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3 Reasons Even Right-Wing Republicans Should Like Unions

Your chances of surviving a heart attack are higher if the nurse who attends you is in a union. And that's just for starters.
 
 
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Want a reason to support unions? A union may help keep you alive.

Your chances of surviving a hospital stay after a myocardial infarction – also known as a heart attack – are higher if your nurses are in a union than if they’re not.

That’s the conclusion of a study by academics at the University of Massachusetts and the University of California. It’s also part of a much larger picture that the media ignore, that might give even right-wing Republicans a reason to support unions, and that makes the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics evidence of a dwindling union presence bad news for all of us.

1. A majority of the people who belong to unions hold professional or technical jobs, and their union membership protects the people they serve.  Registered nurses are only one group that has organized unions. Others include – but are not limited to – professors, scientists, judges, professional athletes, teachers, engineers, scientists, screenwriters, newscasters, broadcast technicians, stagehands, actors, musicians, and recording artists. As of 2010, a majority – more than 54 percent – of the people in unions were in professional or technical fields.

2. Professional and technical people consistently rank an ability to do their jobs right as a top workplace priority, and unions ensure that they can. Professional and technical people invest their energy, time, and money to develop their expertise and skills. They bring to their work their personal ethics, their professional standards, and often professional codes and licenses. Decades of attitudinal research show that professionals consistently choose an ability to do their work right as a top priority that often ranks above pay and benefits.

Frustrate the ability of a professional to do his or her job the way it should be done, and the result is “moral distress.” That’s the topic of an academic literature that has emerged about registered nurses and other health care professionals blocked from effectively treating or advocating for their patients. Its results may include anger, frustration, and leaving the profession. The problem is pervasive enough, and goes far enough beyond health care, to have generated a book, Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America’s Best Workers Are More Unhappy Than Ever, by David Kusnet, and a coalition, Professionals for the Public Interest: Associations and Unions Defending Professional Integrity.

3. Unions provide a way for professional and technical people to shield and strengthen their professional integrity. According to a recent study by the Ethics Resource Center, the likelihood that an employee will oppose wrongdoing at work rises dramatically with the presence of a union. Funding for the Center comes not from unions but from major corporations with employees who do not belong to unions. That makes its conclusion all the more striking.

It’s not hard to understand the difference between a union workplace and one where employees lack union protections. The general rule is that an employer can fire an employee for any reason or no reason, unless a law specifies otherwise. It’s called at-will employment. Almost all unions negotiate for a different rule that requires "just cause” – a good reason – to discipline or fire an employee. Unions also seek from employers a procedure that brings in a neutral third party to decide whether just cause existed. The result: a safety buffer that allows employees to honor their personal ethics and professional standards.

Professional integrity serves all of us – which is why even right-wing Republicans should support unions. To provide safe medications and medical devices, reliable weight-bearing bridges, and airborne aircraft, professional and technical people need protections against interference. They need the latitude to do their jobs right.

Unions provide the latitude that enables professional and technical people to exercise their best judgments in the interests of the rest of us. Forget the lazy, outdated, and pernicious clichés about unions. It’s a new workforce, and a majority of the people in unions holds jobs that didn’t exist when unions began.

Unions today offer highly educated, highly skilled professional and technical people a way to function at their highest levels of expertise. That benefits all of us. Even a Scott Walker in Wisconsin or a Nikki Haley in South Carolina might like an extra edge when the issues are life or death.

 

David Cohen is executive director of the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO, a coalition of 21 national unions representing professional and technical people.

 
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