Federal Labor Law Aggravates NMH Strike

In separate letters to Northern Michigan Hospital (NMH) President Tom Mroczkowski and to Teamster Local 406 President Patrick Burns, Gov. Jennifer Granholm repeated an admonition to "settle this strike and begin healing the community." This is an admirable sentiment, but in both labor law and medicine some things must take their course before the healing can begin. In Petoskey the "illness" of a labor dispute is aggravated by the flawed structures of federal labor law, which treats nurses as a solid block when they are themselves thoroughly divided, adding confusion to acrimony.

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Depending on which vote count you believe is more reliable, nurses either want the Teamsters removed, 178 to 156, or want the Teamsters retained, 288 to 211. The difference between the totals comes about because of challenges to the eligibility of some voters, mostly nurses who have taken positions at other hospitals since the strike began, and who were largely union supporters. Whether or not their votes should be counted depends on whether or not they can be considered to have "abandoned" their jobs at NMH, a difficult question over which reasonable, well-intentioned people may differ. For now, the latter count will hold, and the Teamsters will remain in place, because Northern Michigan Hospital has dropped its challenges to the election.

Teamster supporters cannot relax yet, though. There is reason to believe that there will be another vote to remove the Teamsters next year. Until then, all that can be said with any confidence is that somewhere between 47 and 57 percent of nurses want the Teamsters to represent them, and somewhere between 43 and 53 percent of the nurses want the Teamsters gone.

And therein lies the rub. If there is one thing that can be firmly concluded from the conflicting vote tallies, it is that the nurses themselves are pretty evenly divided on the whole union question. But the National Labor Relations Act forces the hospital to deal with the Teamsters as if they had the support of all or nearly all the nurses. And if the Teamsters lose next year, they represent no one, even if the margin is razor thin and nearly half of NMH nurses still want them around.

The NMH strike illustrates the fundamental flaw of forced collectivization in federal labor law, and the assumption that workers with similar jobs all have similar interests and workplace concerns. A labor law that allowed individual choice might work better, especially in the case of Northern Michigan Hospital.

A better, more nuanced approach to labor relations would allow the nurses more individual freedom to decide who speaks for them. At NMH, such a law would mean that nurses who want Teamster representation would be covered by the Teamsters contract, and nurses who oppose the Teamsters would find another representative or would negotiate for themselves.

Such a law would allow for more flexible negotiations, and would actually strengthen the union in two key respects. First, the Teamsters would not have the burden of representing nurses who want nothing more than the removal of the union itself. At the same time, the Teamsters would not have to fear complete removal due to a shift in the opinions of a handful of nurses. Such a law would render the question of "agency fees" — whether workers who do not join the union must pay a fee equivalent to the amount of union dues — moot, removing a difficult obstacle to settlement. Nurses who do not support the union would bear none of the costs of the union but would also be entitled to none of its services.

The National Labor Relations Act did not cause the conflicts that lead to the NMH strike. But by treating 500 very deeply divided nurses as if they were united, it has aggravated and confused the process and perhaps prolonged the strike. A labor law that gave full respect to individual choices would allow for a settlement that reflects the concerns of all parties involved: the hospital, the union, and 500 nurses with minds of their own.


Note: Paul Kersey is labor policy research assistant at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.