Together Again: California Nurses and NUHW Join Forces against Kaiser

The California Nurses honored their sister union NUHW's picket lines at Kaiser Permanente when NUHW struck to win a contract with no concessions. Photo: National Union of Healthcare Workers.

Two of U.S. labor’s biggest recent strikes against concessions were conducted by the California Nurses Association and the National Union of Healthcare Workers. Their target each time was Kaiser Permanente, the giant California health care chain that has made $6 billion in profits since 2009 but still wants job cuts and givebacks.

Today CNA and NUHW took their collaboration further and announced NUHW’s formal affiliation with CNA. It seemed an obvious alliance, because, as CNA Co-president Deborah Burger noted at a press conference in Oakland, many of the union activists in the room have “been working together for decades” against common employers.

But officially joining forces took years and some detours to achieve—including, at one point, CNA’s abandonment of the newly formed NUHW in 2009, followed by the latter’s attempted hook-up with the Machinists, an AFL-CIO union with little connection to California health care.

The most immediate impact of today’s affiliation will be critical help from CNA in NUHW’s ongoing drive to oust the Service Employees (SEIU) as the representative of 43,000 service and technical workers at Kaiser Permanente. It is likely to culminate in a second National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)-run decertification election later this year.

The Alliance

CNA represents 85,000 RNs in California and led formation of the AFL-CIO-affiliated, 185,000-member union National Nurses United, made up of state nurses’ organizations. CNA has also recruited members in other states through its National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC), which now has bargaining units in Missouri, Illinois, Texas, and Florida.

NUHW’s organizational link will be with CNA directly, rather than NNU or NNOC. In material distributed to rank-and-filers before they voted by 97 percent for the affiliation, NUHW asserted that the agreement includes “full autonomy” and protections against trusteeship or forced mergers. “The unions will remain separate,” said NUHW President Sal Rosselli today, “but we will act like one union when it comes to organizing hospital workers and fighting employers like Kaiser and Sutter Health.”

NUHW members are understandably touchy about trusteeship. Their union was born in late January 2009 when then-SEIU President Andy Stern trusteed his union’s third-largest affiliate, United Healthcare Workers-West. UHW represented, at the time, about 150,000 workers in hospitals, nursing homes, and home care units throughout California.

Stern took over UHW, then headed by Rosselli, because its elected leaders resisted his plan to transfer long-term care members into a separate SEIU affiliate—a move that the affected workers strongly opposed. But once Stern-appointee Dave Regan, from SEIU in Ohio, was firmly installed as the new leader of UHW, the threatened dismemberment of UHW never occurred.

After the trusteeship, former UHW activists formed the independent NUHW and began the difficult process of wooing established bargaining units away from SEIU-UHW, while also organizing non-union hospital workers in the state. NUHW now represents nearly 10,000 workers, at public and private hospitals and nursing homes in Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, San Leandro, San Pablo, Salinas, and other communities.

About 4,000 Kaiser workers, including nurses, social workers, psychologists, and optical employees succeeded in switching from SEIU to NUHW three years ago.

Since then, NUHW members like Gloria Villasenor have struck repeatedly, by themselves and with CNA co-workers, against contract concessions sought by Kaiser, including retiree health insurance givebacks conceded by SEIU.

At today’s press conference, Villasenor hailed that more militant stance, noting that “1,000 other Kaiser workers have received lay-off notices but none represented by NUHW have.”

In 2010, though, Kaiser’s 43,000 service and technical employees voted 18,290-11,365 to stay with SEIU. SEIU’s main message was that switching to NUHW would put their union contract up for renegotiation, so workers should not take the risk.

NUHW accused SEIU and Kaiser of campaign collusion—in the form of threatening and disciplining NUHW supporters and unfairly restricting their workplace access to fellow employees. The NLRB ordered a re-run of what was, in 2010, the largest private sector representation vote in seven decades.

Last month, a three-member Labor Board panel rejected SEIU’s latest attempt to overturn that decision, setting the stage for a costly re-match. In the past, SEIU has been able to flood Kaiser facilities with hundreds of full-time staff and lost-time organizers because it is the incumbent union. Now, because CNA also has contracts at Kaiser, NUHW hopes to gain equivalent access. CNA is also expected to fund expanded hiring of NUHW organizers.

“Uniting together, CNA and NUHW are taking a huge step forward in achieving our joint goal of upholding standards for workers and patients,” said RN Zenei Cortez, who chairs CNA’s Kaiser negotiating committee and serves as co-president of the union.

Truce Is Over

The partnership between CNA and NUHW marks the end of a nearly four-year CNA-SEIU truce that expired December 31. (Calls and emails to SEIU-UHW for comment on this development received no response.)

As recounted in my 2011 book, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, CNA and SEIU had engaged in one of the bitterest conflicts in recent labor history. In April 2008, SEIU protestors even tried, unsuccessfully, to disrupt a Labor Notes conference in Dearborn, Michigan, because CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro was an invited speaker. CNA sought a restraining order against alleged SEIU harassment of its officers and staff and accused its rival of funding internal opposition to the CNA leadership.

In January 2009 DeMoro warned that Stern’s “dictatorial receivership” over UHW posed a direct threat to “the workplace protections and contract standards of CNA/NNOC members.” CNA initially gave NUHW $2 million in loans or grants that helped keep the new union afloat.

Two months later, though, Stern and DeMoro suddenly declared that “we are burying the hatchet.” The two rivals unveiled a “transformative cooperation agreement” that, they said, would boost labor’s campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act and state-level lobbying “to adopt single-payer health care systems.” But SEIU and CNA never ended up working together on either of those projects.

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Both parties agreed not to compete for members, and CNA promised to cut off funding for NUHW. In a May 2009 interview, CNA’s Burger defended this painful abandonment of NUHW supporters. She predicted that “Andy [Stern] and Sal [Rosselli] will do what they need to survive” and “work out their own deal.” In the meantime, “other unions will help NUHW. And we’ll all move forward together.”

Burger said the truce would keep SEIU from organizing nurses (though the Teachers, AFSCME, and others would continue to represent several hundred thousand RNs nationwide). The two unions later reached neutrality agreements with two large for-profit hospital chains, which facilitated organizing in Texas, Florida, and other states. In that joint effort, RN units at designated Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) and Tenet Healthcare locations went to CNA (after uncontested elections), while SEIU pursued bargaining rights for other hospital staff.

A More Reliable United Front?

But this alliance was never very workable in California. During the short anti-concession strikes at Kaiser last January and in September 2011, SEIU-UHW urged its members to cross picket lines set up by the 20,000 strikers represented by CNA, NUHW, and the Operating Engineers.

Then, UHW President Regan tried last summer to undo one of CNA’s proudest achievements: a California law mandating minimum nurse-patient ratios in hospitals. Regan tried unsuccessfully to enlist legislators and labor federation officials in a management-backed attempt to weaken the safe-staffing law.

In an internal message to CNA staffers, DeMoro called Regan a “management hack” who “may be the most despicable ‘labor leader’ that we have ever encountered” because “he has climbed so far into bed with the hospital association and employers.”

According to DeMoro, “Regan argued on behalf of the California Hospital Association that nurses need to sacrifice their meals and breaks and the safety of their patients to help hospitals save $400 million because the state was in a budget crisis.” Meanwhile, state records showed that California hospitals collectively posted $4.4 billion in profits in 2010.

At today’s press conference, Regan was also lambasted for “me-too” deals, which, in workplaces where both unions operate, have left it up to CNA (and NUHW) to do all the fighting against concessions already accepted by UHW.

CNA speakers cited contract language at Sutter Health, for example, “that requires the employer to give back to UHW/SEIU any contract benefits defended or gained by CNA.” As a result, the CNA said, “Regan’s actions have emboldened Sutter’s already hard line” in a long-running RN contract dispute over pension and health care takeaways.

Southern Organizing Gains

While UHW was undermining CNA in California on the safe-staffing law and in bargaining, NNOC’s joint campaigning with SEIU did produce out-of-state membership gains for both unions.

In 2010-11, NNOC won the right to represent nearly 6,500 nurses at HCA hospitals in Florida, Texas, Nevada, and Missouri and 1,500 RNs at Tenet in Texas, while SEIU won bargaining rights for more than 15,000 workers at the two companies.

Coordinating with SEIU on first-contract bargaining at HCA, the world’s largest for-profit hospital chain, proved harder, however, than working in tandem to win union recognition. Eager to begin collecting dues, even though its hospital units had generally low membership in open-shop Florida, 1199/SEIU settled months ahead of NNOC at 10 newly organized HCA facilities there.

According to one NNOC organizer involved, “SEIU had no organization and, as is its practice, clearly had a pre-cooked agreement with the corporation to settle for a substandard contract.”

SEIU’s settlement included a California-style “me-too” clause ensuring that, if NNOC negotiated a better health insurance cost-sharing formula, the same terms would be extended to SEIU.

New members of the NNOC at HCA in Florida ratified their first contract last May, after an active contract campaign that enabled them to resist some management demands that SEIU had acceded to. NNOC members took strike votes, conducted whistle-blowing press conferences, and held informational picketing about staffing levels and the quality of patient care. Unfortunately, an overly broad no-strike clause agreed to by SEIU first, and then NNOC as well, limits similar protest picketing during the life of the agreement.

Round Two at Kaiser

Participants at today’s press conference envisioned a different scenario in California if NUHW succeeds in replacing SEIU-UHW as Kaiser’s largest union, with CNA help. There, at Sutter Health, and at other hospital chains, the two unions plan to coordinate their resistance to management demands for health care cost shifting, elimination of defined benefit pensions, and various forms of outsourcing.

To win at Kaiser, NUHW organizers say privately, they need prior personal commitments of support from nearly 18,000 workers. For now, NUHW remains several thousand short of that goal.

One issue that’s aiding NUHW canvassing lately is Kaiser’s attempt to eliminate 1,000 jobs, a breach of job security commitments that SEIU-UHW is doing little to resist. Even AFSCME, a longtime Labor-Management Partnership participant, which has previously followed SEIU’s lead at Kaiser, has protested this layoff threat and announced it was boycotting partnership meetings until the issue was resolved.

Rosselli recommended a stronger response: “Instead of suspending participation in Kaiser partnership activities, they should notify Kaiser that they are leaving the partnership and joining forces with us!”

Steve Early was an organizer and contract negotiator for the Communications Workers for 27 years. He is the author of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, which chronicles past California health care union conflicts.