reform, move legislation, and make the new healthcare system operational. Is this accord surprising? Perhaps, but those who recognize our shared value of making sure registered nurses and other healthcare workers have not only a say but a critical role in helping reshape a failed system into something that actually helps people know that this is the right step to help us meet the challenge and the call of this moment.”

“This is an exciting new day for nurses and patients across the nation,” said CNA/NNOC Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro. “This agreement provides a huge spark for the emergence of a more powerful, unified national movement that is needed to more effectively challenge healthcare industry layoffs and attacks on RN economic and professional standards and patient care conditions. It will also strengthen the ability of all direct care RNs to fight for real healthcare reform and advocate for improved patient care conditions and stronger patient safety legislation from coast to coast.”

CNA will focus on RNs.1 SEIU will focus on other hospital workers, although SEIU will continue to represent its current RN member.Both unions have repeatedly targeted Ohio RNs with mailers regarding each union’s attributes and goals to improve healthcare, advocate, for nurse-to-patient ratio legislation, and build “a powerful organization by and for direct care nurses in Ohio.” 2

The SEIU/CNA agreement signifies a significant change in the relations between the two unions, which have dueled with each other over the years to organize new members. As recently as last year, SEIU and Catholic Health Partners (CHP) had reached an agreement to hold elections at several CHP Ohio hospitals. Approximately one week before the election, CNA engaged in a campaign of its own to persuade employees to vote “no” in the SEIU election. Ultimately, SEIU and CHP cancelled the elections. Thereafter, SEIU published a mailer in which it quoted RNs who made the following comments about CNA: “They were sneaky and underhanded.” “They were dishonest…I don’t know why any Ohio RN would want to join the California Nurses Association after what they did to us.”3 The dispute was high profile, including public demonstrations against one another and a “cease and desist” Temporary Restraining Order against harassment and stalking. Now, these two unions have apparently buried the hatchet with the greater goal of organizing workers for each union’s economic benefit.

Private employers of all sizes must prepare now for what is sure to be increased employee organizing efforts. President Obama has made numerous statements in support of EFCA and alternative avenues to promote union organizing. Unions see EFCA as a significant step in making the unions’ work easier. Employers who wait to prepare and implement a plan to remain union free may find that their efforts come too little, too late.