Viewpoint: California Voters Disenfranchised by SEIU’s Shady Deal with Employers

A court has blocked SEIU-UHW from filing a ballot initiative to limit the pay of nonprofit hospital executives—because it violated the union's deal with the California Hospital Association. The appropriateness of such deals was among the issues in the 2009 split between SEIU-UHW and the breakaway NUHW. Photo: Spot Us/NUHW (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s an inside joke in the labor movement that Dave Regan, president of Oakland-based Service Employees-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), is better at organizing employers than he is workers. But recent developments make it clear that he’s not even good at that. And California voters are paying the price.

Earlier this month, a judge blocked the union’s attempt to place on the November ballot an initiative that would have limited the pay of nonprofit hospital executives.

Why did the judge block it? Because it’s a bad idea? No. Because it was written incorrectly? No.

It’s hard to believe, but the courts blocked the ballot initiative because it violated a secretive, collusive arrangement between SEIU-UHW and the California Hospital Association (CHA).

For the second time in as many election seasons, California voters have been duped, defrauded, and double-crossed by SEIU-UHW—and now they’re being fed an outrageous lie to explain it away.

PREDICTABLE DISASTER

In 2014 SEIU-UHW abandoned its watchdog role by agreeing to a gag clause that legally prevented the union and its members from criticizing or filing ballot initiatives “adverse” to the CHA or its member hospitals—in exchange for unfettered access to non-union health care workers throughout the state. Once the CHA signed the agreement, SEIU-UHW abandoned its initiative, which had already qualified for the 2014 ballot.

“Ballot box blackmail,” the Orange County Register called it. An effort “to harness voters’ resentments to advance [the union’s] own parochial interests,” said the Los Angeles Times. Tens of thousands of SEIU members were powerless to prevent Regan from trading away their rights.

Despite a chorus of critics in the media and the labor movement, Regan called the CHA deal “visionary.” He didn’t see the fallout coming.

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When SEIU-UHW failed to persuade non-union workers throughout the state to become members, the union retaliated against the CHA by paying millions of dollars to get the initiative back on the ballot. The mess of threatened lawsuits and counter-lawsuits quickly spiraled out of control, culminating in Regan’s alleged assault on an unsuspecting Contra Costa County process server.

California voters are paying the price for the spectacular collapse of this shady backroom deal. More than 600,000 Californians signed petitions to qualify the measure for the ballot in both 2014 and 2016, only to see it snatched away—once by the union officials who wrote it, and now a second time as an unintended consequence of the gag clause.

LET’S BE HONEST

SEIU-UHW officials are crying foul in an effort to convince voters that they were sincere about the ballot measure in the first place. They’re hoping voters will forget that the union abandoned the ballot measure once before and was prepared to abandon it this year if it could have strong-armed the CHA again.

And they hope voters will have short memories two years from now, when SEIU-UHW attempts its ballot-box blackmail scheme again.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers has been a vocal critic of this scheme right from the start. The house of cards that came crashing down around SEIU-UHW and Regan embodies so much of what is wrong with the labor movement today.

Rather than subverting workers’ rights, unions should be democratic and member-driven. Rather than engaging in collusive backroom deals, a union should be open and transparent. Rather than tease and betray voters at the ballot box, a union should be forthright and honest.

Let’s hope Regan and SEIU-UHW learn their lesson and get back to organizing on behalf of health care workers rather than hospital executives.

Sal Rosselli is president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers.