Decisive Showdown - Which Union for California Health Care
Workers (2 posts)
* Decisive Showdown: Which Union Will California Health Care
Workers Choose? (Mark Brenner)
* `I had to come to California to help' (by Ed Sadlowski)
Decisive Showdown: Which Union Will California Health Care
by Mark Brenner
September 1, 2010
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
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
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
"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.
NUHW is asking supporters from other unions to volunteer on
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
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
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]
`I had to come to California to help'
by Ed Sadlowski
September 3, 2010
Chicagoan Ed Sadlowski came very close to winning the
presidency of the Steelworkers in 1977, running a campaign
that galvanized rank-and-filers who wanted the right to vote
on contracts, among other rights.
His grown children, who are active in the labor movement,
urged him to get involved in what's become one of the
biggest fights in the labor movement, the contest between
the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and the
Service Employees (SEIU). Sadlowski is now in California
volunteering on NUHW's campaign and visiting work sites.
Ellen David Friedman, another campaign volunteer,
interviewed Sadlowski in August. Interview with Ed Sadlowski
When I was working in the steel mill and a union activist in
the USW, I was president of my home local when I was 25
years old. That was in 1964. We had 11,000 members. I won by
100 votes out of 4,000 cast. By the time I was 35 I was
district director. I considered myself more "socially
inclined" than some of the other leaders. I ran for
president of the USW; it was a hell of a campaign. I almost
won but stayed very active.
In the last 35 years I continued to work in the labor
movement, retired and took my pension from the USW, served
on the Labor Relations Board in Illinois, and enjoyed the 11
grandchildren. I've done campaigns on a local level... but
this -- NUHW -- is major. Things like this don't come around
every day. I had to come out to California to help. I felt
like I really didn't have any choice but to do what I could
to help them win.
The labor movement in our country has done many fine, great
things. It has developed people to help us provide for
ourselves, to live a better life tomorrow than we did
yesterday. But there are few unions that really try to
develop a "two-party" system. Most of them, with few
exceptions, become single-party, autocratic power
structures. Most constitutions allow for competitive
elections, but in reality they rarely happen. It breeds a
feeling from the workers that they aren't really part of the
union itself. It breeds discontent. They can become
dictatorial. This is what has happened in SEIU... so the
worker on the shop floor doesn't have any voice at all.
Here I am, 35 years later, after I tried myself to win some
voice for workers on the shop floor, now trying to do the
same thing for health care workers in California.
I never met [NUHW President] Sal Rosselli before this week.
But I think he's the real thing, as genuine as can be. He
really cares about workers having a voice. Whereas [former
SEIU President] Andy Stern had become an autocrat. You
know... "what I say has to be."
Unfortunately, the industrial powers in this country, and
the banking interests, from the very inception of the
country, the rich have always gotten richer and the middle
class -- which was virtually created by the labor movement
-- this class provided whatever social benefits we enjoy
Today I spent all day with the former stewards or with
workers who've formed committees in their workplace to
campaign on this election. Ballots are going out in the
middle of September. I saw workers, young, earnest, wanting
to learn. They have one thing that counts for everything --
experience on the shop floor. That's the only thing you have
to have. I put my faith in them. I looked around the room
and thought, "I'm the oldest person in the room. What the
They are fighting for one fundamental thing, for the right
to have a voice in the most important things in their lives,
their livelihood, their experience right on the shop floor.
This should be a given right, not something you should have
to go out and fight for every day. The hospital industry is
one of the biggest in the country. One of the issues which
these workers are fighting for is to get decent health care
I pray for them, I wish them well. If they win, they will
help all workers everywhere in the country. The spark of the
idea... putting this idea in other peoples' heads. Like a
port worker in New Orleans...you could say to him: "Have you
heard what those health care workers did in California?
Opening up their union, getting a voice." It can encourage
people, get them actively involved, get them militant to
give direction to their own union.
I encourage everyone to join a union, to get actively
involved. Make sure your neighbors, family, do the same.
Most important is to democratize the union. You have an
obligation to do that...for yourself and your children. And
you have an obligation to come out to California and fight
along with the health care workers who are trying to
democratize their union.
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