In Defense of SEIU


(Note: This blog entry is just culled together from a discussion I was having on this topic in a Canadian labour email group):

…This is a very disturbing incident.  Of course SEIU’s behavour at Labor Notes was outrageous, and they should apologize, but it’s not that surprising how angry they are given what the California Nurses Association did to them in Ohio.  I looked into this a little bit, and the reason that the SEIU made such a scene at the Labor Notes Convention in Ohio is because, from their perspective, they were retaliating against the CNA (whose president was to speak at the convention) after the CNA had sent it’s unionists to Ohio, from out of state, to discourage nurses at hospitals under Catholic Healthcare Partners from voting yes in a election that would have recognized the SEIU.  The SEIU had been working on this employer for 3 years, and it looks like CHP had finally buckled after an intense comprehensive campaign, and they had agreed not to resist the union any longer.  There was to be a vote held where the SEIU would be the only choice of union, but management would not interfere.  It looks like many rank-in-file nurses were largely unaware of this or the upcoming vote, and it seems that the SEIU had been unsuccessful at signing many cards in the previous 3 years.  The CNA, who don’t even have members in Ohio, flew in agents and began organizing their own campaign that targeted the nurses, charging that the election was a "back-room deal" that denied nurses "a real choice" and that the SEIU had cut a "sweetheart deal" with Catholic Healthcare Partners.  They successfully poisoned the well and the vote was cancelled. So the SEIU went nuts. This was their reaction.

And this is playing out in the backdrop of an ugly and long standing feud between the SEIU and the CNA.  Health care workers are becoming the SEIU’s bread-and-butter members, and they are in a bitter competion with the CNA for health care employees, especially nurses.  The SEIU is also the dominant force in the Change to Win Coalition, the rival labour federation that split from the AFL-CIO in 2005 — and the CNA is still affliated with the AFL-CIO, so that is another dynamic to this.  It’s rather tragic, considering the dire state of organized labour in the US (i.e. now only 8% private employees unionized), that there is this kind of infighting going on.

I think the whole debate hinges on whether the CNA’s allegations that the SEIU had cut a "sweetheart deal" have any merit.  But the CNA doesn’t really provide any evidence it was a yellow deal apart from the fact the employer was not interfering with the vote.  They harshly criticize Andy Stern and the SEIU for being a rotten union, and I agree with a lot of what they say.  I think the SEIU and Andy Stern deserve enormous credit and recognition for their successes in the US despite a collapsing labour movement, but at the same time, Stern is increasingly becoming highly authoritarian, anti-democratic, and triangulating to a degree that is worrisome (i.e. continuously praising Newt Gingrich, the Club for Growth, and other ultra-Rightists).  But all of that is beside the point, in my opinion.  It’s a non sequitur to say that that means the election with CHP was a complete sham.  It doesn’t appear that any other union managed to sign any cards with CHP nurses.  There are alarming tendencies to the SEIU, but obviously that doesn’t alone prove they actually cut a bad-faith back-door deal with the CHP.  Maybe there is some credible evidence they did, but I didn’t find any.  So the question remains then, why did the employer agree to allow a vote if it was not a bad deal for workers?  Well it looks like they finally caved in after a long fight with the SEIU.  I found this fascinating document on the Catholic Healthcare Partners’ website.

It’s a summary of a CHP management discussion over the financial state of the organization in late 2006.  They complain about SEIU’s comprehensive campaign, particularily the "corporate campaign" part of it.  I don’t like that label "corporate campaign", and am not an expert on it, but from my understanding a comprehensive campaign is similar in some ways to social unionism, and involves an element where you directly target the corporation as well, not just the employees.  So for instance you file class action lawsuits on behalf of employees against the employer for labour laws they are violating, or try to find waste or corruption, or violations of heath&safety/environmental laws they are committing.  It gives you leverage against the employer when coupled with traditional organizing and other community-based and grassroot efforts, and sometimes succeeds in making it so that the employer’s financial interest is to just capitulate. There are pros and cons to this strategy I think, but it seems to have worked in this case.  Look at the report’s revealing summary of CHP’s legal standing:

CHP is subject to two class action lawsuits sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). These suits were filed by the SEIU as part of their corporate campaign against CHP. A corporate campaign is a tactic used by unions to force an employer to concede to unionization of its employees without regard to the traditional ground rules promulgated and enforced by the National Labor Relations Board. The concessions are generally sought through the union s use of political, social, regulatory, legal and economic tactics. Other healthcare systems have been or are the subjects of similar corporate campaigns. Over the past two years SEIU has engaged in numerous attacks on CHP including the two class action lawsuits. One class action claims that CHP has engaged in aggressive billing and collection practices against the uninsured and the other alleges that CHP has violated wage and hour laws with respect to its employees lunch breaks and overtime calculations. CHP believes these actions are without merit and is vigorously defending each. CHP cannot, however, predict the outcome of either case, and an adverse ruling could have material financial impact upon the System."

Note the last line (emphasis mine).  And it looks like CHP was concerned enough that they hired unionbusters.  Like this firm that specialize in "corporate campaigns".

Anyway, this is kind of a long message here, but the issue is pretty complicated.  From what I’ve read it looks like the CNA were completely out of line, and were objectively union-busting — even though they are a union! Although it all depends on what actually happened in Ohio during the run-up to the vote, and that is not entirely clear. 

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