Shared Governance and THE Union

Advice From the Forum: Shared Governance and the Union
Edna Cadmus, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN

The Forum typically receives several phone calls every year that goes something like this: “We have a union. We’d like to implement shared governance, but I guess we never can. We have a union!”

Sometimes people don’t even wait for the response. We went to Dr. Edna Cadmus for a proper response, because she worked as the chief nurse of a successful shared governance hospital that also had a union. Her response:

Shared governance can absolutely be implemented in a unionized environment.

Union leadership is concerned about infringing on their bargaining rights. When creating a shared governance structure in a unionized environment the required subjects of bargaining must be clear. The National Labor Relations Act defines subjects of bargaining as all matters concerning rates of pay, wages, and hours of employment or other conditions of employment to be considered. This discussion with the union leadership must occur early on to be clear about the purpose of shared governance councils and how they will be structured.

One way of handling the issues requiring bargaining is to create a council of union and nursing leadership where issues, such as staffing and workplace changes that impact staff health and safety can be discussed separate from the traditional councils. Shared governance bylaws should ensure that the rules of engagement in the councils are clear to both staff and union leadership. Educating council chairs about mandatory subjects of bargaining is important to prevent any potential issues.

Implementing shared governance in a unionized hospital setting is about the journey. The chief nursing officer needs to stay engaged and provide the time needed for the council work. If the CNO does not oversee that the time necessary for participation is provided, when staffing issues arise, members will not attend the council. This can lead to a slippery slope.

Expect that both parties will be passionate about their positions on various topics. Shared governance requires leaders who listen and create a model that works within the culture. Shared governance is different in every organization, and a union environment is no different. Everyone in the process needs to be open to customizing the structure appropriate to the organization along the way. Using education and evidence is helpful in resolving disputes. Both parties have rights and should respect each other’s position.

Edna Cadmus PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN
Executive Director, NJCCN
Co-Lead NJAC
Clinical Professor, Specialty Director, Leadership
School of Nursing
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey