When people think of unions in the Region, steelworkers and building tradesmen are often the first professions that come to mind.
But many health care employees are unionized: at hospitals, home care agencies and nursing homes.
Methodist Hospitals Northlake Campus in Gary, Methodist Hospitals Southlake Campus in Merrillville and St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart have union workers. The estimated 750 unionized employees include food service workers, housekeepers, certified nursing assistants and unit secretaries.
The local health care labor movement actually started at St. Mary in the mid-1970s, when it was still located in Gary, according to the Service Employees International Union Healthcare. Methodist followed in the late 1970s; Coretta Scott King actually attended the organizing rallies for that hospital.
Health care workers at the Wittenberg Village retirement community in Crown Point are also unionized. The roughly 150 employees include nurses, certified nursing assistants, housekeepers, dietary staff and clerical workers. "We've got the place wall to wall," said Larry Regan, vice president/business agent for Teamsters Local 142. The unionization started there after the nursing staff decided to form a bargaining unit six years ago, and expanded from there.
Nationally, 8.7 percent of health care and social assistance employees are unionized, according to the Current Population Survey. That's compared to 10.7 percent of workers overall. In hospitals nationwide, 13.6 percent of employees are union members. The steel industry, by comparison, is 23.2 percent.
Not without acrimony
The health care labor movement in Northwest Indiana hasn't been without acrimony. In 2000, union employees at Methodist had a 40-day strike over wages, health insurance costs and the use of temporary and part-time labor. Unionized staff at the now-defunct Wildwood Manor Nursing Home in Gary went on strike for 5½ months in the 1980s.
In May, SEIU Healthcare held a town hall meeting in Gary over concerns that the in-discussion merger between Methodist Hospitals and Franciscan Alliance would mean an end to unionization at the Gary and Merrillville hospitals. However, Ray Grady, president and CEO of Methodist Hospitals, said Franciscan had indicated that the workers could continue to collectively bargain if the deal goes through. None of Franciscan's 6,405 employees in Northwest Indiana are unionized.
"We would hope Franciscan would keep its word and be accountable to what it said," said James Muhammad, a spokesman for SEIU Healthcare.
Muhammad said the group continues to try to expand its reach at hospitals. It will be holding a Labor Day rally Monday in front of the American Hospital Association's headquarters in Chicago.
"Workers in hospitals are not going to idly stand by and watch the fastest growing industry in the country pay a nonliving wage," Muhammad said.
The dip in union membership in health care since the 1980s has been slower than other industries, said Micah Pollak, an assistant professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest. Unionization in hospitals dropped to 13.6 percent in 2016 from 17.6 percent in 1983, while overall unionization fell to 10.7 percent in 2016 from 20.1 percent 33 years earlier.
"The decline in unionization in the health care industry has generally followed the decline in unionization for all industries in the United States," Pollak said. "While in recent decades unions have come under attack as the perception has spread that unions do more harm for workers than good, this view is not supported by data. Industries and areas with have higher unionization rates, including the health care industry, tend to have higher employment and significantly better wages and benefits."
Prominent local unions
Unions once represented more than 40 percent of the workforce in Indiana. Times have changed and factories employ fewer workers than they used to but unions remain robust in the Region, a lunchpail community that remains true to its blue-collar roots. Union Proud signs sprout in yards from North Lake County to the Region’s far rural outskirts. Here, the union hall remains as integral a hub of community as the church, the ball field, the bowling alley and the Elks Lodge. Union workers forge steel, refine oil, build roads and keep the Region running. Here’s a look at the enduring presence of private-sector unions in Northwest Indiana: