SEIU Wins Again at Kaiser, But Militant Minority Grows

NUHW supporters at Kaiser must now pursue a “minority union” organizing approach. The upstart union lost its second bid to represent 45,000 service and technical workers at the giant California health care chain. Photo: NUHW.

When the Service Employees first defeated the National Union of Healthcare Workers at California’s Kaiser Permanente health system in 2010, SEIU leader Dave Regan proclaimed, “NUHW is now, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant.”

Down, yes, but not out. Rank-and-file NUHW supporters among Kaiser’s 45,000 service and technical workers remained alive and kicking around the state. And the union tried to buck the concession bargaining tide in its 21 health care units composed of defectors from SEIU or previously unrepresented workers.

But when the votes were tallied in the Kaiser re-run May 2, NUHW support had increased only 15 percent, and SEIU won again, 18,844 to 13,101.

With strong financial backing from its new affiliation partner, the California Nurses Association, NUHW had campaigned on the need to resist SEIU’s givebacks to Kaiser.

Since NUHW broke away from SEIU after a 2009 trusteeship, the new union has won bargaining rights for 4,000 Kaiser workers in five smaller professional and technical units who could switch unions more easily.

All are still in protracted negotiations with Kaiser—which has stonewalled the new union, giving SEIU a powerful talking point in the election. One group of NUHW optical workers is now voting whether to decertify.

NUHW and CNA held short statewide strikes in 2011 and 2012 to protest management demands for givebacks from the optical workers and others. SEIU urged its members to cross those picket lines—and denounced NUHW as strike-happy.

In SEIU’s victory statement, Regan called on NUHW and CNA “to focus on organizing non-union workers instead of attacking people who already are in a union and have the best contract in the country.”

MORE RED-T-SHIRT DAYS

Hundreds of Kaiser workers who gathered for a hoped-for NUHW victory party didn’t dissolve into tears.

Instead, the roomful of red-T-shirt-wearers began an impromptu speak-out about how a militant minority, trapped in a management-oriented union, could continue their struggle to replace it with something better. As posed by one activist, the question facing everyone was, “What are we going to do tomorrow?”

In some facilities, NUHW has majority support. “In Orange County, we tripled the support for NUHW,” said Roberto Alvarez, a 17-year X-ray technician. “So it was a great leap forward for us there. We know what the future is with SEIU, so what we have to do now is keep on fighting.”

That future, according to Alvarez and others, will include deterioration of working conditions, weak enforcement of the “best contract in the country,” and, they predict, major givebacks on pensions, job security, and medical coverage for active employees.

SEIU has already negotiated benefit takeaways with profitable Kaiser competitors like Sutter, Dignity Healthcare, and the Daughters of Charity.

“My theory is that SEIU has promised Kaiser a lot of stuff, cuts that are coming down sooner or later, now that the election is out of the way,” Alvarez said.

In some Kaiser locations, NUHW supporters continued to schedule red-T-shirt days, to demonstrate their solidarity on the job. More than 150 workers from several dozen Kaiser locations, CNA nurses, and union staffers met May 11 to plan post-election strategy.

WHAT NOW?

The usual strategy, when rank and filers want to resist concessions and change the direction of their union, is to replace the incumbent leadership. Elect new stewards and local officers willing to put up a fight.

But NUHW supporters see few opportunities to do that within the new structure of SEIU’s statewide local, United Healthcare Workers West (UHW). When UHW was put under trusteeship in 2009, hundreds of its strongest activists resigned or were removed as stewards and “contract specialists.” Bargaining become a much less open process, with little or no membership mobilization or education about contract issues.

When Kaiser workers have tried to replace elected or appointed stewards who failed to pursue grievances, their recall petitions have been thwarted by UHW staffers who throw various process hurdles in the way.

Although no longer stewards themselves, many NUHW supporters sidelined by the trusteeship are still informal leaders in their worksites; co-workers come to them for advice about job problems and information about their rights.

NUHW activism at Kaiser may now take the form of more systematic organizing around shop floor issues downplayed or ignored by SEIU.

WHAT HAPPENED?

In the re-run election, NUHW organizers believed they had made great progress in overcoming SEIU’s efforts to make members fearful about the consequences of switching unions.

Pre-election assessments by NUHW supporters showed 18,000 to 19,000 workers ready to vote against SEIU this time—an estimate that proved to be off by more than 5,000. NUHW President Sal Rosselli said he was “stunned” by the results.

Many workers again opted for the security of the status quo in the form of their existing contract, which does not expire for another two years.

Changing unions would have meant negotiating a new contract right away, and possibly having to engage in the kind of strikes that NUHW and CNA conducted in the last two years. (The terms of the existing SEIU-Kaiser agreement would have remained in effect during bargaining.)

“There was no way NUHW or CNA could convince us to give up our great wages, health coverage, pension and job security, especially since NUHW has been unable to bargain a contract at Kaiser for more than three years,” said Cleto Delizo, a worker from Sacramento quoted by SEIU post-election.

NUHW supporters predict a greater shift of support their way if SEIU agrees to more medical or pension changes that would hurt more working members.

“The people must rise to the occasion for change to occur, and maybe in this case, they must be impacted a little more to acquire that courage,” wrote NUHW supporter Therron King on Facebook.

RN CONNECTION

Some CNA activists predict Kaiser may now feel emboldened to intensify its “offensive against nurses” in the run-up to their own contract talks next year. Already, one rep reports, RNs face daily hassles over Kaiser’s punitive attendance policy, plus increased workloads due to understaffing.

However, CNA believes the widespread activity of its 17,000 Kaiser members to support the service and technical workers provided a kind of “boot camp” for their own 2014 contract campaign.

“Nurses gained far greater unity among themselves to fight Kaiser than any bargaining prep would offer,” CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro observed.

For NUHW to pursue a “minority union” organizing approach while awaiting the next decertification window period, when SEIU’s contract with Kaiser expires in 2015, will require a further commitment of CNA resources.

The Wall Street Journal estimated CNA backing for NUHW this year totaled $4 million—on top of $2 million in loans when the union was founded in 2009. SEIU’s Regan acknowledged his union spent $4-$5 million on the campaign.

Hospital-level committees of NUHW supporters will now shift their focus from electioneering to day-to-day organizing around workplace issues.

“We’ve got to stay organized, support each other, and remain defiant,” said George Wong of San Francisco. “There’s going to be another day.”

Steve Early worked as a union organizer and negotiator for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years. He is the author of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, from Haymarket Books, which recounts earlier rounds of health care union conflict in California.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #411, June 2013. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Steve Early
Steve Early is a member of the Labor Notes Policy Committee. He can be reached at lsupport@aol.com

Comments

jyoung17102 | 05/05/13

The need for unions to increase their density in the work force and in communities requires levels of member education and organization that few unions undertake and fewer achieve. Expending millions of dollars upon attacking and defending one group and another promises only that workers become short-changed, monetarily and representationally. This is not to say that the struggle at Kaiser was avoidable; perhaps it was not. But, the lesson to be gained points to the need for an informed militancy and the creation of an enlightened self-interest for the future. And that process will require a leadership committed to sustained education/agitation of a work force that largely seems presently to prefer, as an earlier commentator noted, to be left alone -- the standard American attitude toward the world. Current and wannabe leaders could do worse than to study the United Electrical Workers model.

Joe Hillstrom | 05/04/13

The ambition and hubris of our leaders have been a curse of the American labor movement from the very beginning. Talented and driven people like Andy Stern and Sal Roselli have too often engaged in feuds that have more to do with their personal drive for power than with the interests of their members. The only cure for this disease is the education and organization of the members so that they participate fully in the strategic decisions that determine their future, and don't leave their fate in the hands of leaders, no matter how talented. In the case of the struggle at Kaiser Permanente, I believe the correct course of action for the 45,000 SEIU members is to actively participate in the governance of their union, rather than a divisive and costly fight to replace SEIU with NUHW. It seems the majority of SEIU members agree.

AlanK | 05/04/13

Anyone who has tried to organize their fellow workers recognizes the dynamics behind this story, the opposite poles of the labor movement represented by the SEIU and the NUHW. It is an uphill battle every day not only fighting the bosses, but countering the lethargic attitudes of fellow workers as they get beaten down and worn out. Then when the union overtly aligns with and even throws in with the employer, well then you have a problem that is very difficult to fix.

That is what the NUHW is up against and the fathers and grandmothers of some of those SEIU organizers (to the extent they're not simply paid hacks) would blanch at the hostility to "militant attitudes" the SEIU has now undertaken. Militancy is the center of the labor movement, the one and only approach leading to lasting results, now as then.

The goal is to obtain better wages and conditions, but also to build democratic workers' power through self-activity; with luck, tenacity, and self-discipline, the second leads to the first. The NUHW is a paragon of this approach, the California SEIU just a new name for an old concept - company unionism.

Jtsurf | 05/04/13

I agree with many that NUHW should stop their divisive war with SEIU and organize unorganized workers, that's what they do best. Quit looking at Kaiser as a cash cow and look outside that box.
Continued pursuit and militant attitudes will only breed hostility toward nuhw. Kaiser employees just want to go to work and get the red out!
Actually pretty balanced essay by Steve Early, but his preference is showing.
NUHW should stop being sore losers and find themselves

peasant1951 | 05/03/13

As a union member in unions from Teamsters, railroad to IBEW, I would think that spending all that time and resources at a time when the vast majority of Americans aren't unionized or have a bad view of unions, all that energy should be organizing the progressives from within SEIU to move in the direction they want contractually. If they can't do that and win the rank and file from within, what are their chances of getting a new union and then holding on to any union if they cause a split in the membership? Who is ultimately winning? Sounds like professional organizers need to organize the unemployed - from within! A little harsh, but who wants to see any union, good or bad, be broken from within? Think about it.

TerrenceRyan | 05/03/13

I am an old-time SEIU member who has been an activist, held elective office, worked as staff, and joined SEIU before George Hardy became International President.

I disagree with Steve Early’s analysis of the recent election between UHW and NUHW. After two unsuccessful attempts with no substantial change in the results, NUHW should organize the unorganized and stop raiding other unions.

I don’t know of any situation that the parties handled so badly by all the parties. SEIU should never have removed Rosselli. Former International President Andy Stern was power mad and Sal is crazy and fiercely tenacious. Both of them ignored their responsibilities to the rank and file to pursue their own agendas.

By the way I read Early’s book, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, and, while I agreed with much of what he reported I can assure him, since I was Financial Secretary of the union then, that the members did not fire Paul Johnson from SEIU, Local 400 for trying to organize workers.