National Nurses United: Supreme Court case on public unions threatens patient safety

A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court this week to review a case that could limit the power of public unions to collect fees from nonmembers, could also destroy their bargaining power, and in effect, endanger patient safety, the largest U.S. organization of nurses warned Tuesday.

The case, Friedrichs v. CTA (California Teachers Association), challenges the right of public unions to collect mandatory representation fees that most California teachers pay. Although the high court has said that unions can't require workers to pay for their political activities, it has determined that even if employees don't join or support unions, they must contribute something toward their cost of negotiating higher wages and benefits for everyone.

A ruling against the mandatory fees would have a major effect on California's public employee unions, which represent hundreds of thousands of workers--and across the country, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

"This is a very significant case. It may well be life or death for the unions," Harvard Law School professor Benjamin Sachs told the LA Times. "Unions are required to represent everyone. And this could mean nobody has an obligation to pay."

Jean Ross, R.N., co-president of National Nurses United (NNU), said in a statement that the intended effect is to bankrupt public sector unions, including many nurse unions that advocate for patient safety, "by allowing members to enjoy all the privileges of union representation, including wage increases, health coverage, pensions upon their retirement, and improved working conditions, while avoiding any financial responsibility to help support the work done by their union on their behalf."

The anti-union groups want to eliminate the ability of workers to have a voice in the workplace and put profits ahead of worker rights--and in the case of nurses--patient health and safety, Ross claims. The NNU said "right-to-work" movements in the private sector have led to a decline in union membership, stagnant wages for most workers, a drop in relative living standards and a massive gap in income equality.

But nurses say they are most concerned with the impact of right-to-work laws on public health. States that have introduced "right to work" legislation rank lower on average in infant mortality, cardiovascular deaths, access to primary care physicians and mental health services and infectious disease control, according to the NNU.

"For nurses, weakened unions, whether in the public or private sector, means less ability to speak out against unsafe patient care conditions to employers or public agencies, exposing more patients to the risk of death or other health complications in a healthcare industry increasingly dominated by big corporate chains that put their profits and budget goals ahead of patient protections," Ross said.

The Supreme Court will hear the case during its next term, which begins in October.

To learn more:
- read the NNU statement
- here's the LA Times article