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The Big Story: Three Young Activists Who Never Worked in an Auto Factory Helped Deliver Huge Win for the UAW

“‘I thought it was important to bring in people that weren’t ingrained in the system,’ Fain told The Wall Street Journal in August.”

Are you ready to be organized?

By Courtney Kelsey
3-minute read

After watching the UAW’s turn-the-screws tactics pay off at some of its biggest competitors, Toyota announced this week it’s raising wages for its factory workers. The automaker, whose employees are not unionized, read the tea leaves and decided to invest now to help stave off a future conflict.

Today, it’s looking increasingly likely that the options for institutions with frustrated workforces are to evaluate and invest now or to prepare for increasing pressure from a new kind of labor activity.

Recent headlines have been full of this movement, as “more than 330,000 American workers have participated in strikes since the start of September,” reported Axios last month. The UAW. Hollywood writers. Hollywood actors. Nurses. Now, pharmacists.

The unions representing these groups are emboldened and getting stronger. Count on them to target every role in your health systems – yes, including your doctors.

The “Healthcare Hero” salutes from the pandemic have worn thin in the face of staffing shortages, safety concerns and physical exhaustion that have plagued the healthcare industry. This has opened the door to the power of labor’s message. Healthcare unions are actively campaigning on issues that provider organizations are struggling to solve – from compensation to job security, staffing ratios and workplace violence.

As you consider the impact of today’s labor movement, be aware that this isn’t just your father’s union organizer reincarnated in a fresh group of leaders. Much of what’s happening is new:

New support for labor. According to Gallup, Americans’ approval of unions is at 67 percent. That means 2023 is “the fifth straight year this reading has exceeded its long-term average of 62 percent.”

New players with innovative, outside-the-industry approaches. These leaders pack a powerful combination of creative mindset and aggressive tactics, using their media, political and activist expertise. They’re breaking with tradition and taking new lines to pressure long-standing, storied companies.

New tactics are proving their worth. The recent strikes in the auto and entertainment industries have been supported by an all-out media operation to own the headlines and make members’ needs and goals crystal clear. These strikes have been strategic. In Hollywood, the WGA walked out en masse, gaining the support of SAG-AFTRA members who then initiated their own strike and succeeded in shutting down the industry. In effective contrast, the UAW took a targeted, cadenced approach toward the collective industry versus walkouts at a single automaker. Putting pressure on the Big Three at once, it turned what many thought was a sure defeat into a stunning victory.

New political strength being flexed by workers. Specific to healthcare, doctors, nurses, techs, pharmacists and pharmacy techs are demanding they be treated with respect and not simply given an alliterative pat on the back. Moral injury, declining workplace safety, staffing shortages and the sheer exhaustion of being a caregiver have led healthcare workers to determine that today’s system isn’t working and perhaps organized labor can help. As one Walgreens pharmacist put it, “People are either so burned out or fed up with the way things have been going that it’s hit a bursting point. If we continue to go down the direction we’re going, it’s going to be too unsafe.”

This is another reflection of the trust gap we’ve been watching closely and of accusations that providers of care put profits above patients. But doctors, nurses, pharmacists and techs aren’t looking at hypotheticals here. They are expressing anger at their daily lived experiences.

Of utmost importance: Everyone is working within a complex system trying to operate in what can charitably be called a challenging environment.

There are no easy answers here. In this moment, a willingness to sit down and have tough conversations won’t solve all the problems or magically wave away bubbling labor activity. But it will help realign your team around the cause – rather than the symptoms – of that activity, giving you an opportunity to respond in a thoughtful, meaningful and engaging way.

Your caregivers are organizing their political power. Your organization should, too. Not to draw battle lines and fight your nurses, doctors and staff. To find and advocate for and actively pursue a path to a more sustainable system of care.

Our advice for healthcare leaders tracking this issue, or facing increased union activity? Learning from labor strategies in other industries is always helpful. But closer to home, look at your organization and assess your exposure. Start by asking these questions.

  • Are we clear on our story and actions on the issues that matter to our workforce, including compensation, safety, staffing and more? Are we communicating that outside of recruiting or open enrollment?
  • When did we last survey our physicians and nurses? Have we asked meaningful, insightful questions that should inform our approach to employee engagement? Have we given physicians and staff open opportunities to tell us what’s on their mind?
  • Similarly, when was the last time we really listened to our physicians and staff at every level? Did we make any changes based on what they had say? While not everything they want is something we can deliver, are we truly thinking through each request?
  • When was the last time our team had clear-eyed conversations with leaders at every level? Are we asking about the challenges they’re facing? Are we asking about the conversations happening related to organizing – not pushing managers to betray the trust of their colleagues, but to identify and understand the gaps that might be leading physicians, nurses and other staff to lean towards unionizing or a strike.
  • How are we creating opportunities for our staff? How are we working to upskill our leaders? Is it merely mandatory compliance training with a little bit of career development sprinkled in? Are we engaging frontline leaders who were promoted during the pandemic and continuing to give them resources to grow and thrive?
  • How often are our executives rounding with intent on these groups? When we round, are we simply showing on the floor, saying hello and taking furtive glances at our cell phones? When was the last time we were more than just physically present – digging in, having conversations, demonstrating a readiness to listen and problem-solve?
  • Do we have a clear, updated policy on solicitation and distribution? Ultimately, if we’re taking a stand on union activity, are those expectations well-designed and well-known to all stakeholders?