With support from the United Health Workers West — a 150,000-member strong union — nurses in California have launched the NursesCan Cooperative to create more opportunities to use their skills in the swiftly-changing healthcare industry.

"I didn't know much about co-ops before … once I started doing the research, I fell in love," Desiree M. Pedroza, a licensed vocational nurse and president of the NursesCan Cooperative's board, says. "A cooperative is one of the best things you could be part of."

The motivation to create the cooperative wasn't only to provide more work opportunities, but also better work opportunities. Licensed vocational nurses are comparable to registered nurses, but those who formed the cooperative said they couldn't utilize all their skills in most hospitals.

"Within our scope of practice, we can do thousands of things … I want to be able to do all the things that I can do with my license," Pedroza says.

The NursesCan platform cooperative, formed by five licensed vocational nurses, recently finished a pilot project providing on-demand, at-home care options for St. John's Well-Child and Family Center Clinics in South Los Angeles, California, which provides patients the option of having a nurse visit them at their home. The cooperative operates a mobile platform, too.

The pilot project proved successful for both the members of the cooperative and St. John's. The no-show rate for patients dropped dramatically, and St. John's reported that other quality indicators also improved.

Both the cooperative as well as the union see much potential to grow this model to connect more healthcare providers and nurses. The NursesCan Cooperative is currently seeking new contracts that can allow it to expand and bring on more licensed vocational nurses as member-owners.

"This the first time that our union has had a worker cooperative partner … we had to be slow and careful in a way we couldn't be with a different employer," says Ra Criscitiello, research coordinator at SEIU-UHW West. "The union has a collective bargaining agreement with the co-op … but in other respects, it's way more collaborative than any other relationship the union has."

The union has assisted the cooperative with legal assistance by hiring a professional business developer. It's also helped make introductions with potential clients. The funding to help set up the cooperative and pay for initial expenses came from grants and the prepayment from the pilot contract with St. John's. 

This is not typical for UHW West, Criscitiello says, emphasizing that the culture there enabled experimentation. Moreover, the project has buy-in from the entire leadership, along with other institutional factors in their favor.

"We are a very large, well resourced local [union], and there's an appetite for experimentation and trying things out that are new," Criscitiello says. "That's not the case in a lot of other locals."

The cooperative model also allows the union to better expand to part-time workers who are not always under union representation or receive full benefits. In fact, none of the licensed vocational nurses work for the cooperative full-time — they see this as an opportunity for extra work that can both provide more income, but also allow them to use their skills in ways that isn't always possible in many hospitals.

"The membership are a lot of lower wage healthcare workers, and their jobs have changed a lot in the last few years," Criscitiello says.

Criscitiello sees this model as a way unions can better address workers' needs, as the traditional model is facing challenges in protecting and bettering the lives of their members.

"If we do the same labor relations we've always done, which is show up every three years for negotiations, employers ask for more concessions and we get screwed," she says. "We have to do something different."

Criscitiello says she believes this model will receive positive responses from employers who want to utilize on-demand workers more and more. Doing that through a worker cooperative can result in better work for members and happier employers — a win-win. She hopes that their efforts to build this partnership will spur other unions and cooperatives to work closely together, something she does not see happening nearly enough in the healthcare sector or elsewhere.

"There are deep and powerful connections between democratic workplaces and what unions organize around," Criscitiello says. "I hope that both unions and workers co-ops can start to see the value in partnering more."

For Pedroza, who was active with United Healthcare Workers West prior to the formation of the NursesCan Care Cooperative, this has been a challenging but positive experience.

"I've put blood, sweat, and tears into this co-op," Pedroza says. "It's not easy. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it in end. I want to see this thing go big. This is a great opportunity for any LVN [Licensed Vocational Nurse] that wants more freedom."

Header photo of NursesCan Cooperative's members, courtesy of UHW-West 

Nithin Coca


Nithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on pressing social and environment issues, particularly in developing countries.