Decisive Showdown: Which Union Will California Health Care Workers Choose?

NUHW activists protest outside the NLRB, demanding the labor board schedule election contests between NUHW and SEIU. Photo: NUHW.

After 18 months of legal delays and workplace skirmishes, the stage is set for a decisive showdown between the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and the Service Employees (SEIU).

On July 30 the National Labor Relations Board scheduled elections for more than 40,000 Kaiser Permanente service and technical workers in California. Kaiser is the biggest hospital chain in the state, with nearly 6.5 million patients. Ballots will be mailed September 13 and the vote count will begin October 6.

About 4,000 workers have already left SEIU to join NUHW—formed by dissident leaders of SEIU’s third-largest local after the union’s national officers trusteed it in January 2009. But NUHW’s effort to recruit the former union’s largest bargaining unit, encompassing nearly a third of its members, takes the contest to a new level.

NUHW: RANK-AND-FILE CAMPAIGN

Facing off against SEIU’s large staff and sizeable war chest, NUHW is aiming to repeat its successful effort to recruit 2,300 nurses and other professionals at Kaiser’s Southern California facilities in January.
According to Roy Chaffee, who works in Kaiser’s Vallejo call center, NUHW is relying on a deep network of rank-and-file activists—many former stewards and worksite leaders—to move its campaign.

Their message is resonating. The most recent sign is the wave of stewards who are disavowing SEIU and encouraging their co-workers to vote NUHW.

At Kaiser Santa Rosa Hospital, 48 of the 50 stewards resigned their union positions in August, announcing their support for NUHW. Dozens of stewards at other facilities have followed suit.

“I was elected to just about every committee SEIU put together since the trusteeship,” said Marcie Call, an operator on the graveyard shift and former chief steward. “Things were shady in just about every one of them. I got to see firsthand how SEIU cut backroom deals with management.”

The turning point for Call was when Kaiser issued layoff notices to 1,500 workers in August 2009, in violation of the contract’s no-layoff clause. To avoid the layoffs, SEIU did a deal to suspend seniority rights for everyone and let at-risk workers jump into vacancies, whatever their rank.

“Big bad SEIU just rolled over, and we got snowed by Kaiser,” Call said.

SEIU: ‘FEAR AND SMEAR’

The strategy for SEIU staff and supporters is “all about lowering expectations,” Chaffee said. “If you ask a question about the contract, they tell you ‘you’re lucky to have a job.’ Their game plan is fear and smear.”

SEIU claims everything’s at risk if workers vote NUHW. Staffers tell Kaiser workers they’ll lose all that they’ve built up over decades: good health care, pensions, job protections, and raises in the latest contract, inked in June. (NUHW responds that other Kaiser workers who switched unions kept raises, pointing to an August 27 labor board decision, and that labor law says the contract stays in place no matter who wins.)

“They are relying upon their supporters’ ability to scare people,” Chaffee said, adding that SEIU has dangled steward appointments—which include time off the job—to draw support.

“We don’t want to give up on anyone,” he said. “But when they’ve convinced someone that works right beside you to support them, it becomes a little more visceral.”

SEIU has cut off an important source of NUHW’s support by settling a nearly two-year feud with the hotel workers union, UNITE HERE. By providing NUHW with money, logistical support, and organizing staff, UNITE HERE helped the upstart union topple SEIU in several contests in the last year.

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But the late July truce prohibits the hotel workers from providing further material assistance to NUHW, much like an earlier deal that ended hostilities between SEIU and the California Nurses Association shortly after NUHW’s founding.

NUHW is asking supporters from other unions to volunteer on the campaign.

WHOSE PARTNER?

SEIU has also attempted to undercut NUHW by systematically dismantling the union’s previous structures at Kaiser, by removing stewards who refused to sign loyalty oaths.

Despite promises to remain neutral, Kaiser has made its preference for SEIU clear, using the company’s controversial labor-management partnership program against NUHW supporters.

Chaffee reports that SEIU has filled most Kaiser-paid positions, known as contract specialists, with members who are willing to put loyalty to the trustees above all else. Contract specialists are released from their regular jobs to do union work, such as contract enforcement.

In August Kaiser employees at nine workplaces filed a federal lawsuit against Kaiser for allegedly providing financial support to SEIU, which is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. These NUHW supporters allege that dozens of contract specialists, stewards, and lost-timers campaigned for SEIU while being paid by Kaiser—putting up posters, distributing leaflets, tearing down NUHW leaflets, and one-on-one campaigning with fellow workers.

Emily Ryan, a psychiatric social worker at Kaiser Sacramento, said NUHW supporters in nearby facilities have been tracked and harassed by SEIU reps. “They are calling managers, telling them people aren’t working. People get back from working in a different part of the hospital and their managers are grilling them about where they were, and why they were there, with exact times.”

The atmosphere has had a chilling effect. “Some people are afraid to speak out publicly,” Ryan said. “They’re worried SEIU will refuse to represent them.”

Ryan is also concerned that SEIU is manipulating NLRB procedures. She is part of a separate bargaining unit of Kaiser professionals that has also filed for an election between the two unions. No election date has been set for Ryan and her coworkers because of NLRB charges filed by SEIU. In January, a similar professional bargaining unit in Southern California voted in NUHW by a substantial margin.

“They’re blocking us because they know we’re strong and we intend to vote for NUHW,” Ryan said.

According to Chaffee, Kaiser has taken full advantage of the conflict to restructure jobs.

“They’ve done more rebalancing and shifting and twisting of work and assignments and seniority than I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s really opened the floodgates on any harebrained scheme they can come up with in the name of saving money. Never in the history of our union have folks been subjected to this.”

CONCESSIONS LOOMING?

Alongside its take-no-prisoners organizing on the shop floor, SEIU is touting the two-year contract signed in June, which secured two 3 percent raises and left benefits and work rules largely intact.
But many members worry their standards are still in jeopardy, because the contract establishes a committee to examine “cost containment” for health care benefits. Experts selected by Kaiser’s labor-management partnership, not members, will make recommendations on cuts—after the election, next May.

Editors Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Labor Notes

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #378, September 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.

Comments

Dan Mariscal (not verified) | 10/01/10

Bottom up Democracy may be slow and arduous at times, but the checks and balances that come with it are invaluable. For those of you who may not know, Andy Stern & and other staff cronies are under federal investigation. SEIU has been plagued by scandals here in California with their win-at-all-costs attitude, causing members to question what's being done in their name with their money. Keeping members in the dark, withholding facts, distracting them, misleading members and/or lying to them, is not acceptable.
If I had a choice between bottom up democracy or secret backroom deals with my employer, I would chose democracy. I know for a fact that my co-workers would choose it also.....hands down.
The real fight and enemy, here in California, is membership apathy and membership ignorance....union corruptions' best friends.

buck eichler (not verified) | 09/25/10

I am a union member and labor activist in good standing and a member of this site, and recently wrote on this article but it wasn't published. My submission pointed out an inaccuracy in the article and tried to give a more balanced perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of SEIU and NUHW. There is way too much spin on stories in this world, and I hope our house of labor and Labor Notes will always strive be a place of honest discussion and dialogue about these important issues. I am an SEIU member, and I am, and always have been, a voice to speak up for reforms within SEIU, but I believe not just SEIU, but all unions always need to be about the business of making course corrections, and that those corrections need to be made by the membership. We have the processes in place to be able to do that, but often don't use them fully. What I'm saying is that we need to follow the money. Every dime comes from the workers, and we need to be vigilent and courageous enough to go against the tide when necessary. Bottom-up union democracy is sloppy and slow and will always be in tension with expediency, yet it must prevail and hopefully we can find ways to be efficient enough to respond in a timely way to various issues without losing our soul in the process. I will be the first to say that Sal Roselli, now heading NUHW, was a strong voice for reform within SEIU, and I am very sorry we lost that voice, yet I don't believe Sal has always made the best decisions recently.
I don't know if you censored my last submission or if I made in a mistake in posting it, but I'll see if this post remains before going to the trouble to reconstruct my last post. Respectfully,
Buck Eichler, SEIU 503 (Oregon)

nerval (not verified) | 09/20/10

There are real issues to discuss here and more than one side to this situation. The article above and the Democracy Now piece seems like propaganda from one side to me. It is sad when the best we can do is take sides rather than actually analyze complex ideas.

NUHW_SUPPORTER (not verified) | 09/18/10

I work for Kaiser Permanente for 11 years & I have never seen things the way they are now. It seems' like after the hostile take over of the trusteeship in Jan. 2009 everything started to go down hill from there. It went from bad to worse. SEIU UHW is corrupted & I have seen it first hand! In central valley they had an ATP (Affordability Transition Program agreement) where they agreed to cut jobs for workers & not give them any rights entitiled to them in the contract. I was srcutinized & ousted when sharing bargaining information with workers. I was told that the benefits committee makes all decisions(ie Recomendation is what they called it) for the union members; & they have no other choice but to agree to these shady side deals. Bargaining does not work this way & this tactic is more of a top down approach than a bottom down approach of NUHW! NUHW believes workers are in charge & we do the job we know it best! The majority of us Kaiser workers are ready for things to go back how they use to be; before the trusteeship. We want workers in charge again & a union that holds management accountable when they violate the contract. Bottom line this is what its all about; this is the reason why we have a union to protect the labor workers, right? This is why we can't wait for a new day when NUHW is our union! Our Unioin! Our Choice! Our Voice! My vote is for NUHW!

figcicatrize (not verified) | 09/14/10

I was an organizer for SEIU in California years back when they were still battling over the nurses with CNA. I was a temporary contracted worker getting paid over $3500 a month with 2 health care plans and 3 different retirement plans. I worked anywhere from 60-80 hours a week (I am not kidding) and I was ALWAYS away from home. SEIU recruits young community activists along with young college activists and gives them these 3 month contracts that they renew repeatedly unless you are "lucky" enough to get hired. They train you how to train and educate workers on how to stand up to management and to fight for their rights while at the same time treating their temporary contracted workers in the very same way that we tell workers they should advocate against.

At one point I was on the SFO campaign and I was the only young woman with 5 young men and though we all had similar complaints and issues with our "management" I was the only one to speak up and I was most assuredly punished for it. One of my male coworkers made advances towards me which I attempted to let him know I was not interested. He began complaining about me to our superiors and co workers and since I was already viewed as a trouble maker his verbal abuse towards me from that point on was not only tolerated but when it came to housing I was expected to share an apartment with him! I knew at that point that SEIU no longer wanted me to work for them and was looking for a way to get me to quit so that they would not have to pay me for the 2 months left on my most recently signed contract.

The biggest complaint my bosses had with me was that the relationships that I built with members was too strong. At some point along the line I started telling the workers that they must work their union in the same way that we train them to deal with their bosses, that they weren't going to get what they were paying for unless they advocated for themselves not only with their bosses but also with their union.

Basically, SEIU sucks. It became a huge psychological and emotional burden to know that I was making so much more than most of the members we represented and that they paid my wages. It was too much to know that we were out there power organizing but did not have the resources to adequately represent those who were already members. Organizers and reps for SEIU spent SO much member money on housing and food that was a complete waste. For the 5 months I was on the SFO campaign they housed all the organizers that were not from that area in the Ramada on Market street. There were no less that 6 of us who had our own rooms and resided in that hotel for months at nearly $90 a night. That is just one minute example of their excessive waste.

I could go on and on about SEIU. The workers themselves made the experience worth it all to me but it was the workers also that made me see how terrible SEIU is. When you call upon the spirit of EV Debs and Emma Goldman while having secret backroom meetings with bosses, management and politicians you become just one more corporation that markets yourself as something you simply are not in the pursuit of more money and more power. SEIU collects humans like chattel. It is corrupt through and through. As employers they do not practice what they preach, as a Union, well, they are more like a corporation than they are a Union.

If SEIU is what Unionism has become then I guess you all are just straight up busted.