Email this article to a friend

Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jun 19, 2012, 4:03 pm

Are Nurses Headed to War with SEIU?

BY Josh Eidelson

Nurses strike outside of the Mills-Peninsula hospital in Burlingame, Calif., last September. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)  

On June 15, a day after a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) official asked labor leaders not to oppose a change to nurse-patient ratios, California Nurses Association (CNA) Executive Director Rose Ann De Moro sent a blistering e-mail to her colleagues: “It is a war, of that I am certain, and it will not be pretty.”

Questioning whether SEIU - United Healthcare Workers West (UHW) President Dave Regan "has any principles,” De Moro called him “dogged, arrogant and an enormous embarrassment to the labor movement.” De Moro, who directs both CNA and its national affiliate, National Nurses United (NNU), charged, “the hospitals believe that they have found a way to weaken the nurses and their union with Regan in their power, and this will lead to some pretty nasty scenarios for the nurses, patients, and of course the union.” (The e-mails were provided to In These Times by a labor source.)

Reading that e-mail – and the public invective that’s volleyed between CNA and SEIU since – it would be easy to forget that both unions are bound by a three-year-old peace treaty. And it would be fair to ask how long that “organizing partnership” – which has restricted CNA’s support for SEIU’s arch-rival, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) – can survive.  An interview with De Moro suggests that agreement’s future is in question, while previously unreported letters show the AFL-CIO rebuffing SEIU’s bid for a larger deal to freeze out NUHW.

The Ratio Controversy

California’s first-of-its-kind nursing ratio law, which took effect in 2004 following a decade-long campaign, has long been a target of the business lobby. In 2005, a judge overturned emergency regulations issued by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that would have weakened the law. CNA cites a 2010 University of Pennsylvania study that concluded New Jersey and Pennsylvania hospitals would have suffered 13.9% and 10.6% fewer deaths, respectively, if they had California’s ratios (generally one nurse for every five patients).

Reached by phone Saturday, DeMoro called UHW’s Regan “a traitor to his class” and a “symptom” of the increasing “servility” of the mainstream labor movement. Rather than fighting corporations, said DeMoro, “he was doing their bidding. Overtly. Loudly.” Watching it happen, she added, management must be “sitting back, drinking their wine, and laughing their asses off.”

DeMoro said that on last Thursday’s Labor Federation call, Regan said that Democratic legislators had told him that if he could get the federation to drop its opposition, they would support budget language to suspend nursing ratios during workers’ breaks. According to DeMoro, Regan urged loosening the ratios so that lower-income hospital workers wouldn’t bear all of the state's economic woes.

DeMoro countered that private hospitals made billions in profit last year, and a retreat on ratios would embolden management to come after other protections for workers and consumers. She said Regan’s comments caused “horror” among labor leaders, with one saying, “If you’re going to give away the ratios to help the corporations make more profits, why not just give up collective bargaining?” According to De Moro, every participant on the call, except for two from SEIU, voted to oppose weakening the ratios.

Reached over e-mail, SEIU-UHW spokesperson Steve Trossman said, “SEIU’s position was that the fed should stay neutral, which did not prevail, and that should have been the end of it.” Regarding DeMoro's assertion that Regan mentioned Democrats' willingness to amend the ratios if labor dropped its opposition, Trossman said, "We may have heard from some legislators because [California Hospital Association] was shopping it around the capitol."

Trossman accused CNA of refusing to join an SEIU effort appealing to the Governor to rescind a cut to hospital funding because “they are not interested in lending a hand to other workers.” (DeMoro said CNA is also fighting the cuts, and that she was unaware of any outreach from Regan to CNA’s political team to collaborate.) It was because “nearly everyone is taking a cut from the state,” said Trossman, “that SEIU-UHW thought being neutral on the [California Hospital Association] proposal was worth discussing, given that there would have been virtually no jobs lost.”

DeMoro said it was “completely disingenuous” for Trossman to say the ratio issue is over.  She says Regan must have known he would lose Thursday’s vote, but “he was trying to prove to the bosses that he was carrying out their orders ... I assume it’s going to escalate, because the hospitals are not going to let Regan off the hook.”

DeMoro’s and Trossman’s conflicting takes on the controversy share a common thread: both trace it in part to SEIU’s ongoing conflict with an upstart alternative, the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

The Elephant in the Room

“CNA is blowing this out of proportion,” said Trossman, “because it gives them an excuse to attack SEIU as a way to carry water for NUHW, which continues to do nothing to build the labor movement and simply tries to organize workers who are already in unions through decertification campaigns.”

Former SEIU staff formed NUHW in 2009, after SEIU International took over their local union, SEIU-UHW (now run by Regan). NUHW interim President Sal Rosselli traces that conflict to his allegations, while he served as UHW president, that SEIU International was undermining union democracy and bargaining away too much to healthcare companies. SEIU blames the conflict on alleged corruption by Rosselli and other NUHW officials. (A jury issued civil judgments totaling $1.5 million against Rosselli and others – SEIU had sought $25 million - for their actions in the lead-up to the trusteeship; that decision is on appeal, where Rosselli says a judge has urged mediation.)

Since then, NUHW and SEIU have faced off in a series of government-supervised elections after some SEIU members petitioned to join NUHW instead. In 2010, SEIU beat NUHW in the largest private-sector union election in seven decades, covering 43,000 employees of the hospital chain Kaiser Permanente. But a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge overturned the election after finding that SEIU and Kaiser management had illegally colluded to keep workers from joining NUHW. A new election is pending, but is currently stalled while the NLRB reviews allegations from NUHW of further collusion.

DeMoro suspects that Regan “cut a deal that Kaiser would help stop NUHW in exchange for Regan helping them to go after the nursing ratios.” Trossman says, "that's absurd" and that "we are eager to have [the election] and don't understand why NUHW is holding it up."

News of SEIU's stance on nursing ratios may offer NUHW further ammunition. And SEIU’s conflict with CNA could end up freeing the latter to aide NUHW at a critical moment.

Does This Mean War?

After years of bitter competition to organize healthcare facilities, SEIU entered an “organizing partnership” with CNA and NNU in 2009. At the time, SEIU was locked in nasty battles with NUHW and with the hospitality union UNITE HERE (a conflict I was involved in while working for my former employer, UNITE HERE). The UNITE HERE conflict ended with a settlement; the NUHW conflict continues. Under their agreement, SEIU and NNU have worked to jointly organize healthcare facilities in some parts of the country, with some workers in each building becoming members of each union.

CNA’s partnership with SEIU hasn’t prevented CNA from supporting NUHW actions against management, as when CNA backed NUHW-instigated strikes against Kaiser last fall. Rosselli charges that Regan helped Kaiser by reinforcing management’s message to SEIU members that they could be fired if they participated; some SEIU members joined in anyway.

“Regan tried to break our strike using his workers,” said Rosselli, “and the workers rejected that.” Trossman denied this, called the strikes “failures,” and said, “We told our members that we had a better plan to protect their benefits.”

Rosselli says NUHW and CNA are currently “working pretty closely together.” But DeMoro and Rosselli confirmed that CNA’s agreement with SEIU has barred it from assisting NUHW against SEIU. “Obviously,” said Rosselli, “we don’t like it…it is what it is.”

Asked whether, as stated in her e-mail, CNA was now at war with SEIU, DeMoro says, “I’d have to say that the nurses – and including the SEIU nurses – now are more furious than I’ve seen them in a very, very long time…Whatever [Regan’s] deal is, the nurses are the target.” (DeMoro declined to directly comment on the e-mails.)

So will the “organizing partnership” survive? “It’s too early to tell how this all plays out,” says DeMoro. She described Regan’s stance on ratios as “a trespass at a fundamental level,” and “a direct violation” of a provision of CNA’s agreement with SEIU. She added that it wasn’t yet clear to her whether he was acting with the support of SEIU International: “Whether he’s rogue or not is going to be the question.”

DeMoro says she’d like to see a resolution of SEIU’s conflict with NUHW that involves the two rejoined as a single international union, with Rosselli back in charge of SEIU-UHW. But with no such deal on the horizon, there’s reason to believe CNA might actively back NUHW against SEIU if freed from the prohibition on doing so. DeMoro says collaboration between SEIU and CNA has been limited in California, because “the problem is that we fight, and there’s not a lot of fighting going on” between SEIU and management. Asked what she would tell a Kaiser worker about whether to vote for NUHW or SEIU, DeMoro said she wouldn’t tell them how to vote, but that there’s “no question” CNA members would tell them to oust SEIU, because Regan “tried to take away the most precious thing they had.”

At least one SEIU official has already privately attempted to distance himself from Regan. In a June 18 e-mail to two officials from NNU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania President Neal Bisno wrote, “No idea what Dave was thinking – you can rest assured that our local and SEIU are strongly opposed to any suspension or other dimunition [sic] of any aspect of the hard-won CA RN to patient ratios law. This is a patient safety and patient lives issue, a valuing of nurses issue, a nurses union issue – not a State budget issue.  Unfortunate incident, and rest assured a subject of intense reaction from SEIU Nurse Alliance leaders and members, including myself, inside our union.” (Bisno, a member of SEIU International's Executive Board, did not respond to a request for comment on the e-mail, which was provided to In These Times by a labor source.)

But Rosselli says SEIU International’s takeover of the UHW local is evidence that the problem of “transactional deals with the for-profit hospital industry,” exemplified by Regan’s move on nursing ratios, is not confined to Regan. “It’s an SEIU problem,” Rosselli says. “For the labor movement to survive, to get turned around, it has to be built bottom-up by empowering workers. SEIU and Regan are doing the opposite.”

DeMoro also charges UHW with collaborating with the hospital industry to push a “union-busting” message of “vilification” of CNA, including a “nasty little narrative” that “nurses are elitist and they don’t care about poor people.”  She noted a Sunday column by senior editor Dan Morain at the Sacramento Bee, charging that “Regan clearly set it up” (Trossman says this is "completely untrue.") The column, titled “Is nurses union a health hazard?,” criticized CNA for opposing legislation backed by Planned Parenthood that would have expanded who could dispense contraception. (CNA said its concern was maintaining standards of care for low-income patients.) The column approvingly quoted Regan as saying that unions need to be “about something affirmative,” and cited UHW’s partnership with Kaiser as a model.

DeMoro said she’s hearing from CNA board members who say, “‘I thought that you said that SEIU wasn’t going to attack us. And they did.’ So it put me in a very bad position frankly.”

Trossman referred a question about the partnership's future to an SEIU international spokesperson, who e-mailed that the union “remains committed to our partnership with CNA/ NNOC.”

Meanwhile, previously unreported documents show that SEIU sought a deal that would have prevented any other AFL-CIO-affiliated unions from aiding NUHW as well.

AFL-CIO Declines to Freeze Out NUHW

In February, NUHW announced a partnership with the International Association of Machinists, which both unions said could lead to an eventual merger. (“It’s progressing,” Rosselli says, “and eventually will be put to a vote of our entire membership.”) That would provide NUHW more resources to fight SEIU, and also bring NUHW into the AFL-CIO. (SEIU left the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form a rival labor federation, Change to Win.)

SEIU publicly dismissed the move as a “bailout” of a “drowning organization.” The next month, in a letter obtained by In These Times, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry reached out to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to try to avert such a merger.

Henry wrote that SEIU’s Executive Committee had authorized her to offer “a mutual no-raid agreement with all AFL-CIO affiliates, subject to the IAM’s reconsideration of their support and affiliation with the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).” In other words, SEIU wouldn’t try to poach any AFL-CIO union’s members, and vice versa – as long as the AFL-CIO got the IAM to dump NUHW. 

“It’s time for NUHW to disband,” wrote Henry. “An affiliation with the IAM will only result in wasting millions more union dollars in this dispute.” Henry asked the federation “to help SEIU to defend our members against the IAM resourced raids, if we cannot stop the IAM waste of resources.” The letter was “carbon copied” to Change to Win, the National Education Association (NEA), and the 57-member AFL-CIO Executive Council.  Henry specifically requested that AFL-CIO vice presidents, labor councils, and state federations “encourage IAM to withdraw from NUHW.”

In a May letter to Henry, copied to the Executive Council, Trumka declined. He noted that the “no-raid” policies covering unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO had been amended repeatedly, including in response to suggestions made by SEIU not long before SEIU left the AFL-CIO.  “While no policies can ever replace a spirit of solidarity and trust between trade unionists,” wrote Trumka, “these changes have been largely successful.” To address the issue of raiding, Trumka urged that SEIU rejoin the AFL-CIO: “In our view, the best place to work this through is at the AFL-CIO table. We would like nothing better than to have SEIU at that table.”

An SEIU spokesperson confirmed the authenticity of Henry’s letter, and said that it “was grounded in the belief that this moment of crisis for working people calls for a higher level of unity and that unions should devote resources to organizing non-union workers to build bargaining power for all working people, not raiding units already represented by a union.” (An AFL-CIO spokesperson declined to comment.)

(A June 11 letter on SEIU-UHW stationary, provided to In These Times by NUHW, told Kaiser workers that IAM had signed "a series of contracts with major givebacks, wage concessions, and layoffs, and they are now desperate for new members." It also claimed that "word is" that if workers voted out SEIU, IAM and NUHW would "require members to pay dues to both unions." Rosselli says this is false.)

Rosselli, who had seen Henry’s letter, says he was struck by her choice to refer to NUHW as an organization whose leaders “refused to abide by an internal jurisdictional decision of the SEIU International Executive Board.” He says that undermines SEIU’s claims that Rosselli’s local was taken over for “stealing money” (that allegation does appear in a fact sheet enclosed with Henry’s letter), and noted that the jurisdictional decision he had objected to – transferring thousands of homecare workers out of UHW and into a different SEIU local – has yet to be carried out under his successor. Rosselli also described the letter as “a pathetic sign of SEIU’s weakness…They want no competition whatsoever for their quote unquote ‘property,’ which is the way that they look at their members.” 

Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is http://www.josheidelson.com. Twitter: @josheidelson E-mail: "jeidelson" at "gmail" dot com.

View Comments