WASHINGTON -- One of the largest labor unions in the U.S. will get a bit larger on Thursday, when the 1.5-million strong American Federation of Teachers enters into a new affiliation with the National Federation of Nurses union.
Both unions billed the affiliation as mutually beneficial: The AFT expands its ranks in the growing health care sector, while the nurses' union, which has 34,000 registered nurses in four states, hitches itself to a national federation with heavy clout both in the workplace and in politics.
Leaders from both unions described the affiliation as a natural fit, given the professional commonalities between teaching and nursing. Just as the AFT has been battling school boards over issues like classroom size, they said, so too have nurses been fighting hospitals and health care companies over staffing levels and nurse-to-patient ratios.
"We've always thought that as a union of professionals, nurses and health care were a very important piece," said AFT President Randi Weingarten, noting that the teachers' union already had 48,000 nurses among its members. "The professional issues -- patient care, like the care of children -- are really important to nurses, just as they are to teachers."
Barbara Crane, president of the nurses' union, said the affiliation would give her previously small union a much larger platform, as well as grant it membership in the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the country.
"We want to get into a big professional union that can amplify the voice of nurses, so you can impact health care and patient care," Crane said. "When you think about people who serve the community, we face the same kinds of problems. We've got short staffing, they've got crowded classrooms."
Even as organized labor's ranks continue to contract, with the ratio of unionized workers hitting a historic low last year, unions like the AFT see an opportunity to grow in health care, particularly among the nation's 2.7 million nurses. In seeking a larger partner, the nurses' union had been courted by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as well as the Office and Professional Employees International Union.
Crane and Weingarten said the relationship came at a particularly critical time for the nurses' union, as new regulations under the Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as Obamacare, start to go into effect. They hoped the affiliation could give their member nurses more muscle at a time when the job itself is about to change.
"I've read it, and I find the ACA extremely confusing," Crane laughed. Perhaps, she added, with more influence "we can get a foothold with our nurses and guide them through process."
Crane's union has members in Montana, Ohio, Oregon and Washington, and the new affiliation will give those state organizations the ability to create charters as AFT locals. Crane and Weingarten both said organizing will be a high priority, as the AFT tries to bring more nurses into the fold.
"We're really excited," Weingarten said. "This partnership runs counter to all those stories about labor's demise. [This] broadens the platform from which we do our organizing, and from which we have a voice."