Editor's Note: On December 18 workers at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital capped a six-year effort to form a union, with 283 voting to join the National Union of Healthcare Workers and 263 voting "no union." A paltry 13 votes were cast for SEIU, although they stonewalled immediate certification of the election results. Read more about the Santa Rosa election here.
Nearly eleven months of courtroom stalling has slowed the upstart National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), but a break in the legal logjam may be coming—finally giving California’s health care workers the ability to choose their union.
Voting starts tomorrow at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where nearly 700 technical and support workers will choose between NUHW, the Service Employees (SEIU), and no union. The closely watched Santa Rosa vote comes two weeks after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) gave the green light to an election among 2,300 professional staff at Kaiser Permanente’s Southern California facilities.
Both contests could serve as a bellwether for 2010, as NUHW tries to generate momentum for decisive contests looming in California’s largest hospital chains next year—first and foremost, among 50,000 UHW members at Kaiser.
NUHW was formed when the Service Employees (SEIU) forced the dissident statewide local United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) into trusteeship last January, prompting members and leaders to establish a breakaway union.
Support for NUHW continues to grow across the labor movement, but the union remains strapped for resources and frustrated by SEIU’s legal maneuvering, which has delayed head-to-head elections in scores of hospitals and nursing homes across California.
SANTA ROSA SHOWDOWN
Organizing at Santa Rosa began years before the trusteeship. But Nancy Timberlake, a telemetry technician and organizing committee member, says UHW trustees put the brakes on their organizing drive in January.
“SEIU left us in the lurch,” Timberlake said. “Now their primary objective is to squash NUHW and divide it enough so nobody wins. It’s a vendetta.”
The campaign has intensified in recent weeks after SEIU refused to sit down with hospital administrators and NUHW to negotiate ground rules for a fair election. UHW trustees rejected offers by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and local religious leaders to mediate.
Because Santa Rosa Memorial is part of a Catholic hospital network, NUHW leaders were pressing administrators to abide by guidelines for conducting union elections that were agreed this summer between national labor leaders and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
SEIU has already used Respecting the Just Rights of Workers as a template for hospital elections in other parts of the country. But in Santa Rosa, according to Timberlake, administrators have used SEIU’s refusal to set ground rules to step up their anti-union campaign. SEIU has also intensified their anti-NUHW campaign in the run-up to tomorrow's vote (right: SEIU flyer attacking NUHW).
BREAKTHROUGH AT KAISER
NUHW supporters are preparing for an election at Kaiser next month. Three bargaining units in Southern California, including nurses at Kaiser’s Los Angeles Medical Center complex and psychologists, therapists, social workers, dieticians, speech pathologists, and other professionals at 100 facilities across the region, will choose between SEIU and NUHW. Nurses will vote on-site January 6 and 7, with ballots mailed to the 1,300 other professionals on January 4. Votes will be counted January 26.
Jim Clifford, a therapist at a clinic in Otay, says SEIU’s removal of elected stewards and worksite leaders left members hamstrung, whether trying to stand up to unfair discipline or to share Kaiser’s use of electronic medical records.
“At the start of the trusteeship we couldn’t figure out what phone number to dial to get an SEIU staff representative who could work with us,” he said. “We’ve got grievances from January going nowhere.”
David Mallon, a psychiatric social worker at the Bellflower medical center, said, “Kaiser is running amok. They have shut down the performance sharing bonus program, we aren’t participating in program development anymore, and now there is incredible pressure to increase workloads.
“How are you going squeeze more time in today to see patients and still do the documentation, which has become more and more detailed?”
Cuts to the Kaiser pension plan have also sparked member dissatisfaction. Earlier this year SEIU, along with other Kaiser unions, agreed to cut lump-sum pensions by as much as 15 percent starting December 1. The cuts were a response to the sagging stock market, but there are no plans yet to restore pensions in light of the stock market rebound or Kaiser’s $1.6 billion profit in the nine months of 2009. More than three-quarters of Kaiser retirees take the lump-sum pension.
Meanwhile SEIU says it will block the professional staff from participating in the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions if they vote to join NUHW. The coalition was created to coordinate bargaining with Kaiser as well as oversee union participation in Kaiser’s labor-management partnership.
EXTERNAL SUPPORT GROWS
Since its narrow loss to SEIU in a homecare workers’ election in June, NUHW has made strides recruiting allies. The strong showing in Fresno convinced many outside California of NUHW’s viability.
At the same time, SEIU’s escalating battle with the hotel union UNITE HERE has pushed NUHW and UNITE HERE closer together.
UNITE HERE locals in California dispatched organizers to the Fresno campaign, provided office space and material aid, and assembled nearly two dozen Cantonese-speaking lost-time member-organizers to assist NUHW’s San Francisco homecare drive this summer. More recently, UNITE HERE sent organizers to help in Santa Rosa.
In retaliation, the trustees running UHW threatened to withdraw the 150,000-member local from the San Francisco Labor Council, which is headed by a UNITE HERE local president. That threat united many Bay Area labor leaders behind UNITE HERE and NUHW.
This fall the North Bay Central Labor Council also lined up with NUHW in its drive at Santa Rosa. The council asked SEIU to withdraw from the election since “it is clear that Memorial workers have chosen NUHW as their union.”
SEIU has also pushed unions in Southern California closer to NUHW, most notably by attacking a November 17 public forum held at the United Teachers-Los Angeles hall. Attendees were pelted with water bottles and eggs by SEIU staff and members protesting the event.
NUHW now represents workers in several small bargaining units, primarily in Southern California. Three worksites—in locations not previously represented by UHW—have held representation elections since September, with NUHW winning two contests totaling 150 workers. Ballots from the third location, Providence Tarzana, remain uncounted until last-minute charges are settled.
NUHW narrowly lost an earlier contest this summer to SEIU at Hazel Hawkins hospital in Hollister. The union has been unable to start bargaining with Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, where it won a head-to-head election in May, because of post-election charges made by SEIU to the state labor board.
More important for the union’s future, 20,000 UHW members across the state have petitioned to join NUHW during the “open window” period before their contracts expire. Leaders believe these workers—some of whom have waited more than 10 months—will soon get their chance to vote, as the NLRB finally dispatches the pile of legal charges SEIU filed to block elections.
If the floodgates open, NUHW will face difficult choices allocating its limited resources. At hospitals and nursing homes, however, NUHW can count on long-term relationships with worksite leaders, as their campaign among Kaiser professionals demonstrates. This summer’s homecare campaigns, in contrast, relied heavily on door-to-door canvassing and expensive direct mail, which gave SEIU a leg up. In San Francisco, even with UNITE HERE’s assistance, NUHW could not gather enough signatures to hold an election among homecare workers.
KAISER IS A ‘CIRCUS’
Looming large in 2010 is the Kaiser Permanente health system, representing a third of UHW’s membership and a standard-setter for union hospitals across California. NUHW looks to capitalize on SEIU’s acceptance of unprecedented mid-contract concessions. Trustees agreed to 1,300 layoffs in August, despite a no-layoffs clause in the contract. Kept from a vote over the job cuts, Kaiser workers are fuming.
“They are making a circus of our contract,” said Cindy Benko, a 19-year pharmacy tech in Stockton. “They don’t know which end is up. Kaiser should be paying them union dues, not the members, because that is who SEIU is working for.”
Benko thinks the loss of workplace control under the trusteeship is swinging support to NUHW.
“Most people wanted to believe it was just the leaders who changed, that it would still be the same union,” she said. “But no one can deny the damage SEIU has done. This is what our future looks like if we don’t get our union back.”