NUHW Supporters Brave Eggs, Bottles in Los Angeles
To get to a public forum featuring speakers from the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) yesterday, attendees in Los Angeles had to pass a demonstration of a few hundred SEIU staffers and members who had arrived on buses.
The SEIUers chanted, beat on drums, and threw eggs and water bottles in an unsuccessful effort to intimidate people from attending. One attendee said SEIU was only making more enemies. For others it recalled SEIU’s failed attempt to invade the Labor Notes Conference in Dearborn in April 2008.
Nonetheless, NUHW is gaining allies in Southern California. The forum drew 100 union leaders and rank and filers from at least seven unions and a number of community organizations. It was organized to introduce NUHW to a broader audience, share the story of the union’s remarkable breakaway from SEIU and its plans for tremendous growth, and garner both political and financial support for the 10-month-old union.
The forum was held at the headquarters of the Los Angeles Teachers union (UTLA). Josh Pechthalt, UTLA vice president, said he was glad the teachers union had hosted NUHW, despite threats by SEIU that there would be “war” if UTLA hosted the event. SEIU threatened to come after charter school teachers UTLA is trying to organize, according to Pechthalt. UTLA refused to buckle, and the room burst into applause.
Barbara Lewis, a former leader of United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) before it was trusteed by SEIU and now a leader of NUHW, explained that the old UHW was one of the most successful unions in SEIU by every measure: in organizing new members, achieving among the highest contract standards for health care workers in the country, and building member-run union structures at the worksites.
She said most SEIU locals had failed in these areas, and rather than develop a better plan for achieving success, Stern and his inner circle abandoned building a member-driven union and opted for a top-down, corporate model of unionism.
Michael Torres, a hospital worker and NUHW leader at USC Medical Center, explained how he became disillusioned with SEIU when he and other bargaining committee members learned that top SEIU officials were meeting secretly to work out a new contract behind the backs of the elected bargaining committee.
Many NUHW rank-and-file activists from various hospitals spoke movingly of their fight to get elections set at their facilities so they can get out of SEIU and formally join NUHW.
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Strong solidarity between NUHW and the hotel union UNITE HERE was evident at the forum. Many rank-and-file leaders from both unions were in the audience, and Susan Minato, executive vice president of UNITE HERE Local 11, was one of the main speakers. She explained that shortly after the merger of the textile and laundry union UNITE with HERE in 2004, they began seeing then-President Bruce Raynor cutting backroom deals to sell out members.
Minato said Raynor, now an SEIU VP, and Stern have waged a merciless war on UNITE HERE, attempting but largely failing to raid UNITE HERE members all over the country.
NUHW Interim President Sal Rosselli showed a video about what he said were SEIU’s violations of the law in an election between the two unions in Fresno earlier this year.
Home health care workers explained that an SEIU representative came to their doors, took their ballots, and instructed them to mark the SEIU box or face loss of their job and benefits. (Former SEIU staffers are now saying that they systematically violated union election law, taking ballots out of some workers’ mailboxes and even threatening to have them deported if they did not vote for SEIU.)
NUHW has filed charges with the Public Employment Relations Board on these violations, and Rosselli believes the election will be overturned and rerun.
Others in attendance at the forum were from AFSCME, UAW, IATSE, and SEIU Local 721. A pitch was made for financial contributions to help NUHW. Donations can be made at fundforuniondemocracy.org, or to The Fund for Union Democracy, Ste. 1600, 465 California St., San Francisco, CA 94104.
Paul Krehbiel is a former SEIU Local 660 staffer now volunteering with NUHW.