SEIU Scores Victory, Faces Election Challenge, At Kaiser Hospitals

David Moberg

One union came out on top this week at California's Kaiser Permanente facilities.

In a much-anticipated showdown over the future of healthcare unionism in California, a substantial plurality of the 43,000 members of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers-West at Kaiser Permanente facilities have voted to remain with the Service Employees union rather than join with the rival National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

The mail-in ballot tally announced Thursday evening was 18,290 for SEIU-UHW, 11,364 for NUHW, and 365 for no union.

The vote is a major setback for NUHW, whose leaders had deep roots in the local, since Kaiser workers are such a large, influential bloc in the union. But NUHW quickly announced it would challenge the election results, in part on grounds that Kaiser management had unlawfully aided SEIU. In August, NUHW filed a federal lawsuit to stop any Kaiser managerial help to SEIU. SEIU, which has now overwhelmingly retained most UHW members where there had been challenges, called on NUHW not to pursue frivolous” challenges. Over the weekend, NUHW supporters plan to meet to discuss strategy.

Former officers and members of UHW, led by former president Sal Rosselli, formed NUHW in January 2009 after SEIU put the 150,000-member local in trusteeship. The takeover grew out of a deepening conflict between Rosselli – for many years an independent-minded leader who organized effectively, negotiated strong contracts, won political influence for the local and encouraged union democracy – and then-SEIU president Andy Stern over union strategy and democratic procedures and culture. 

SEIU charged Rosselli with serious financial malfeasance, but a federal court found only that NUHW officers had used some of their final weeks in office planning for NUHW and ordered repayment of $1.57 million.

SEIU spokespersons questioned whether NUHW, with few members and shaky finances, could continue. Sympathizers from other unions, including such iconic figures as United Farmworkers co-founder Dolores Huerta and Steelworkers insurgent Ed Sadlowski, supported NUHW, but the fledgling union lost critical aid when the California Nurses Association and then UNITE HERE settled conflicts with SEIU, with conditions that they cease helping NUHW.

NUHW complains that SEIU delayed the balloting, then used a misleading campaign promoting fear that workers would lose all their contract gains if they voted for NUHW. It argues also that management both provided assistance to SEIU and adopted illegal policies, such as withholding raises due to workers, that gave credibility to SEIU allegations, even though the National Labor Relations Board overruled Kaiser’s actions.

In a press release, NUHW said,

In April, Kaiser began illegally withholding raises from workers who had already joined NUHW, while SEIU sent hundreds of thousands of mailers, leaflets, and robocalls to other Kaiser employees, threatening that they, too, would lose their raises and other benefits if they joined NUHW.

NUHW members filed charges, but the labor board took no effective action until six months later — after the ballots were already in. Just hours after voting ended, the NLRB exposed SEIU’s scare tactic as a lie, when they filed for an order forcing Kaiser to repay more than $1 million in raises to NUHW members.

Despite SEIU’s victory in this largest round of Kaiser voting and NUHW’s vulnerabilities, it seems that the challenger remains in the ring, ready to continue the fight.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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