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! Adriana 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, author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home, is a labor journalist and lawyer who has written for numerous publications. He was a Boston-based international representative or organizer for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years, and is a member of the editorial advisory committees of three independent labor publications: Labor Notes, New Labor Forum and Working USA. He can be reached at [email protected].