Teachers Union Absorbs Rump Nurses Group

In a surprising move, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) announced an affiliation yesterday with the National Federation of Nurses (NFN), the 34,000-member alliance of state nurse associations formed in 2009.

The merger provides much-needed stability for the NFN, which has failed to secure membership in the AFL-CIO since its hasty formation four years ago.

Last year the NFN suffered a blow, losing half its membership, when nurses in New York—spearheaded by an insurgent leadership of bedside nurses—voted to leave the federation.

A Shrinking Footprint

The NFN-AFT affiliation is just the latest chapter in a rapidly-changing nurse union landscape that continues to eclipse the American Nurses Association (ANA). For the past 25 years, union nurses have peeled away from the century-old organization, which formulates standards for nursing practice and opposed nurse unionism for most of its existence. According to yesterday's announcement, NFN affiliates will remain members of the ANA.

Union nurses have long decried the disproportionate influence of nurse managers in the organization and its leadership bodies. In response to this pressure—and to stem further defections like the high-profile breakaways in California and Massachusetts—the ANA established an arm for unionized staff nurses, the United American Nurses, in 1999.

The move to break away from the ANA was driven by staff nurses who wanted to build stronger unions through coordinated bargaining and strategic contract campaigns, and to tackle legislative priorities such as nurse-patient ratios and single-payer health care.

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By 2003 the UAN had established formal independence from the ANA, even affiliating with the national AFL-CIO. But in 2007 several state affiliates uncomfortable with the full-fledged union model, including New York, Oregon, Washington, and Ohio, split with the UAN. They would eventually form the NFN.

But before the NFN could be launched, the remaining members of the UAN joined together with the California Nurses Assocation and the Massachusetts Nurses Assocation to form National Nurses United, whose 185,000 members make it the largest nurse organization in the country.

Pivotal Role of New York

The abrupt exodus from the UAN, and subsequent formation of NFN, created deep divisions inside the largest breakaway state union, the New York State Nurses Association. Members voted against the disaffiliation, but their Board of Directors ignored the non-binding referendum. Several UAN supporters, targeted for discipline in the aftermath, eventually took NYSNA to court to block the disaffiliation. Although they could not stop the disaffiliation, they won a settlement that lifted the penalties imposed on them by the union, forcing the union to permit discussion and internal free speech in accordance with the law.

These dissidents eventually won a majority on the NYSNA board, but only after waging a court battle to be seated. Reformers suspended NFN affiliation and promptly followed the path of California and Massachusetts by barring nurse supervisors from the board of directors, putting NYSNA firmly in the hands of staff nurses. Several key leaders from the NYSNA old guard are now running the NFN.

In October, NYSNA members voted to pull out of the ANA as well.

Despite NFN President Barbara Crane’s dig at the union’s far bigger rival, NNU, for raiding state nurse groups, yesterday's announcement calls into question AFT’s ambitions in New York. Does the group plan to organize non-union nurses, or raid NYSNA bargaining units?

Mark Brenner is the Director of Labor Notes. He can be reached at mark@labornotes.org