“These are workers who don’t do concessions. They have seen a union grow. They know what a strong union is. They want one back.”
The new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) has filed petitions representing tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente workers – decertification petitions setting the stage for the largest, most important union election in the US in decades.
Kaiser workers, 45,000 strong, now held hostage by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) – the result of a hostile take-over – at last have won the right to vote for a union of their choice. Most likely, the elections will be scheduled for September.
Kaiser Permanente is today the largest non-profit health plan in the US. It is the largest healthcare employer in California. Fortune magazine reports Kaiser’s 2008 revenues at $37.8 billion; it is the fifth largest private company in the US, serving 8.7 million members. It has 32 medical centers and 200 clinics in California.
Kaiser is by far the largest single bargaining unit represented by SEIU-United Healthcare Workers (UHW), the California local union trusteed by SEIU in January 2009. The Kaiser contract – the product of years of struggle – is considered the gold standard for hospital workers.
SEIU-UHW’s Kaiser members once enjoyed the best wages and benefits in the country. Moreover, the Kaiser contract was used to leverage up other contracts, not just in hospitals but also in nursing homes and for home care workers. UHW, with 150,000 members, was California’s most powerful union. Kaiser was the rock on which it was built – until it was wrecked in a trusteeship labor expert Steve Early has called the trade union equivalent of martial law.
UHW members responded by forming a new union, NUHW. The just completed petition campaign represents the second time Kaiser workers have sought decertification. In 2009, within weeks of trusteeship, the majority of Kaiser workers petitioned to decertify SEIU. They were disallowed, the result of legal technicalities and a management-style SEIU delaying campaign. Since then they have been held hostage by SEIU. Now it seems they will have their way.
The elections will come despite the SEIU’s teams of lawyers, despite its still deep pockets (and its large, increasingly thuggish staff). They will be held despite Kaiser’s blatantly pro-SEIU intervention in this conflict. And they will be held despite the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) “justice delayed” preference in operations.
SEIU is the nation’s second largest union, with 1.9 million members, chiefly in healthcare, the public sector and a range of service sector employments. Its long-time leader, Andy Stern, now just retired to greener (corporate) fields, was the best known labor leader in the country, notorious, among other things, for having paid more visits to the Obama White House than any other individual.
NUHW makes no predictions, but it expects the very worst from SEIU. SEIU, predictably, incredibly, offers its trade-mark blitz, this time World War III.? Yes, this is the vile language of the SEIU in California. It is the language of the people who compared their initial assault on the UHW to the invasion of Iraq. It is language of Mary Kay Henry, now, in the aftermath of Stern’s hasty departure, SEIU’s ever-so-nice new President. She supervised the invasion of SEIU’s carpet bagging staff; she christened them warriors.?She personally led the invaders who, with the help of the police, evicted UHW members from their Oakland offices. It is the language that San Francisco writer Randy Shaw likened to Vietnam General Curtis LeMay’s infamous carpet bombing.? In Fresno, a year ago, SEIU sent in 1,000 staff, hired fleets of SUVs and commandeered hotels, spending millions in an effort to win 10,000 home care workers. Victory, still contested, was, however, pyrrhic.
So, it is “war” – again. In a memo obtained by NUHW, we learn that the SEIU strategy is to “basically create World War III. Let NUHW know that they have no right to be here, and this is UHW territory.” Harass, threaten, and intimidate workers who support NUHW.
The NLRB is obliged by law to schedule these elections at the giant corporation’s 350 California facilities – the workers will have these choices: NUHW, SEIU-UHW, “no union.”
It’s about time. “We worked for decades to make Kaiser jobs good, stable jobs that paid enough so people in our communities could support their families,” says Robert Hernandez, a materials management clerk at Kaiser Baldwin Park for almost 20 years. “Now since SEIU officials took over our union last year, Kaiser has announced layoffs, cut benefits, and started turning good jobs into contingent or flexed positions. We’re ready to put healthcare workers back in charge of our union again.”
What’s at stake here? – the future of the labor in California? The future of unionism in the US?
SEIU is the largest union in California – 650,000 members, the second largest in the US, 1.9 million members. More, in the last decade, it has promoted itself as the progressive vanguard of American labor, the union of the future.
NUHW is the new California healthcare workers union, established last year in the aftermath of SEIU’s trusteeship – the hostile takeover of its 150,000 member local union, UHW-West. Truth be told, it, NUHW, actually, is the fastest growing healthcare union – with some 5,000 members signed on in a little more than a year.
What are the issues? NUHW champions good contracts, a democratic, worker run union (as its people once did at UHW) – a union that both grows and is democratic, a union that empowers workers.
SEIU’s program now seems to be reduced to “bigger is better” and it is ruthlessly prepared to do just about anything to achieve that (and keep the dues dollars coming) in California in a desperate attempt to appease Kaiser and confuse its beleaguered members, it has just signed a “national” contract with the healthcare giant that gives back millions in pensions and opens the door for major concessions in healthcare benefits.
This sweetheart deal was cut by Stern appointed SEIU-UHW trustee, Dave Regan, soon to be President of SEIU-UHW, himself. SEIU has agreed to a 3% increase in wages for two years, but this is what workers were guaranteed in the current contract – they would have received this next year even if they had simply walked away from bargaining. It marks the lowest wage settlement in fifteen years. SEIU has also set the stage for healthcare concessions – a committee will be convened next year to review Kaiser’s proposed cuts. This is in line with SEIU-UHW’s healthcare concessions policies in California – sign anything, keep NUHW out. This new “national” agreement also breaks a long standing precedent; there will be no local bargaining. The agreement, clearly settled with the NUHW Kaiser campaign in mind, comes as Kaiser reports record profits – $2.2 billion in 2009, $600,000 in the first quarter of 2010.
NUHW’s members built pre-trusteeship UHW into the most powerful local union in California. Now these workers want their union back – at Tuesday’s filing in Los Angeles Dolores Huerta, the United Farmworkers founder and former leader and UNITE HERE Local 11 President Tom Walsh gave their support at a press conference.
“For employees to have a voice at work, they must have a voice in their union,” said Huerta. “This is about democracy. For more than a year, these workers have been denied the right to vote.”
“The members of UNITE HERE are proud to support Kaiser workers organizing to join NUHW,” said Walsh. “We are committing our support to help them win.”
Now the task is to win the vote – still against great odds. NUHW relies on a tiny, minimally paid staff, plus volunteers, and the Kaiser workers. SEIU, which has already spent tens of millions in this California civil war, seems prepared to spend millions more – money, by the way, that it collects from its hard-working, often very poorly paid, members.
We need to add a word about the larger issues here – because this is not just a California conflict. It is no-doubt well-known, that Andy Stern, having now abandoned corporate unionism for corporate corporatism, Andy Stern who for fifteen years was the leader, more, the symbol, the celebrity king, of SEIU, is gone. Why? It’s not entirely clear – but what we do know is that he’s taken a $219,000-plus a year, for life, pension – yes, paid for by the members – and already landed a spot at SIGA Technologies, “a company specializing in the development of pharmaceutical agents to combat bio-warfare pathogens.” SIGA proudly announced that Andy Stern, “labor leader and prominent advocate for reform,” has joined their board of directors.
“Why,” asks Mike Wilzoch, a now purged twenty three year veteran of SEIU, “would Big Pharma bio-warriors be interested in the just-resigned president of the Service Employees (SEIU)? Dr. Eric Rose, SIGA’s CEO, gets right to the point: ‘His insight, experience, and leadership, particularly his understanding of how our federal government works, will complement the skill sets of our existing board members.’
“Stern’s new “activist” partners at SIGA include the likes of Michael Bayer, CEO of the national security consulting firm Dumbarton Strategies and director of the big military contractor DynCorp, notorious for its loose approach to accounting standards in its billion-dollar Iraq contracts.
“No doubt,” suggests Wilzoch, board meetings at SIGA begin and end with moving the progressive foreign policy and social justice agenda Stern has so proudly hailed over these last decades.”
Well, that’s Andy! Yes, but are we to believe that there is no continuity here – no connection between Andy running SEIU and Andy on the SIGA board, or between SEIU’s corporate unionism and the dismal condition of the US labor movement. And should we be surprised that it’s all so seamless?
But isn’t there a new regime in Washington, SEIU presided over by Henry – isn’t SEIU, now made over, set to get back to business?
Well, it depends on what’s meant by that. Here are two items of interest. SEIU, embroiled in two intra union wars, has scarcely organized a worker in two years. Nevertheless, low and behold, “merger mania” continues and now SEIU with true corporate hype announces having created on July 1st “the largest and fastest growing healthcare union in the country” – having swallowed up SEIU Healthcare Florida. This is not growth, it is reshuffling the deck. This “local” union will have 350,000 members – it will be run from SEIU 1199′s New York City offices. Have a grievance? – just phone New York. Or, better yet, dial 1-800 … the Member Resource Center, SEIU’s pathway to workplace power.
The second item is also on new President Henry’s watch. Henry, of course, was a key member of the team of SEIU Executive Vice Presidents who led their staff “warriors” into California. So “World War III” should come as no surprise – even though the targets here are militant healthcare workers, dues paying SEIU members! Members (Kaiser workers) are now attacked not just by SEIU paid staff, but by this staff in collusion with Kaiser security! (Delores Huerta was thrown out by company security of Kaiser Modesto, SEIU staff looking on – supporters yelling “get back to the fields.”) It should also come as no surprise, however, that Henry and her henchman, “old school” Cornell grad Regan, have found a willing ally in Kaiser Permanente. Moreover, Henry is a veteran of the Sutter Hospital debacle (see Labor’s Civil War in California) well healed in the art of back room deals.
And, according to Steve Early, Kaiser stands to win even more as a result of SEIU’s desperation – SEIU-UHW allows only members willing to sign an official loyalty oath to serve as stewards or negotiators. “So Kaiser is taking advantage of weaker, less experienced people who have replaced the hundreds of Kaiser stewards who have quit or been purged by SEIU because of their NUHW sympathies.” “It’s very different working at Kaiser now,” Kaiser social worker Randi Shaw told Early. “The culture has changed and you can feel it.”
Nevertheless, NUHW is entering this next round with a sting of hospital victories – its May 27 election victory at the large University of Southern California Hospital in Los Angeles was a triumph over not SEIU technically, but a 393 to 122 victory for NUHW against “no union.” It came after SEIU’s last minute withdrawal, fearing the humiliating defeat sure to follow, from the contest; SEIU, abandoning its own members, joined management in urging workers (its own members) to vote “no union.”
This followed the victory earlier in May at Salinas Valley Memorial, where NUHW supporters defeated SEIU 408 to 242; in turn, this exodus followed NUHW landslide wins in Southern California by Kaiser nurses (the 800 nurses supported NUHW 20 to 1) and professionals in January, and before that the hard fought triumph, also over SEIU’s implicit “no union” stance, at Santa Rosa Memorial in December.
Taken together, these victories set the stage for what will be – at least in this round – the crowning conflict; elections at Kaiser Permanente, the huge healthcare enterprise with 32 medical centers and 200 clinics in California, the fifth largest private company in the US.
There is every reason to be optimistic, despite the odds. Victory is there to win – and support, including funding from CNA and UNITE HERE plus the growing numbers of volunteers, as well as staff on leave from other unions clearly shows it can be won. These supporters will join Kaiser workers, other healthcare workers and their supporters, families and friends. They will join other volunteers, organizers and union supporters from around the country who also plan to come to California – it will be a union summer, albeit an (anti-SEIU) union summer.
We can be honest, the NUHW staff is tiny, its bank account limited to say the least. SEIU has already promised to spend $2 million on glossy mailings. Who knows how many staff are on the way. Perhaps even Mary Kay Henry will return, the “President” who has never been a hospital worker, has never been a SEIU member, has never been a shop steward or elected to local office, has never negotiated a contract –has never been accountable to members. Will she come back to California? With her bodyguards? And her driver?
Today, solidarity – the bedrock of genuine trade unionism – begins with backing NUHW. Yet, there are still far too many people who look the other way – the people who watch unions, write about unions, work for unions, who support some and not others – we may have differences on what constitutes a union worth fighting for, we may differ on past history and who did what, when. The question now, however, is this: how can you be neutral here – one side’s right, the other’s wrong. I have heard people say a curse on both houses, or SEIU is no worse than the rest – and of course we’re reminded that there will be no omelets without breaking eggs. This is just false. I don’t believe anyone who observed the May NUHW meetings could believe any of this. Not after listening to Turusew Gedebu-Wilson, a leader of the Kaiser Sunset nurses, not after watching therapists Dave Mallon, Kaiser Downey and Jim Clifford, San Diego, in action. “Look at this,” they told me, “watch our victories. No staff could do this.” And not after listening to the USC committee – Michael Torres, Julio Estrada, and Noemi Aguirre, the USC respiratory therapists, leaders of the NUHW team.
The implications of all this? California still ranks high in unemployment (12+ %) and leads in foreclosures but it’s far from alone. Workers around the world, thanks in no small degree to our G20 delegates (the “world leaders” who just braved the streets of Toronto where a billion dollars were spent on police protection), face official policies of austerity – cutbacks, concessions, unemployment, collapsing social services. And while the banks recover, we’re warned of a new recession, a recession within the recession. And labor? What do we hear from labor? Tragically, SEIU’s retreat into the worst of corporate unionism has not been the exception.
According to John Borsos, a fired elected vice president of UHW, now a leader of the new NUHW, “A powerful labor movement has never been more needed. This is a crucial moment, perhaps a turning point.
“Our elections will be the biggest representational elections in California history, the biggest in the US since the 1940s. And they will offer workers a clear choice – top-down, management friendly unions (SEIU in this case), or a union that fights for workers, a member driven, democratic union that empowers workers.
“Just look at the context, the economic climate, the cutbacks, austerity, and unemployment compensation running out. Everyone asks when is labor going to stand up, when will it act.
“We think now is the time, this is the moment – and a win at Kaiser is vital, absolutely if we’re to revitalize labor, if we’re to make labor a power – if we’re going to make the promise, the necessity of change a reality.”
At the victory rally at USC hospital, NUHW leader, respiratory therapist Michael Torres, reminded workers that they “beat one of the most vicious union busting groups in the country.” Torres added, “We’ve been kicked around a lot, but that’s okay. We won.” William Hooper, environmental services, reminded the celebrants, “They said we didn’t have no money. They said we didn’t have no members. Well, we do! It was rough, it was a three year fight. But, as I said, ‘The bully always gets his in then end.’” Noemi Aguirre singled out the USC students who supported NUHW and praised their professor, Laura Pulido, American Studies and Ethnicity, who attended the rally to congratulate the workers on their victory.
NUHW is a workers’ movement, composed of workers, led by workers. These are workers who don’t do concessions. They have seen a union grow. They know what a strong union is. They want one back.
Dannielle Estrada, patient coder at Kaiser Baldwin Park, recounted the week she’d taken off – her vacation – to campaign for the NUHW. She’d visited almost every Kaiser facility in Southern California. She demanded that others do the same: “We’re almost there. We’re winning. But it’s not been done by magic – it’s been members, members on committees, members going out, recruiting, going from department to department, shift to shift, member to member. I took that week because we have to talk to the workers, every one of them, one by one.
“How can we not do this? Consider the alternative, stuck with SEIU. And the prize – a union of our own!”
A footnote: SEIU continues its vicious legal attack on California healthcare workers. Twenty eight former leaders and staff of UHW were dragged into civil court in San Francisco in March. While virtually all charges were dropped, sixteen were found liable for “violation of fiduciary duties” – allegedly working for NUHW before it was created, in the month of January 2009. They have individually been fined amounts in several cases of nearly $80,000. Legal defense costs are now in the hundreds for thousands of dollars and with each new SEIU maneuver they mount. SEIU’s clear intention is to humiliate and break these people – all good union men and women.
You can help. Contribute to:
The Fund for Union Democracy and Reform, 465 California Street, Ste. 1600,
San Francisco, CA 94104 www.fundforuniondemocracy.org
Cal Winslow is the author of Labor's Civil War in California (PM Press). He is an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies (forthcoming October 2010). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.