NUHW Takes Kaiser Elections
The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) chalked up an important win Tuesday in Southern California as hundreds of professional and technical workers at the giant health care chain Kaiser Permanente voted to leave the Service Employees (SEIU) and join the upstart NUHW.
“We were confident we would win,” said Tessie Costales, a 27-year nurse at Kaiser Sunset medical complex in Los Angeles. “Today it’s official.”
A last-minute push by the Service Employees (SEIU) to impound the ballots and prevent the vote count was denied by the National Labor Relations Board.
The vote comes nearly one year to the day after SEIU placed its third-largest local, the dissident United Healthcare Workers-West, into trusteeship, prompting members and leaders to establish the breakaway NUHW. Within a month of the trusteeship more than 100,000 workers had filed petitions to leave SEIU and join NUHW.
But 2,300 Kaiser professionals last week were among the first to secure a head-to-head vote. SEIU has effectively stalled elections for months with blocking charges and other legal hurdles at the labor board.
NUHW’s strongest support came from nurses at Kaiser’s Los Angeles Medical Center complex, winning that unit 746 to 36. In the smaller bargaining unit of dieticians, speech pathologists, and other professionals the vote was 189 to 29. A third vote among psychologists, therapists, social workers and others produced a 717 to 192 tally for NUHW.
The victory among Kaiser workers comes a month after workers at non-union Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital overcame an SEIU spoiling attempt and voted to join NUHW in December—one of three election wins for the breakaway union among non-union workers in as many months.
The remaining 43,000 workers at Kaiser will have a chance to pick their union when their contracts expire this summer. Costales hopes they join her and her coworkers in NUHW.
“SEIU underestimated what we could do,” she said. “We had no money, no manpower, it was all volunteer. But we have each other’s support. That’s why we won.”
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Support for NUHW grew as Kaiser took advantage of last year’s trusteeship to increase workloads and target union supporters for discipline and harassment. According to Jim Clifford, a bilingual therapist at a clinic in Otay, SEIU made matters worse, removing elected stewards and worksite leaders.
“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.”
Costales saw the same problems at Kaiser Sunset. “They eliminated our officers and fired all the elected stewards,” she said. “If we had issues regarding patient care or safety we had to call a 1-800 number. It weakened us as a union.”
After months of minimal contact, SEIU dispatched 10 reps to her facility in the last three weeks, Costales said, adding “they should have put all this manpower out there at the beginning” if they wanted workers’ trust.
Dissatisfaction boiled over after SEIU, along with other Kaiser unions, agreed to cut lump-sum pensions by as much as 15 percent last December. 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 first nine months of 2009. More than three-quarters of Kaiser retirees take the lump-sum pension.
Members were apparently unswayed by SEIU’s threat to block the professional staff from participating in the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions if they voted to join NUHW. The coalition was created to coordinate bargaining with Kaiser as well as oversee union participation in Kaiser’s labor-management partnership.
SEIU also circulated a controversial legal opinion from consultant Fred Feinstein that workers could lose their contract standards and protections if they voted to join the new union. NUHW leaders called it deeply misleading; legally, employers cannot alter wages and employment conditions when workers vote to change unions.
In the closing days of the campaign at Kaiser, SEIU tried to trip up NUHW by agreeing to unblock elections at 29 other facilities, mainly smaller independent hospitals and nursing homes.
Those locations comprise almost 4,000 of the 20,000 non-Kaiser UHW members across the state who petitioned to join NUHW during the “open window” period before their contracts expire—and thus could switch unions.
SEIU’s sudden embrace of head-to-head elections, according to NUHW leaders, is an effort to stem the tide of bad news and hand-pick locations where SEIU believes it has a better shot at winning. NUHW is calling on the labor board to schedule elections for all 20,000 workers at once.