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Working In These Times

Friday, Jan 6, 2012, 3:27 pm

NUHW Goes National, Winning Union Elections in Michigan

BY Mike Elk

Among  those seeking to reform trade unions, there is often a debate about whether or not trade unionists should try to reform unions from the inside or simply leave and form their own. Often the task of reforming a union from the inside can be difficult, as union leaders can make challenges to leadership difficult, if not impossible, in some cases.  

For years, Sal Roselli, the former president of United Health Care Workers (UHW), a large Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local in California, found himself frustrated with his efforts to reform the union's organizing model, which he felt did not give rank-and-file workers proper decision-making power. Eventually, Roselli and over 100 shop stewards were kicked out of SEIU leadership positions in California after SEIU trusteed their local in January 2009.

Immediately following that action, Roselli and several thousand UHW workers decided to form a new union to implement their vision of trade unionism: the National United Healthcare Workers (NUHW). “In reality, we were forced to leave the union and had no other choice but to form our own union,” Roselli admits.

During the last three years, Roselli and a team of shop stewards were able to get 9,000 former UHW-SEIU members to join NUHW through a series of hard-fought decertification elections, through which workers switched their allegiances from SEIU to NUHW. NUHW has resisted concessions at big hospital chains like Kaiser Permante while SEIU has accepted concessions. Last fall, SEIU members crossed a picket line at a Kaiser Permanente facility set up by NUHW members and members of another union, National Nurses United in California.

NUHW, though, isn't content to just win back former members who had left SEIU in California. The union is now becoming a truly national union by winning elections in other states. On Wednesday, in Muskegon, Mich., NUHW won an election because SEIU members at the Hackley Campus of Mercy Health Partners opted to leave SEIU for NUHW by a margin of 65 to 9. It’s the second election NUHW has won in Michigan; another election occurred earlier this year at Luther Manor Nursing Home in Saginaw.

SEIU had sought to delay the election by using the NLRB election process to delay the election by nine months. 

“Nine months is a long time for workers to wait for the freedom to choice a union, but it is short compared to some of the waits we have in California," said NUHW Communications Director Leighton Woodhouse.

The Michigan workers had grown upset with an SEIU local that had faced allegations of corruption. The former president of SEIU Healthcare Michigan, Rickman Jackson, was forced to resign after it was revealed in 2008 that he was a receiving a salary from a Los Angeles-based local union as well as a separate local union after he had already left the LA-based union. 

His replacement as head of the SEIU Healthcare Michigan hasn't avoided criticism, either. NUHW released this flier (PDF) noting that current SEIU Healthcare Michigan Marge Faville is paid more than $160,000 annually, and her niece, daughter and son are on the union's payroll (NUHW activists claim they hold do-nothing jobs.) In addition, Faville charged the union $17,600 a year to rent a luxury apartment in Detroit.

SEIU members claim that while their union leaders found creative ways to use the union for their own financial gain, the union provided little in the way of servicing members and helping them resist concessions attempts by employers.

"We've been waiting for this moment for a long time," said Kim Vossekuil, a surgical technologist at Hackley. "SEIU is too corrupt and indifferent to its members for us to remain with them for a single day longer. We've gone months at a time without ever seeing our SEIU representative, and SEIU staff refused to do anything when management ran roughshod over our contract."

SEIU did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

NUHW President Sal Roselli says that his union plans to challenge SEIU across the country in places where rank-and-file SEIU members claim their leaders are not doing a good job representing their members. “We are getting calls across the country from SEIU members and other workers because people are seeing the publicity of our members fighting concessions and it is inspiring people," Roselli says.

NUHW also hopes thought simply by challenging SEIU, it will force the union to do more for its members.

“Our goal is not to reform SEIU. There is no democratic way to change it from the inside,” says Woodhouse. But, she notes, "we found SEIU is in a harder position to sell out members as easily as they were able to without the NUHW challenge. “

Judging by NUHW’s recent victories in Michigan, SEIU will have to put up with the upstart union’s challenge for a long time to come.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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