Calif. Union Rebels Demand Biggest Labor Board Vote In Seven Decades

Steve Early

Longtime labor activist Dolores Huerta (center) celebrates with Kaiser Permanente employees petitioning for an election that would allow them to join NUHW, in Los Angeles on Tuesday, June 29.

Unhap­py Kaiser work­ers aim to leave SEIU, join NUHW

With jus­ti­fi­able pride (and the num­bers to prove it), the 1.9 mil­lion mem­ber Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) has long claimed to be the fastest grow­ing union in Amer­i­ca.” By the end of this year, it could become the fastest-shrink­ing union in Cal­i­for­nia — a rever­sal of for­tune large­ly unfore­seen until recently.

The archi­tects of SEIU down­siz­ing (if it occurs) are not bud­get-cut­ting Repub­li­can gov­er­nors or anti-union nurs­ing home own­ers or union-bust­ing hos­pi­tals, although all will be impact­ed by the upcom­ing vote demand­ed yes­ter­day by thou­sands of Kaiser Per­ma­nente (KP) work­ers. In Los Ange­les and San Fran­cis­co, unhap­py SEIU mem­bers held press con­fer­ences Tues­day to announce that they are seek­ing Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) elec­tions so they can switch to the rival Nation­al Union of Health­care Work­ers (NUHW).

Their con­test­ed bar­gain­ing units cov­er 45,000 employ­ees at California’s largest hos­pi­tal chain. To get a rep­re­sen­ta­tion vote in a group of this size, you need to sign up, in very short order, at least 13,500 peo­ple in 350 dif­fer­ent work loca­tions in one of America’s largest states. (And that min­i­mum 30% show­ing of inter­est” to trig­ger a vote was cer­tain­ly far exceed­ed by NUHW sup­port­ers at Kaiser who did the bulk of the sig­na­ture-gath­er­ing on their own time — before, dur­ing and after sched­uled work shifts.)

As a long­time helper of labor orga­niz­ing dri­ves on the east coast — the largest of which involved 10,000 few­er work­ers in a pub­lic sec­tor cam­paign thir­ty years ago — my hat is off to the for­mi­da­ble rank-and-file team that’s re-build­ing union­ism at Kaiser today. After all, it’s not every day that some­one knocks on the door of the NLRB and says: Hey, let’s hold the biggest union rep­re­sen­ta­tion vote since the 1940s.”

Depend­ing on how much legal foot-drag­ging SEIU does now, the elec­tion could be held any­time between late August and October.

At the Bay Area NUHW press brief­ing, host­ed by UNITE HERE Local 2, Kaiser work­ers explained why they want out of their exist­ing union. Since Jan­u­ary of 2009, when for­mer SEIU pres­i­dent Andy Stern (now a drug com­pa­ny board mem­ber) put 150,000-member Unit­ed Health­care Work­ers (UHW) under trustee­ship for chal­leng­ing his heavy-hand­ed rule, things have not gone well for care-givers in California.

Kaiser social work­ers Ran­di Shaw and David Shapiro were part of a pre-trustee­ship UHW chap­ter that had 350 wide­ly-dis­persed mem­bers, but a strong net­work of 35 elect­ed shop stew­ards. The social work­ers felt con­nect­ed to Kaiser con­tract nego­ti­a­tions in 2000 and 2005 that Shapiro par­tic­i­pat­ed in as a bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee member.

As social work­ers, we believe in democ­ra­cy, in elect­ing our stew­ards,” Shaw said. When SEIU took over our local, they said noth­ing would change. But one of the first things they did was remove stew­ards and oth­er elect­ed lead­ers.” Day-to-day rep­re­sen­ta­tion has suf­fered as result, Shaw and Shapiro report­ed. Only mem­bers will­ing to sign an offi­cial SEIU loy­al­ty oath are eli­gi­ble to serve as stew­ards or negotiators.

So Kaiser man­age­ment is tak­ing advan­tage of the weak­er, less expe­ri­enced peo­ple who’ve replaced the hun­dreds of Kaiser stew­ards who have quit or been purged by SEIU because of their NUHW sym­pa­thies. It’s very dif­fer­ent work­ing at Kaiser now, Shaw said. The cul­ture has changed and you can feel it.”

Shapiro cit­ed the gains made by fel­low Kaiser pro­fes­sion­als in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia who were the first to switch unions in Jan­u­ary, in a land­slide vote against SEIU. The nurs­es in that group of 2,500 imme­di­ate­ly went to work on the issue of staffing lev­els. They were able to nego­ti­ate addi­tion­al RN posi­tions at a time of Kaiser-wide job elim­i­na­tion — a trend that NUHW says is not being effec­tive­ly resist­ed by SEIU. Aid­ing the lat­ter, Kaiser tried to pun­ish work­ers who vot­ed for NUHW by deny­ing them a pre­vi­ous­ly sched­uled wage increase — an unfair labor prac­tice so bla­tant that it forced even the slow-mov­ing and employ­er-friend­ly NLRB to issue a com­plaint against KP sev­er­al weeks ago.

This employ­er retal­i­a­tion was not unre­lat­ed to a much larg­er pat­tern of man­age­ment sup­port for the incum­bent union and inter­fer­ence with the activ­i­ties of the insur­gent one. The much-her­ald­ed Kaiser labor-man­age­ment part­ner­ship” has become an addi­tion­al weapon against employ­ee free choice.
Work­ers are being told by SEIU that they will lose the ben­e­fits of a Kaiser labor coali­tion con­tract just nego­ti­at­ed — and won’t be allowed to join either the part­ner­ship or the 30-union coali­tion that par­tic­i­pates in it.

Nei­ther threat seems to be doing too much dam­age so far.

The new SEIU-Kaiser agree­ment has been wide­ly crit­i­cized by NUHW sup­port­ers and has won them fur­ther shop-floor sup­port from co-work­ers in the Cal­i­for­nia Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion. CNA mem­bers have always opposed the part­ner­ship and believe the just-rat­i­fied SEIU deal sets a bad prece­dent for their own statewide bar­gain­ing next year. Between them, CNA and UNITE HERE have pro­vid­ed more than $3 mil­lion in loans and grants to NUHW since the new union was launched 17 months ago. Scores of orga­niz­ers, on loan from UNITE HERE, have also been assist­ing NUHW’s bare-bones net­work of low-paid, full-time staffers and its ded­i­cat­ed cadre of Kaiser cam­paign volunteers.

Kaiser work­ers are on the verge of mak­ing his­to­ry and tak­ing their union back,” Local 2 sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er Lam­oin Wer­lein-Jaen told the press con­fer­ence. We have a shared vision that empha­sizes democ­ra­cy and plac­ing mem­bers at the cen­ter of our orga­niz­ing, our work, and our decision-making.”

Out­side Werlein-Jaen’s union hall door, a small group of pur­ple-clad SEIU mem­bers hand­ed out anti-NUHW fly­ers, accom­pa­nied by a ner­vous-look­ing young staffer named Adri­ana Sur­fas. Adri­ana is the PR per­son who raised a few eye­brows in May when SEIU pulled out of a long-sought NLRB vote at UCS Uni­ver­si­ty Hos­pi­tal in Los Angeles.

Amid a vicious anti-union cam­paign by man­age­ment – that was aid­ed and abet­ted by SEIU — the incum­bent union sud­den­ly removed itself from the bal­lot! Adri­an told the Los Ange­les Times that this was because man­age­ment had cre­at­ed an extreme­ly hos­tile envi­ron­ment, so that work­ers who sup­port­ed union­iza­tion feared what was going to hap­pen.” What hap­pened was that 393 work­ers vot­ed for NUHW, 122 vot­ed for no union, and the union that rep­re­sent­ed all of them until the day before sim­ply vamoosed.

Since the well-deserved loss of SEIU’s entire KP mem­ber­ship would be quite a blow to new nation­al pres­i­dent Mary Kay Hen­ry — and a set-back for Stern-appoint­ed UHW trustee Dave Regan, who is about to become the per­ma­nent leader of UHW — no one expects a sim­i­lar dis­ap­pear­ing act at Kaiser. But before the bal­lot­ing is over, Kaiser work­ers will see more of that extreme­ly hos­tile envi­ron­ment” in their own work­places, as SEIU and man­age­ment team up to make chang­ing unions as dif­fi­cult as possible.

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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