The stereotypical union battles of the past were fought by burly working-class heroes, on the picket-line and the proverbial “shop floor.” Think of tough-looking guys, wearing scally caps (and wielding baseball bats, when necessary), while marching through the streets of the San Francisco in 1934. Their enemies were many—the long-shore bosses and shipping companies, the courts and politicians, a corrupt and management-friendly east coast union, that sought to under-cut their strike and bargain behind their back. They shut-down the port anyway, and others along the west coast. They rallied fellow workers, briefly triggered a general strike, and ended up breaking away to form a new union, under far greater rank-and-file control. It was the depths of the great Depression—the kind of economy where you don’t want to take risks, as SEIU tells Kaiser workers today. The founders of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) took risks anyway, along with many casualties. But, in the end, they won, making a better life for themselves and subsequent generations.
It’s now 2010. Union activists wear pink and blue hospital scrubs and, if they work in the OR, what looks like a shower cap on their head. Their struggle for the hearts and minds of 44,000 co-workers at Kaiser Permanente (KP) was most visible last week in hospital cafeterias across California. There, purple-clad members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and red-wearing supporters of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) gathered around rival information tables like fraternities or sororities competing for new members during rush week. (At Kaiser, the analogy is not that far-fetched since workers often call their place of work “the campus.”) Their recruitment activity was intense because ballots had just gone out in the biggest union representation vote since 1941, when the San Francisco general strike was not a distant memory.
Kaiser employees already “pledged” to one union or the other could be identified easily, based on the lanyard around their neck, the buttons and stickers that adorned their various outfits, or what color they were sporting, in response to a scheduled day of union T-shirt wearing. Those still sitting on the fence (or concealing their preference) blended in more easily with scores of non- bargaining unit employees, like doctors or administrators, other union members, like the nurses, plus patients, friends, and family members who all shared the same eating space.
SEIU and NUHW stalwarts tend to stake out separate turf at lunchtime, eying each other suspiciously. They do little intermingling–except when lines form for the “free” food offered by SEIU. (And, I’m not talking here about the very un-appetizing cupcakes I saw wrapped in plastic and covered with purple icing at a KP facility in suburban Walnut Creek last week). Befitting the higher culinary standards of downtown San Francisco, the incumbent union fare at Kaiser’s big Medical Center on Geary Boulevard was high-end pizza, with thin crust and exotic toppings like pineapple. Boxes of these pricey pies were piled high last Wednesday next to campaign flyers warning workers that, if they vote to switch from SEIU to NUHW, they may lose the 3 per cent annual wage increases negotiated earlier this summer by SEIU officials who replaced the elected officers of United Healthcare Workers-West last year.
Not coincidentally, one of those ousted leaders—in fact, the former president of UHW, Sal Rosselli—stood next to the NUHW table, warmly greeting a stream of rank-and-file visitors of every color and nationality. With a handshake, a hug, or a slap on the back, he urged them all to get a piece of pizza first and then come back to talk. “After all,” he said with an impish grin, “your dues money paid for it!”
Rosselli’s good-humored approach belied the obvious fraying of Kaiser’s much touted experiment in “non-adversarial” labor relations. The bitter competition between SEIU and the union rival formed after the UHW trusteeship is now consuming millions of dues dollars—most collected and spent by SEIU. While claiming to be neutral, the employer side of the KP “labor-management partnership” has assisted SEIU in many ways, reinforcing the perception among disgruntled dues-payers that they are saddled with a “company union.” In the view of NUHW supporters, workplace conditions and union representation have both declined since their local was seized by SEIU President Andy Stern in January, 2009. Hundreds of UHW stewards and staff members resigned or were ousted as a result. Whole Kaiser stewards’ councils were depleted and KP “unit-based teams” ceased to function as they had before, when the union was more pro-active about workplace problem-solving. Newly appointed SEIU “contract specialists” –who do full-time union work at Kaiser’s expense—have been much less effective than their predecessors who were purged for “disloyalty.”
The national union staff who assumed control of higher-level negotiations caved in to KP demands for a costly pension plan give-back and weaker job security protections. SEIU’s new three-year contract was settled four-months before the old one expired this fall, with little mobilization of Kaiser workers and no bargaining about local issues, as UHW had always done in the past. According to the NUHW (and a worried California Nurses Association, whose own Kaiser agreement is up for re-negotiation next spring), the new contract opens the door for future health care cost-shifting.
All of these issues have been much debated and disputed in the blizzard of phone calling, mailing, and leafleting during the three-week voting period that ends Oct. 4. What motivated Julia Tecpa-Molina, a unit clerk in cardiology, to spend her day off aiding NUHW last week was something more fundamental– simple workplace solidarity. A native of El Salvador, Julia came to California in 1989, as a civil war refugee, when she was twelve years old. She has worked for Kaiser 11 years now, lives in Richmond in the east bay, and wanted to be with her co-workers on their big “wear red” day. Her husband urged her to stay home because she was not scheduled to work; she made up a story about having to vote at the hospital, instead of by mail, and headed for the BART train with her two-year old daughter in tow.
At the time of the trusteeship, Julia’s hospital had 1,600 UHW bargaining unit members. A subsequent “re-balancing” of the statewide workforce (Kaiser jargon for 1,500 job cuts) plus attrition, has reduced the local head count by nearly ten percent, leading to job combinations, speed-up, under-staffing, and reassignments that would have violated the old contract. “Seniority doesn’t count for anything anymore,” Julia told me. “SEIU hasn’t helped us so we don’t believe in them.” Her friend, Gladys Cortez-Castillo, was outside the hospital before work, leafleting at 6 A.M. in the morning. She described understaffing in the ICU that leaves its unit assistants badly over-stretched. “We need something better to protect us, the kind of union it was before. With these people, we don’t have a chance,” she said, casting a contemptuous glance at the SEIU staffers from out-of-state who were busy serving pizza purchased with money deducted from her paycheck.
The red-T shirt wearers far-outnumbered the SEIU loyalists on this particular day in the cafeteria. The full-time staffers manning the SEIU table, with a handful of workers at their side, looked a bit tense and beleaguered. One arranged for me to interview the “contract specialist” for the hospital, who NUHW supporters say has been campaigning for SEIU on company time, a violation of federal law. Gabriella Padilla insists that she does so only during her breaks and lunch-hour. “I want somebody who has power,’ Padillia explains, citing SEIU’s claimed North American membership of 2.2 million. “If NUHW wins, how are they going to get a contract?” She hints darkly that the rival union is “planning to go on strike” but “they don’t want tell members that because it would turn them off.”
NUHW had just gotten a strong boost from rank-and-file nurses in the same medical center, who have struck Kaiser more recently than the last SEIU walk-out, which was in 1986. Even though their Oakland-based leadership is still cooperating with SEIU on out-of-state organizing within Healthcare Corporation of America, the nurses’ union bulletin board, just outside the cafeteria, has, under glass, a full selection of NUHW campaign literature. In a letter to their fellow RNs, CNA members Donna Goodman, Pamela Fulton, and Pascal Wilburn declared that “we cannot afford to stand on the sidelines…We are asking nurses to wear their CNA red this Friday to show our co-workers that we are standing with them. The leaders of NUHW have a proven track record. For years, the old UHW was a strong member-run union, very much like CNA.”
The member-driven nature of NUHW’s low-budget campaign was emphasized by many workers I interviewed, including Kelela Moberg, an outspoken pharmacy tech. She had been quoted by Steven Greenhouse, in a Sept. 14 New York Times story about the Kaiser vote, that followed his visit to same hospital two weeks ago. Greenhouse is partial to SEIU and prone to bad “framing”—as in transforming a struggle involving thousands of workers into a mere pissing match between rival union officials (one of whom, he wrote last week, was known for “using brass knuckles on his former colleagues.”) In addition to that disgraceful description of Rosselli, he reported that Moberg was a “Rosselli supporter”–as if she were backing a San Francisco mayoral candidate. “I’m not a Rosselli supporter,” she told me indignantly, after seeing The Times piece for the first time. “I’m an NUHW supporter!” It’s a distinction apparently lost on The Times' main labor reporter.
The impressive rank-and-file volunteerism fueling NUHW stands in sharp contrast to the multi-million dollar “blitz” being employed by SEIU to maintain its grip on the largest group of unionized Kaiser workers. Estimates vary, but clearly more than 1,000 national and local union staffers and “lost-timers” (stewards on leave from their own jobs in other SEIU bargaining units) have been flown in from around the country. They are staying in hotels, driving around in rental cars, collecting per diems, and those with new Kaiser ID badges have even been turned loose on the union’s captive membership in patient care areas of hospitals. Among the canvassers assigned to visit members at home are laid-off U.S. census workers and others with little or no union background who get hired through a temp agency called TruCorps. It lists former SEIU long term care division director Jim Philliou as a “strategic advisor.”
In Roseville, north of Sacramento, where NUHW also looks strong among 2,300 Kaiser workers in the area, some out-of-state visitors won’t even tell workers their last name. One, who is just “George,” arrived four weeks ago from SEIU in New York and does give out his cell phone number. Few people believe he will stay around after the election, as he promises. Among NUHW supporters, George’s shifting cast of colleagues are mainly known by the places they hail from. (As in, “Hey, did you see Nevada over there?” or “where’s Colorado been spotted today?)
SEIU’s campaign coordinator at Roseville is a national staffer I last saw in Portland, Maine, ten years ago during an unsuccessful SEIU organizing drive among nurses, that my wife was asked to assist. He helpfully introduces me to a steward in the women’s health department, obviously an SEIU stronghold. (On the day of my visit, the OB/GYN staff of twenty or more all trooped into the cafeteria, in purple, and ate together at one long table.) Danielle Wanger has two children, is studying to become a nurse, and seems eager to be done with all the “chaos and misinformation” of the last 18 months. Hired by Kaiser in 2004, she became a steward only after the trusteeship but does a good job of summing up what may be the attitude of other newer employees. In her department, “we weren’t angry and don’t have many issues with management,” she told me. “Mostly, it’s the angry people who support NUHW. Those of us who are pretty content are not willing to risk change.”
NUHW’s rank-and-file committee at Roseville—which some jokingly call “the stewards council in exile”—was indeed angry on the morning of my visit. Scattered around their “campus” was a flyer, printed on red paper, headlined: “STRIKE?!!! Are You Serious?!!!! In This Economy?? No Way!!!” This anonymous production by someone on the SEIU side—both Wanger and her lead organizer disclaimed any responsibility for it—quoted eight local NUHW activists. All the statements attributed to them, by name, are complete fabrications, assertions like: “In order for change to happen, some blood must be shed” or “I want a union that will burn cars and be militant” or “I hate the Kaiser partnership because we can’t strike.” Recently fired 15-year EVS department employee Jonathan Welch is quoted ominously as saying: “Right now, EVS is ready to strike.”
NUHW’s full-time organizer on the scene is a soft-spoken, neatly-groomed 35-year old native of south Texas named Marti Garza. Earlier this year, he was back in his home state helping CNA win some elections at HCA but their joint work with SEIU was hard for him to stomach. Marti introduces me to some of the alleged architects of an impending strike in Roseville. They are a feisty, independent-minded group but a lot more thoughtful and level-headed than the red-baiting flyer of the day suggests. NUHW supporters include a number of Republicans but, according to Garza, “whether Republican or Democrat, these workers want a good, honest union that respects their opinions.” In this regard, they seemed a lot like the always diverse Teamsters for a Democratic Union, who face similar challenges bucking management and their own unresponsive union at the same time. There are no perks and few promotions for those who choose this difficult path, only lots of hard work and the chance to be anonymously smeared.
Linda Antonelli, a 21-year employee, has taken two vacation days to help with the GOTV effort for NUHW. She and others report that SEIU has put all pending grievances on hold, while its paid operatives devote every waking hour to the campaign, leaving Welch’s discharge case in limbo. “It didn’t used to be this way,” reported Dina Taylor-West, a former steward with more twenty years at Kaiser. “We had power. I was educated and knew the contract. It was enforced by a real union.” She also recalled the days when there were monthly membership meetings in Roseville, held away from the hospital and not just restricted to stewards. New members were inducted, grievances were discussed, union strategy was debated. People came on their own time. Today, these gatherings are stewards-only affairs, held on the clock, courtesy of Kaiser. “New members don’t have a clue about the contract,” Taylor-West says, looking forward to the day when “everyone will be unified again, on the same page, so we can get things done.”
At nearby Parkway Administrative Center, the thirty Kaiser staffers who schedule Roseville patients for surgery were understandably wary of both unions. Mainly white, female, and middle-class suburbanites, they invited representatives of SEIU and NUHW to come and make presentations and answer questions. Their group behavior was very professional but more typical of an independent employee association, considering whether to affiliate with a national union. One question dealt with the $1.5 million jury verdict obtained by SEIU in March against 16 former UHW leaders and staffers, including Garza. Thanks to this lawsuit (which has cost SEIU members more than $10 million in legal fees so far) Marti now owes SEIU $36,600—an amount equal to his current annual salary from NUHW. In October, 25 per cent of his pay will be garnisheed, for the first time, and every month thereafter until he satisfies the judgment, posts an expensive bond, or the verdict against him gets overturned on appeal.
In its propaganda, SEIU has turned Garza’s civil liability—for courageously helping UHW members resist Andy Stern’s trusteeship—into a criminal act, a “theft” of membership dues money, as one belligerent SEIU official claimed in front of the Kaiser administrative workers. Garza quietly presented his side of the story, pointing out that he was not in jail and was guilty only of “insubordination” to national union directives opposed by the workers who paid his salary. Impressed with his personal sacrifice and commitment to the membership, the administrative workers voted as a group to support NUHW. On the day of my visit to Roseville, their self-activity was continuing. They had produced their own home-made “Vote NUHW” flyer, distributed it widely, and only called Garza to let them know what they had done after they had done it. He couldn’t have been more pleased.
Steve Early was a Boston-based organizer for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years. He is the author of Embedded With Organized Labor from Monthly Review Press and The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, forthcoming from Haymarket Books this winter. He can be reached at [email protected]