Union Hypocrisy and Calif. Health Workers’ Fight For ‘Free Choice’

Steve Early

Healthcare workers protest outside of the NLRB office in Oakland in July 2009 over being denied union elections to vote to possibly leave the Service Employees International Union.

As orga­nized labor tries to sus­tain its inside-the-Belt­way cam­paign for an Employ­ee Free Choice Act (EFCA), com­pet­i­tive health­care work­er orga­niz­ing in Cal­i­for­nia pro­vides a con­tentious coun­ter­point to union claims that rep­re­sen­ta­tion deci­sions should always be made with­out threats, coer­cion, and oth­er forms of inter­fer­ence facil­i­tat­ed by Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board elec­tion delays.

In Cal­i­for­nia health­care, one lead­ing EFCA pro­po­nent — the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) — has become a major foe of employ­ee free choice, wher­ev­er its own mem­bers or even unor­ga­nized work­ers favor anoth­er union.

Tens of thou­sands of SEIU-rep­re­sent­ed hos­pi­tal and nurs­ing home work­ers have expressed a desire to join the Nation­al Union of Health­care Work­ers, as demon­strat­ed by their major­i­ty card or peti­tion sign­ing. But since last Feb­ru­ary, SEIU’s stan­dard response to NUHW elec­tion peti­tions has been to enlist the always dys­func­tion­al Labor Board — the bogey­man of EFCA cam­paign­ers every­where — in stalling as many of these votes as possible.

Even unor­ga­nized work­ers, who are just try­ing to win col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights for the first time — not switch from SEIU to NUHW — have been vic­tims of SEIU’s man­age­ment-like obstruc­tion of their orga­niz­ing activity.

(A bit of back­ground: NUHW is the new union cre­at­ed by hun­dreds of elect­ed local SEIU offi­cers, board mem­bers, and stew­ards who were removed last win­ter when SEIU Pres­i­dent Andy Stern seized con­trol of 150,000-member Unit­ed Health­care Work­ers-West and installed appoint­ed lead­ers, from out-of-state.)

As NUHW notes, its rep­re­sen­ta­tion peti­tions should have trig­gered NLRB-con­duct­ed votes with­in 45 days in cas­es where there was no com­pli­cat­ed legal issue to resolve. Instead, dur­ing the last eight months, the NLRB has man­aged to hold only three elec­tions so far, none of which involved exist­ing SEIU mem­bers. In two of these, NUHW has been declared the offi­cial win­ner; in a third new­ly-cre­at­ed bar­gain­ing unit, where NUHW also has very strong sup­port, nego­ti­a­tions on a first con­tract are now being delayed, thanks to SEIU.

As Lupe Her­nan­dez from Tarzana Med­ical Cen­ter reports, SEIU sent one orga­niz­er for every two employ­ees to try to stop us, but they couldn’t get enough votes. When we final­ly had our elec­tion on Oct. 14, SEIU filed last minute charges so our bal­lots would be locked up and not count­ed until the charges were resolved.”

The sit­u­a­tion at Memo­r­i­al Hos­pi­tal in San­ta Rosa is even more reveal­ing. With union help, work­ers at this facil­i­ty, part of the St. Joseph Health Sys­tem, tried for five years to per­suade the reli­gious order that spon­sors St. Joseph to restrain its anti-union activ­i­ty pri­or to any NLRB rep­re­sen­ta­tion vote. Just as UHW cor­po­rate cam­paign­ers” were about to make a break­through in this mod­el dri­ve for man­age­ment neu­tral­i­ty,” Stern put UHW in trustee­ship. His appoint­ed staffers then aban­doned the orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee at Memo­r­i­al, much to the anger and dis­may of union sup­port­ers in the hos­pi­tal.

Last April, a major­i­ty of the 600 Memo­r­i­al work­ers peti­tioned the NLRB to hold a vote so they could join NUHW instead. As a key com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­er, Mon­sign­or John Bren­kle, wrote ear­li­er this month in the San­ta Rosa Press Demo­c­rat, both NUHW and St. Joseph man­age­ment have expressed will­ing­ness to sit down and nego­ti­ate ground rules lead­ing to a fair elec­tion agreement.” 

How­ev­er, accord­ing to Bren­kle, SEIU has been mis­us­ing labor law as a means of delay­ing an elec­tion for as long as pos­si­ble and refus­ing to come to the table with the oth­er par­ties.”

In an open let­ter to Bren­kle and oth­er San­ta Rosa reli­gious lead­ers, SEIU’s exec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent Eliseo Med­i­na, a co-trustee of UHW, explained why his union tried to block the NLRB vote at Memo­r­i­al, now sched­uled for Dec. 17 – 18. SEIU, he said, is

deeply trou­bled by the prospect of San­ta Rosa hos­pi­tal work­ers mak­ing a choice based on the promis­es of indi­vid­u­als with whom they are famil­iar — with­out con­sid­er­ing that NUHW has no real mem­ber­ship base and its future via­bil­i­ty is ques­tion­able at best.

Accord­ing to Med­i­na, his union will not par­tic­i­pate in three-way dis­cus­sions on elec­tion cam­paign guide­lines because that would sug­gest that NUHW’ is a legit­i­mate alter­na­tive” to SEIU. Only a bi-lat­er­al agree­ment with the employ­er” is appro­pri­ate, he argued, despite a recent call by the North Bay Cen­tral Labor Coun­cil for SEIU to with­draw from the upcom­ing elec­tion because it lacks work­er sup­port.

The Cen­tral Labor Council’s inter­ven­tion on behalf of one union over the oth­er, in a con­test­ed orga­niz­ing cam­paign, is high­ly unusu­al. But NUHW has been gar­ner­ing sup­port from many such allies through­out the state and around the country.

On Nov. 16 and 17, the new union held back-to-back fundrais­ers in San Fran­cis­co and Los Ange­les. Among those attend­ing in both places were local lead­ers of the hotel work­ers union, Unite HERE, which cur­rent­ly has mul­ti­ple con­flicts with SEIU. The north­ern Cal­i­for­nia event was held in the plumbers hall and attend­ed by many well-known Bay Area polit­i­cal fig­ures; in L.A., the venue was the head­quar­ters of the Unit­ed Teach­ers of Los Ange­les (UTLA).

SEIU respond­ed to both events with rent-a-mob” protests — staff and loy­al mem­bers were bussed in to march, shout, bang drums, and in L.A., throw eggs and water bot­tles at the hos­pi­tal and nurs­ing home work­ers who
dared to cross their infor­ma­tion­al” pick­et-lines. If NUHW is real­ly as weak, mem­ber-less, and irrel­e­vant as Med­i­na claims, one has to won­der: Why was such activ­i­ty nec­es­sary? And why is SEIU esca­lat­ing its threats against oth­er unions, cen­tral labor coun­cils, and pub­lic fig­ures who do regard NUHW as a legit­i­mate alter­na­tive” to SEIU? (For more details, see Randy Shaw’s SEIU Wages War on Pro­gres­sives,” pub­lished at Beyond​Chron​.org last week.)

The answer is that SEIU itself — in Cal­i­for­nia health­care, at least — lacks pop­u­lar legit­i­ma­cy, rank-and-file sup­port, and orga­ni­za­tion­al self-con­fi­dence. Its main strat­e­gy in con­test­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tion elec­tions is to con­duct cost­ly, scorched earth cam­paigns, replete with the kind of threat­en­ing behav­ior that was on dis­play at UTLA last Tues­day night.

In SEIU’s view, work­ers at Memo­r­i­al in San­ta Rosa, and any oth­er hos­pi­tal, are far bet­ter off remain­ing non-union than becom­ing part of NUHW. To keep its own dis­grun­tled dues-pay­ers in cap­tiv­i­ty, SEIU will con­tin­ue to flood work­places with paid staffers, demo­nize NUHW, and — just like any union-bust­ing employ­er — manip­u­late NLRB case-han­dling pro­ce­dures to ensure that jus­tice delayed is jus­tice denied.”

This is a tru­ly appalling spec­ta­cle — but one dear to the heart of EFCA foes every­where because of the mon­u­men­tal hypocrisy involved. As Mon­sign­or Bren­kle points out, SEIU’s behav­ior flies in the face of Catholic social teach­ing” and con­tra­dicts its own nation­al advo­ca­cy” of a new mod­el of union elec­tions that tru­ly pro­tect and respect work­ers’ rights.” The union’s actions under­mine the work of labor, cler­gy, and work­ers” and the prin­ci­ples we have all worked so hard to achieve” through faith-based com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing, he said.

The deci­sion about union­iza­tion should be in the hands of work­ers alone, “ Bren­kle says. After five years of orga­niz­ing at Memo­r­i­al Hos­pi­tal, it is high time work­ers get that chance.”

Steve Ear­ly, a for­mer Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca orga­niz­er, has helped arrange fundrais­ing events for the Nation­al Union of Health­care Work­ers. He has been active in the cam­paign for EFCA and for orga­niz­ing rights agree­ments that facil­i­tate union recog­ni­tion with­out NLRB involve­ment. He can be reached at Lsupport@​aol.​com

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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