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A tired Black nurse looks out a window

ILR Trio Secures Grant to Study Health Care Unions in the South

ILR scholars Director of Labor Education Research Kate Bronfenbrenner, Professor Ariel Avgar and Associate Professor Adam Seth Litwin have received a $250,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study the role of unions in the health care industry in the South.

They will serve as the primary investigators leading an interdisciplinary team featuring researchers from MIT and Tougaloo College as they analyze the effects of unionization on worker voice, working conditions and patient care outcomes with a specific focus on workers of color in the South.

“We are thrilled to partner with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and thankful that they support this vital work studying unions and the health care system,” said Avgar, Ph.D. ’08 He is ILR’s senior associate dean for Outreach and sponsored research and the school’s David M. Cohen Professor of Labor Relations. “This study will be a nice continuation of the research that Adam and I have been doing, both separately and together.”

Avgar’s previous health care research focused on employment relations practices, as well as working conditions, especially for low-wage workers.

“This is an opportunity to step back and broaden the lens and think about how those pieces fit together,” Avgar said. “We know a lot about what unions do for workers, and there's a lot of evidence about what unions do for patients. This will be an attempt to establish the leverage points that unions can be part of to provide solutions to fix our broken health care system.”

The project will begin with a review of the existing evidence regarding unions, worker voice, working conditions and patient care in health care. According to Bronfenbrenner, there is an expanding body of literature, and it is critical to conduct a comprehensive review with the goal of identifying best practices.

As part of the review, the team will assess how unions have involved frontline workers in their efforts to transform healthcare delivery.

In conjunction with the review, team members will commence collecting data on worker voice and the role of unions across multiple industries, examining patterns and trends in union and non-union healthcare organizations. These analyses will also include comparisons to other industries based on the broader data collected to highlight patterns and trends unique to the healthcare industry.

Building on the review and data analysis, the team will then begin original data collection, studying the role that unions play in advancing outcomes for workers of color in the South. This part of the project will be conducted in partnership with Tougaloo, a historically Black college in Mississippi. The analysis will examine the extent to which unions address the broad needs of workers, those that go beyond pay and benefits. They will also explore ways in which unions make sure to include frontline workers in the conversation on how to advance their working conditions and patient care.

The project will culminate by developing recommendations regarding labor-management relations in health care. The recommendations will provide policymakers, health care organizations and unions with insights into leveraging worker voice to address challenges for multiple stakeholders.

“There has been little previous research about Black healthcare workers in the South,” Bronfenbrenner said. “This funding provides us with a unique opportunity to learn about their work and union experience.”

The study will build on a larger one that members of the team are conducting with HBCUs focused on the unionization experience of Black workers in the South.

The team from MIT consists of Thomas A. Kochan, the George Maverick Bunker Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Postdoctoral Associate Yaminette Diaz-Linhart. The Tougaloo contingent includes Assistant Professor Lawren Long, Assistant Professor Julian Miller, and Policy Associate Jacorius Liner.

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