John O’Connor

When it comes to labor unions, life has afforded me a somewhat unique perspective.

My parents fled to the United States after growing up in rural Ireland. Both felt America would offer a major improvement over the deprivation they had left behind.

Like so many Irish expats, my father quickly landed a union job through a friend of a friend. He soon began laboring at a milk factory, where the physical demands were grueling and the conditions were ridiculously hazardous. But the pay was pretty good.

A short time later, his ankle was crushed when milk crates collided. He was told to come back from an unpaid leave after his leg healed. As for the related medical expenses? Well, those were his to handle. But it wasn’t all bad. While he recovered, bags of groceries began arriving each week, courtesy of his union.

When the same factory shut down a few years later, the union helped him find another job that paid better wages.  Anyone with the nerve to tell my father unions were bad was asking for the fight of his life. And I don’t mean an argument.

Fast forward a few decades, and his oldest son is writing for a business-to-business magazine. Needless to say, the nursing home operators reading the publication had, shall we say, a different take. To them, collective bargaining meant two things: more headaches and higher costs.

So I guess you could say I’m pretty familiar with both pro- and anti-union sentiments.

If I were to describe the current state of affairs in this sector when it comes to unions and managers, two words come to mind. No, not those two words. Let’s go with “A mess.” 

There is simply no denying that unions and employers are basically at war right now — as they have been for quite some time. To be sure, it is a battle that unions have been mostly losing.

In fact, some are predicting unions will die out. That may or may not happen.

Regardless, there’s actually a simple and legal way for long-term care operators to keep unions at bay: Make them unnecessary. By treating workers well, keeping them safe, providing decent pay, and offering mentoring and career paths, operators can pretty much rid the field of unions. Or the industry could instead hire an army of lawyers to fight every unionization effort hammer and tong.

At the moment, the second option seems to be more in favor. And it may turn out to be the smart move. Or it may prove to be a strategy that ensures victory for law firms alone.

 John O’Connor is Editorial Director for McKnight’s