August 2010, Week 4


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Mon, 23 Aug 2010 21:21:51 -0400
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This Labor Day, Let's Salute All Union Stewards--and
Their Cutting Edge in California 

Monday,August 23

By Steve Early

NUHW activists in Fresno, Calif.   (Photo courtesy

The real heroes of what's left of the labor movement
are not people with full-time union jobs,
union-furnished cars and credit cards, and union
benefits that dues-paying members don't get anymore.

It's the men and women who take time out from their
regular jobs, under the baleful eye of their boss, to
be shop stewards.

Being a union steward, preferably elected rather than
appointed, is not an easy job, if done well. Fellow
workers can have a multitude of problems and
complaints. If their union has a functioning steward
system, the first person they're going to contact is
not the full-timer "down at the hall," but the
rank-and-filer who works nearby, in the same
department, and functions as a part-time union rep.

Employers may not like the outside union officials who
periodically visit their unionized workplaces--for
contract negotiations, grievance meetings, or to sign
up new COPE members. But there's not much they can do
to make them feel uncomfortable. Their privileged
non-employee status insulates them from all kinds of
management pressure and harassment that is an every-day
occupational hazard of good union stewards.

The steward can confront a supervisor over a contract
violation, pursue a grievance over it, and protest job
conditions that are unsafe or unhealthy--all with full
legal protection (or so stewards are told in their
union training). But at the end of the day, or maybe
even before it, a steward has to go back to work under
the same boss whose authority has just been challenged.
And some employers, not to mention their first-line
supervisors, have been known to take union push-back
quite personally, particularly when it comes from a

What better time than Labor Day--two weeks from today--to
salute the critical front-line role played by tens of
thousands of labor activists who volunteer to give
their union a human face and a stronger voice on the
shop floor, under increasingly difficult conditions.

On this particular Labor Day, I can think of no better
steward body to single out for special recognition than
the very active one at Kaiser Permanente in California.
Most unions would be proud to have the kind of shop
stewards' network that was built up, over the years, by
United Healthcare Workers (UHW) in Kaiser bargaining
units with 50,000 workers around the state, prior to
February of 2009.

But SEIU has mixed feelings about shop stewards, to say
the least, because of how many have behaved at Kaiser
lately. When SEIU national officials put UHW under
trusteeship and ousted all its elected officers and
board members last year, KP stewards overwhelmingly
opposed the seizure of their union. Any stewards who
refused to sign a statement pledging loyalty to the new
UHW regime were removed. Many others quit in disgust
when they saw their "disloyal" brothers and sisters
purged by out-of town SEIU staffers who were backed up
by Kaiser security personnel and, if necessary, the
local police.

In one of the most infamous of these incidents, at
Kaiser Walnut Creek Medical Center in March 2009, a
future SEIU president,Mary Kay Henry, was present when
cops were called because a popular (but defrocked)
steward showed up, on his day off, at a stewards
council meeting in his own workplace.

The idea that stewards should work for and be
accountable to the co-workers who elected them is
laughable in SEIU. The union prefers stewards who are
"on program"--which means they just follow the orders of
those higher up in a structure that mimics management's
own corporate hierarchy. Power flows, oppressively and
bureaucratically, from the top downward in UHW now.
It's not built at the base of the union, through the
collective activity of workers themselves and their own
democratic-decision making about who should lead and

At KP, the weakness of this top-down union model is
being exposed every day. SEIU headquarters in
Washington has been forced to dispatch hundreds of
full-time staffers to California to avoid
decertification there. These staffers are now flooding
Kaiser facilities, with up to fifteen assigned to each
one. They roam the halls like the union equivalent of
drug company "detail men" (the peddlers of free samples
from Big Pharma, who often bring gifts and lay out free
food in hospitals for doctors and other staff). The
workplace networks that SEIU operatives failed to
destroy or control within the giant hospital chain are
countering this invasion on behalf of the new National
Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

While NUHW does have some full-time organizers of its
own, they are few in number compared to the vast army
of pay-rollers working for SEIU. NUHW's Kaiser campaign
budget is a fraction of the many millions of dollars
that SEIU will spend to maintain its grip over a unit
of 44,000 workers. What makes NUHW competitive--in the
largest NLRB election in 70 years--is a volunteer army
of stewards.

These folks have something that SEIU conscripts don't
have, particularly those parachuted in from
out-of-state. And that is personal relationships with
Kaiser workers. Whether UHW stewards quit after the
trusteeship, were later purged, or quietly continued to
serve their fellow members, as best they could, they
tend to have credibility that union outsiders lack.
Their years of dedicated assistance to co-workers
earned them the respect of many other members. They are
well-known and influential in their own workplaces.

When many stewards declared themselves for NUHW 18
months ago, everyone around them knew this was a
decision based on principle, not political expedience.
No one would be getting any special perks or rewards
from NUHW--which has no patronage jobs or paid time off
to dispense, unlike the incumbent union. Nor would
there be pats on the head from Kaiser management, which
has displayed a strong preference for SEIU over
NUHW--and committed multiple unfair labor practices to
prove it.

In the Sept. 13-Oct. 4 mail ballot that will decide
whether SEIU remains the largest union at Kaiser, or
NUHW replaces it, the role of current UHW stewards has
become even more significant. In a series of remarkable
defections from SEIU (all chronicled here),
rank-and-file leaders in a number of Kaiser facilities
have thrown away their purple lanyards and donned the
red t-shirts and buttons of NUHW.

The largest collective decision of this sort was made
at Kaiser Santa Rosa, a hospital employing 1,200
SEIU/UHW-represented workers. On August 2, forty-eight
stewards--the entire elected stewards council--held a
rally to announce their mass resignation from SEIU. In
a letter to their co-workers, they wrote:

"Many of us have been stewards for years and have taken
pride in our effectiveness at bargaining and enforcing
our contract, as well as serving on the various
committees and teams that have made our facility such a
great place to give and receive care.'

The Santa Rosa 48 quit not because they wanted to stop
representing  other Kaiser workers. They stepped down
"in order to have the freedom to express our support
for NUHW." They described their current absence from
steward duties as "only temporary." Their letter
predicted: "When we win, we will be your stewards
again"--but as part of a union whose working members
"will make the decisions about bargaining priorities
and who represents us on the job."

At Kaiser in San Jose, UHW chief steward and national
bargaining representative Shar Vigil was among 17
stewards there who also openly endorsed NUHW earlier
this month. A 30-year Kaiser worker, she was
immediately informed by her SEIU staff person that she
no longer held either union position. For Vigil and
many others, SEIU's latest purge of elected workplace
leaders is just another reason to choose "a democratic,
member-driven union" instead.

Steve Early is the author of The Civil Wars in U.S.
Labor, forthcoming from Haymarket Books. He is an
active supporter of NUHW and an even longer-time
supporter of shop stewards.


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