Decisive Showdown: Which Union Will California Health Care Workers Choose?
After 18 months of legal delays and workplace skirmishes, the stage is set for a decisive showdown between the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and the Service Employees (SEIU).
On July 30 the National Labor Relations Board scheduled elections for more than 40,000 Kaiser Permanente service and technical workers in California. Kaiser is the biggest hospital chain in the state, with nearly 6.5 million patients. Ballots will be mailed September 13 and the vote count will begin October 6.
About 4,000 workers have already left SEIU to join NUHW—formed by dissident leaders of SEIU’s third-largest local after the union’s national officers trusteed it in January 2009. But NUHW’s effort to recruit the former union’s largest bargaining unit, encompassing nearly a third of its members, takes the contest to a new level.
NUHW: RANK-AND-FILE CAMPAIGN
Facing off against SEIU’s large staff and sizeable war chest, NUHW is aiming to repeat its successful effort to recruit 2,300 nurses and other professionals at Kaiser’s Southern California facilities in January.
According to Roy Chaffee, who works in Kaiser’s Vallejo call center, NUHW is relying on a deep network of rank-and-file activists—many former stewards and worksite leaders—to move its campaign.
Their message is resonating. The most recent sign is the wave of stewards who are disavowing SEIU and encouraging their co-workers to vote NUHW.
At Kaiser Santa Rosa Hospital, 48 of the 50 stewards resigned their union positions in August, announcing their support for NUHW. Dozens of stewards at other facilities have followed suit.
“I was elected to just about every committee SEIU put together since the trusteeship,” said Marcie Call, an operator on the graveyard shift and former chief steward. “Things were shady in just about every one of them. I got to see firsthand how SEIU cut backroom deals with management.”
The turning point for Call was when Kaiser issued layoff notices to 1,500 workers in August 2009, in violation of the contract’s no-layoff clause. To avoid the layoffs, SEIU did a deal to suspend seniority rights for everyone and let at-risk workers jump into vacancies, whatever their rank.
“Big bad SEIU just rolled over, and we got snowed by Kaiser,” Call said.
SEIU: ‘FEAR AND SMEAR’
The strategy for SEIU staff and supporters is “all about lowering expectations,” Chaffee said. “If you ask a question about the contract, they tell you ‘you’re lucky to have a job.’ Their game plan is fear and smear.”
SEIU claims everything’s at risk if workers vote NUHW. Staffers tell Kaiser workers they’ll lose all that they’ve built up over decades: good health care, pensions, job protections, and raises in the latest contract, inked in June. (NUHW responds that other Kaiser workers who switched unions kept raises, pointing to an August 27 labor board decision, and that labor law says the contract stays in place no matter who wins.)
“They are relying upon their supporters’ ability to scare people,” Chaffee said, adding that SEIU has dangled steward appointments—which include time off the job—to draw support.
“We don’t want to give up on anyone,” he said. “But when they’ve convinced someone that works right beside you to support them, it becomes a little more visceral.”
SEIU has cut off an important source of NUHW’s support by settling a nearly two-year feud with the hotel workers union, UNITE HERE. By providing NUHW with money, logistical support, and organizing staff, UNITE HERE helped the upstart union topple SEIU in several contests in the last year.
But the late July truce prohibits the hotel workers from providing further material assistance to NUHW, much like an earlier deal that ended hostilities between SEIU and the California Nurses Association shortly after NUHW’s founding.
SEIU has also attempted to undercut NUHW by systematically dismantling the union’s previous structures at Kaiser, by removing stewards who refused to sign loyalty oaths.
Despite promises to remain neutral, Kaiser has made its preference for SEIU clear, using the company’s controversial labor-management partnership program against NUHW supporters.
Chaffee reports that SEIU has filled most Kaiser-paid positions, known as contract specialists, with members who are willing to put loyalty to the trustees above all else. Contract specialists are released from their regular jobs to do union work, such as contract enforcement.
In August Kaiser employees at nine workplaces filed a federal lawsuit against Kaiser for allegedly providing financial support to SEIU, which is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. These NUHW supporters allege that dozens of contract specialists, stewards, and lost-timers campaigned for SEIU while being paid by Kaiser—putting up posters, distributing leaflets, tearing down NUHW leaflets, and one-on-one campaigning with fellow workers.
Emily Ryan, a psychiatric social worker at Kaiser Sacramento, said NUHW supporters in nearby facilities have been tracked and harassed by SEIU reps. “They are calling managers, telling them people aren’t working. People get back from working in a different part of the hospital and their managers are grilling them about where they were, and why they were there, with exact times.”
The atmosphere has had a chilling effect. “Some people are afraid to speak out publicly,” Ryan said. “They’re worried SEIU will refuse to represent them.”
Ryan is also concerned that SEIU is manipulating NLRB procedures. She is part of a separate bargaining unit of Kaiser professionals that has also filed for an election between the two unions. No election date has been set for Ryan and her coworkers because of NLRB charges filed by SEIU. In January, a similar professional bargaining unit in Southern California voted in NUHW by a substantial margin.
“They’re blocking us because they know we’re strong and we intend to vote for NUHW,” Ryan said.
According to Chaffee, Kaiser has taken full advantage of the conflict to restructure jobs.
“They’ve done more rebalancing and shifting and twisting of work and assignments and seniority than I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s really opened the floodgates on any harebrained scheme they can come up with in the name of saving money. Never in the history of our union have folks been subjected to this.”
Alongside its take-no-prisoners organizing on the shop floor, SEIU is touting the two-year contract signed in June, which secured two 3 percent raises and left benefits and work rules largely intact.
But many members worry their standards are still in jeopardy, because the contract establishes a committee to examine “cost containment” for health care benefits. Experts selected by Kaiser’s labor-management partnership, not members, will make recommendations on cuts—after the election, next May.
Editors Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Labor Notes