How Could Little NUHW Beat Giant SEIU? Stewards.

Here’s my 2 cents on the NUHW win among the Kaiser Permanente professionals. In my view, it was the result of several key ingredients—but especially the existence of stewards councils that continued on their own even under the SEIU trusteeship:

The old UHW, under Sal Rosselli and his team, did a good job building a good, healthy and vibrant union. (1) They dealt with members’ issues effectively--including negotiating very good contracts; (2) they involved the members in a meaningful and empowering way in the work and life of the union; and (3) they built an internal union structure--stewards councils at the worksite level--that gave the union a permanent presence there as a democratic, member-driven union. Also, (4) Stern’s trustees attempted to dismantle the old UHW structures and gave away wages and benefits without member involvement or approval.

The stewards councils were especially important because after Andy Stern put UHW into trusteeship and removed the elected officers and Board members--and later most of the stewards--the stewards council structures continued to function, even without official recognition by the employer, as NUHW stewards councils at the worksites. These unofficial NUHW stewards councils--some were called organizing committees--carried out the NUHW campaign among their co-workers. Because these worksite leaders were known, trusted, and elected by the other workers prior to the trusteeship, they continued to have their support. That was key to winning, and winning by such a large margin.

For me, this is another example of the critically essential job of building permanent, member-driven union structures at the worksite such as stewards councils. If NUHW had not had such organizations at the worksites, it would have been much easier for SEIU to spread its lies and scare tactics, especially since SEIU representatives had better on-site access because SEIU was the legally recognized bargaining unit.

There were pitched battles over getting access to workers, and SEIU and Kaiser managers often teamed up to keep NUHW staff out. Having well-informed, experienced NUHW stewards in the work areas were key to stopping SEIU’s campaign of lies and intimidation.

Countering Scare Tactics

One of the main jobs for staff was to get answers and material into the hands of the NUHW stewards/organizing committee members that would disprove the lies being spread by SEIU, and to counter and undermine SEIU’s scare tactics. Here are some of SEIU’s major messages and NUHW’s responses:



    Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

    SEIU: If you don‘t vote for SEIU you will lose your pay rates and benefits. NUHW disproved that by quoting from an NLRB decision in More Truck Lines and Teamsters Local 952 that states an employer “may not make unilateral changes“ in wages, conditions, and benefits even if a new bargaining representative is chosen. They also quoted from SEIU’s own website saying the same thing.

  • SEIU claimed that Kaiser workers wouldn’t be allowed to remain in the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions and would therefore be much weaker in bargaining. NUHW responded that the current leaders of NUHW, when they led UHW, had formed the coalition, that NUHW leaders had very good relationships with the other unions in the coalition, and that when NUHW became the recognized bargaining agent for Kaiser workers, NUHW would work in coalition with the other unions.

  • SEIU asked Kaiser workers why they would want to be in a union with so few members, while SEIU had over 2 million members. Kaiser workers responded that they want to be in a union that is democratic and member-driven and that fights for workers rights as NUHW has done, and doesn’t give away their hard-won gains behind their backs as SEIU had done.

NUHW leaders made it clear that NUHW was the Kaiser workers’ union--only the name had changed. NUHW leaders, both officers and stewards, were the leaders that Kaiser workers had elected, worked with for years, and trusted, based on years of helping the members resolve their problems on the job and negotiate good contracts.

Paul Krehbiel, a former SEIU staffer in southern California, volunteers for NUHW. Read about his experiences in forming stewards councils in A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2, or hear him speak on that topic at the Labor Notes Conference April 23-25 in Detroit.


lolwut (not verified) | 02/05/10

The workers of UHW at the HCA hospitals were behind not signing their contract for over 3 years and were totally okay with management constantly throwing it in their face and disputing their rights as they didn't have a signed contract and use the TAs when attempting to enforce it? I'd be interested in hearing why they would be behind something like that or what gain they would get out of it.

lolwut (not verified) | 02/04/10

Interesting that you say they get good contracts when they left the UHW/HCA contracts unsigned for years leaving those members hanging...

Austin Lynch (not verified) | 02/05/10

Guess what lolwut: whatever the former UHW leadership/current NUHW leadership was doing, the workers were behind it. Know how I know that? Because massive amounts of workers have responded to everything NUHW does in the face of extraordinary, united opposition by SEIU IU leadership AND the employers. Right after the trusteeship, the speed of the decert petition signatures was nothing short of breathtaking. If you know anything about organizing, you know they were only able to do that because they had a genuine, broad, strong rank and file committee. Ditto for the incredible result in Fresno; only two hundred votes down despite having only 150 volunteers against SEIU's 1000 paid staff and $10 million budget. Then winning at Santa Rosa, ditto. Then winning at Kaiser, ditto. All this in a down economy, all this without any money, all this against incredibly well-funded opposition. There's only one conclusion: the rank and file wants this. Fight it all you want - SEIU is obviously doing that the best they can, and look at the results. I'm through worrying about fighting with SEIU (although I'm not through doing it). The thing that worries me now is that the exposure of the truth about the weakness of SEIU in California will lead to the disintegration of the entire SEIU international, which would be really sad. But it could happen. The UHW trusteeship and the UNITE HERE fight is putting SEIU's dirty laundry out in public. Your public division is realizing they're just a cash cow for adventures in other jurisdictions. Your healthcare workers are now prisoners of a union that declares itself the largest healthcare union, yet which has renounced organizing RN's. Are you guys listening to yourselves? How do you think your thousands of RN members feel that you announced you won't be organizing RN's anymore? And Property Services is basically announcing to the world "Hey everybody, we're dead ended at a brick wall, we can't organize anymore - so our only option is to try and fail to steal UNITE HERE's food service jurisdiction." All your Property Services employers are on notice that you don't give a crap about fighting them anymore; you're all invested in a sure-fail effort at Sodexo. It's a house of cards.