8 unions allowed in hospitals

April 24, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun Blair Walker of the The Sun's Business staff contributed to this report.

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court unanimously upheld yesterday a government rule that will require the nation's private hospitals, with few exceptions, to bargain with up to eight different collections of their workers.

Rejecting a claim by hospitals that the National Labor Relations Board has violated its duty to see that there are fewer unions among workers at some 4,000 private institutions, the court said rTC the NLRB had the power to write a broad bargaining unit rule that applies nationwide.

Under the NLRB rule adopted two years ago this month, "acute-care" hospitals -- those in which the patients stay less than 30 days -- are to have eight separate bargaining units: doctors in one; nurses in another; other professionals in a third; technical employees in a fourth; skilled maintenance workers in a fifth; business office clericals in a sixth; guards in a seventh; and all other non-professionals in an eighth.

No separate unit is necessary if there are five workers or less in a given category.

Each unit would be free to choose its own union, and thus the hospital might have to bargain with eight unions and face an increased risk of strikes if some of the unions were balky. The separate units, of course, would be free to choose the same union if it organized workers other than in special, narrow categories.

The court's decision yesterday applies only to "acute-care" hospitals in the private sector. Federal labor law exempts government-owned hospitals from the general bargaining duties of employers in the private sector.

For years, private hospitals also were exempted, but Congress put them under the law in 1974, saying that improvements in health care would result if workers could challenge working conditions that might impede quality health care.

Hospital operators, however, said they feared the added strike risks of dealing with a multiplicity of unions. Congress wrote into the law a suggestion that the NLRB do what it could to avoid a large number of bargaining units.

Maryland has 15 hospitals with unionized workers, Richard H. Wade, spokesman for the Maryland Hospital Association, said. "In about five hospitals, that constitutes nurses, and the rest are service workers," said Mr. Wade, who didn't know how many state hospital workers belong to unions.

"We know where union representation is, we've just never determined the size of each individual bargaining unit," Mr. Wade said.

In 1989, the NLRB, after losing court battles over its definitions of hospital bargaining units, wrote a nationwide rule that said it would follow an eight-unit approach in all but "extraordinary circumstances."

The hospital industry's challenge to that rule failed in yesterday's ruling in American Hospital Association vs. NLRB (No. 90-97).

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