NUHW Takes Kaiser Elections

Kaiser workers overwhelmingly voted to leave SEIU and join the upstart NUHW.

updated 1/27

The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) chalked up an important win Tuesday in Southern California as hundreds of professional and technical workers at the giant health care chain Kaiser Permanente voted to leave the Service Employees (SEIU) and join the upstart NUHW.

“We were confident we would win,” said Tessie Costales, a 27-year nurse at Kaiser Sunset medical complex in Los Angeles. “Today it’s official.”

A last-minute push by the Service Employees (SEIU) to impound the ballots and prevent the vote count was denied by the National Labor Relations Board.

The vote comes nearly one year to the day after SEIU placed its third-largest local, the dissident United Healthcare Workers-West, into trusteeship, prompting members and leaders to establish the breakaway NUHW. Within a month of the trusteeship more than 100,000 workers had filed petitions to leave SEIU and join NUHW.

But 2,300 Kaiser professionals last week were among the first to secure a head-to-head vote. SEIU has effectively stalled elections for months with blocking charges and other legal hurdles at the labor board.

NUHW’s strongest support came from nurses at Kaiser’s Los Angeles Medical Center complex, winning that unit 746 to 36. In the smaller bargaining unit of dieticians, speech pathologists, and other professionals the vote was 189 to 29. A third vote among psychologists, therapists, social workers and others produced a 717 to 192 tally for NUHW.

The victory among Kaiser workers comes a month after workers at non-union Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital overcame an SEIU spoiling attempt and voted to join NUHW in December—one of three election wins for the breakaway union among non-union workers in as many months.

The remaining 43,000 workers at Kaiser will have a chance to pick their union when their contracts expire this summer. Costales hopes they join her and her coworkers in NUHW.

“SEIU underestimated what we could do,” she said. “We had no money, no manpower, it was all volunteer. But we have each other’s support. That’s why we won.”




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

Support for NUHW grew as Kaiser took advantage of last year’s trusteeship to increase workloads and target union supporters for discipline and harassment. According to Jim Clifford, a bilingual therapist at a clinic in Otay, SEIU made matters worse, removing elected stewards and worksite leaders.

“At the start of the trusteeship we couldn’t figure out what phone number to dial to get an SEIU staff representative who could work with us,” he said. “We’ve got grievances from January going nowhere.”

Costales saw the same problems at Kaiser Sunset. “They eliminated our officers and fired all the elected stewards,” she said. “If we had issues regarding patient care or safety we had to call a 1-800 number. It weakened us as a union.”

After months of minimal contact, SEIU dispatched 10 reps to her facility in the last three weeks, Costales said, adding “they should have put all this manpower out there at the beginning” if they wanted workers’ trust.

Dissatisfaction boiled over after SEIU, along with other Kaiser unions, agreed to cut lump-sum pensions by as much as 15 percent last December. The cuts were a response to the sagging stock market, but there are no plans yet to restore pensions in light of the stock market rebound or Kaiser’s $1.6 billion profit in the first nine months of 2009. More than three-quarters of Kaiser retirees take the lump-sum pension.

Members were apparently unswayed by SEIU’s threat to block the professional staff from participating in the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions if they voted to join NUHW. The coalition was created to coordinate bargaining with Kaiser as well as oversee union participation in Kaiser’s labor-management partnership.

SEIU also circulated a controversial legal opinion from consultant Fred Feinstein that workers could lose their contract standards and protections if they voted to join the new union. NUHW leaders called it deeply misleading; legally, employers cannot alter wages and employment conditions when workers vote to change unions.


In the closing days of the campaign at Kaiser, SEIU tried to trip up NUHW by agreeing to unblock elections at 29 other facilities, mainly smaller independent hospitals and nursing homes.

Those locations comprise almost 4,000 of the 20,000 non-Kaiser UHW members across the state who petitioned to join NUHW during the “open window” period before their contracts expire—and thus could switch unions.

SEIU’s sudden embrace of head-to-head elections, according to NUHW leaders, is an effort to stem the tide of bad news and hand-pick locations where SEIU believes it has a better shot at winning. NUHW is calling on the labor board to schedule elections for all 20,000 workers at once.


scotta1966 (not verified) | 01/27/10

Of course they are the fastest growing when they focus their efforts on organizing members of another union, but where is the organizing of unorganized workers happening? What ever happened to union solidarity and standing together as union brothers and sisters? With union membership plunging to a near all time low, unions should be working together to expand growth and not constantly fighting. I'm sure the blame can be shared by many and fingers can be pointed at all, but if we are going to reshape Americas future through the labor movement we better find ways of working together and asking ourselves what we can do to help our neighbor. It is hard to accomplish anything when the organized become so unorganized.

scotta1966 (not verified) | 01/28/10

I never said SEIU was not stealing members as well, in fact I said we can point at many and share the blame. But my point is why does that have to happen anywhere? Why not focus on organizing the unorganized and if possible work together in doing so. That is my point, to build union density and quit with the cut throating in organizing campains. I know it is all about growth and power, but why must that come at the expense of the very members we fight to protect? Just a pipe dream of mine to have unions supporting each other.

Mike Wilzoch | 01/27/10

As a 23 year veteran of SEIU--from the original Justice for Janitors campaign in Denver in '86--to leaving the trusteed UHW last year as the IU sold out, among too many others, the workers who bled for 6 years to win the San Diego campaign I was working on, I am not surprised that NUHW is beginning to clean SEIU’s clock regularly now that they have carved out a base, and the dozens of elections the International had blocked will now become part of the wave.

They are bailing water by bringing in staff from everywhere for every election but don't have enough fingers and toes to plug the dam, and some of the rank and file is getting hot about dumping their dues and staff on Andy's Adventures. A perfect storm is brewing for the purple plague: After Kaiser, the flood of election losses will hit while their Ralph Kramden scheme to take over UNITE HERE will go belly up and peter out as it wreaks whatever havoc they can manage going down.

As the movement expends energy needed elsewhere to deal with this megalomaniacal state of affairs, the bosses can only be licking their chops, not only over burying our best chance in a generation to fix the twisted labor laws they have relied on to rip off workers for decades, but now an opening to take the offensive with fresh meat on “Union corruption and twisted democracy” supplied by the former boy wonder of Labor.

The base of just his handpicked SoCal team, entrusted by Him to protect and defend the rights of over a hundred thousand workers (Flim Flam Freeman and Annelle Grajeda in LA and now former Corporate lawyer Sharon Frances-Moore in San Diego) has been removed and is under investigation for grotesque corruption and/or anti-democratic practices that would make the cast of On the Waterfront proud—and no one with a working brain thinks Stern could be shocked, shocked about real Trouble in River City after countless reports from members, leaders and even his own IU staff.

Having once known Stern and other architects of this calamity as a long time leader in SEIU, it is amazing that once smart, savvy, and principled leaders could become what they once despised so blatantly and without any apparent cognition over the damage done to the movement, or even any concern of how this has destroyed their once legit legacies.

Stern is now a dilettante who became infatuated with his "rocket age" ideas and persona (which consequently diminished his desire and capacity for critical evaluation) which were once cutting edge bold yet practical and ethical. Like too many other great minds with potential, he got lost in his own ego, masked as a vision of the greater good, leading inevitably to contracting his circle of trusted advisers and valuing loyalty more than even basic competence.

And can we at long last recognize the CNA’s Rose Ann DeMoro, the histrionic arbiter of ideological purity (with long time ties to Labor Notes), as the most hypocritical erstwhile "leftist" in the movement? Not just for killing the dreams of thousands of Ohio RNs who had the bad manners to choose a Union (yes, SEIU) other than hers—but for choosing self indulgent expediency in cutting a deal with Stern while the rest of the movement accelerates our efforts to put the brakes on her new pal's anti-worker, anti-democracy, serf of the boss counter revolution.

Mike Wilzoch
Aurora, CO

MClayton (not verified) | 01/27/10

back in 2007 I remember reading an excellent article on Andy Stern, a quite sympathetic one actually, that predicted the fall of SEIU if he didn't take immediate steps to create a culture that encouraged and protected dissenting opinions. The author felt Stern was a decent enough sort and perhaps even a true innovator, but he had insulated himself with too many sycophants who would never challenge his worst ideas. If there were just one or two intelligent truly challenging voices in Andy's world disaster could be averted.

Well, either Andy never read the article or he never found someone with the integrity to stand up to him. Let me see? Have I ever seen someone last in SEIU with integrity? ... Nope!

I don't believe I've ever worked in an organization as poisoned by fear and ambition as SEIU. Remain loyal to The Leader and you can enjoy limitless opportunity and great riches -- all expenses paid Hawaii weddings on the union's dime, a rock star's cigar bar tab, luxury everything. You may cheat, defraud, embezzle and wipe your fanny with the NLRA but just don't disagree with Andy and the will of his inner circle.

Having run through the herds of available "home based" workers, his "joint organizing" efforts a complete embarrassment, the Unite Here member grab costing far more than it's worth and California slipping out of his grasp -- with not one single competent and clever organizing mind left -- how does he turn the erosion of SEIU around? "Green job" and joint ventures with the UAW perhaps? I can't WAIT for the UAW rank and file to get a whiff of Andyism.

MClayton (not verified) | 01/27/10

Wow. Six to one. And we all thought Philadelphia was an embarrassment.

When will Andy realize that loyalty and ambition are a poor substitutes for competence? Just asking Andy. And that you can't bully and bribe people into trusting you or trust people you bully and bribe? And that rank and file union members really are smarter than trained bears? And that not everything can be fixed with a fog of press releases? And that simply saying you care about the membership doesn't make it so? And that empathy and omniscience are not part of the typical Communications curriculum? And that an organization grows stagnant and gangrenous when all dissent is squashed? And no organism can grow and thrive on a steady diet of Kool-aid? And that pride cometh before the fall?

SEIU has two choices moving forward -- learn how to actually LET THE MEMBERS OWN THEIR OWN UNION or take away all their voting rights once and for all. Geez, I wonder which way they'll go with that? I bet I know which way Tom Woodruff is leaning!

Anyway, I wish I could tape the next five years, edit it into a short film and sell tickets to every person out there SEIU has ever lied to, cheated or screwed, then buy an island in the Caribbean.