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Don’t Mourn, Organize!


2010: This has been the year of wild spending here in California – and yes, the tragic truth, money talks. Meg Whitman spent her way into the Governor’s race – personal expenditures, $140 million and counting.

 

Now the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has won the latest round in its ongoing, three-year campaign to crush dissident California health and hospital workers – its own members, incidentally, and at their expense. By year’s end SEIU will have spent as much as $50 million on this campaign alone.

 

This latest lavish SEIU spending spree helped lead, alas, to its victory in the Kaiser Permanente campaign, where Friday, October 8, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced SEIU defeated the new union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) in the electoral contest to see which would represent 43,500 workers in the huge Kaiser chain of California hospitals and healthcare facilities.  

 

The vote, 13,640 for NUHW, 18,290 for SEIU, was expected to have been closer. SEIU’s massive use of thousands of imported staff, multiple glossy mailers, robo calls and home visits apparently paid off. So did collusion with Kaiser and the NLRB. NUHW, quite rightly, will appeal the results.

 

The cost – for SEIU – of the Kaiser election (SEIU refuses requests to itemize its expenditures) will rank as one of the highest (per voter) in US history. Observers estimate the total thus far at $20 to $40 million. Randy Shaw, writing in BeyondChron (September 7, 2010), argues that even if SEIU has spent only $20 million – “it will exceed Whitman’s: the former EBay CEO spent 100 million in the primary to reach 17 million voters, SEIU spent 20-40% of that to reach 44,000 Kaiser workers – or 2% of the size. That means that SEIU spent between $495-$910 per vote, the equivalent of Whitman spending between $7.7 and $15.4 billion to become California’s next Governor.”

 

Money, we know, is sometimes not enough. So SEIU threw in intimidation, a campaign of smears, lies and fear. Consider this one example: SEIU consistently (in the hundreds of mailings it sent to members) accused NUHW leaders as having “stolen” members money, and, moreover, having been found guilty in court. Kaiser workers were treated with flyers featuring fake mug shots of NUHW leaders under the headline, “Guilty.” The truth – no NUHW leader (in stark contrast to SEIU’s scandal ridden California operations) has been found guilty of stealing a penny, let alone charged with this in a court. Then fear – get this: the now departed Andy Stern, the one-time commander in chief of this California invasion, likened NUHW to terrorists! (Times, May 20, 2010) You can never, he reassured us, spend too much to fight terrorism. Don’t we know it?

 

Sadly, in the US, 2010, this is no joke. But the real fear of Kaiser workers was not bombers but the reality of early twenty-first century capitalism. And this is where fear entered. SEIU, following Karl Rove, et. al., joined by Kaiser, injected it. They told workers they would lose everything if they supported NUHW – their raises, their contracts, even their jobs. So who isn’t afraid? These threats came in the context of 12.5 percent unemployment in California, foreclosures continuing to mount, and yet another round of savage attacks on state workers – and education, health and welfare, all in the name of balancing the budget, delayed this year in the longest ever Sacramento budget impasse.

 

Now nevermind that negotiated raises, contracts, employment security are protected by law in representational disputes. SEIU simply lied, and Kaiser backed it up by illegally withholding the raises of thousands of southern California Kaiser workers who joined NUHW in January. This, as any organizer can tell you, is what management does all the time – only this time the “management” is SEIU. It was willing to break the any law, coerce, intimidate and see workers fired, all to convince workers that the power is against them and convince them that their struggle cannot succeed. More, like any employer, SEIU will happily fight appeals, pay fines.

 

SEIU’s threats, of course, were far from the truth. In fact it was SEIU that signed a sweetheart contract with SEIU – a closed door deal that sanctioned layoffs, cut pensions and opened the door for concessions in healthcare benefits. This contract, thanks again to Kaiser, conveniently was signed in July, just as the Kaiser elections were to be announced.

 

SEIU leaders, following Stern, are most at home in government centers and the corporate office. NUHW members, had they not been otherwise so engaged, could have told us this. Still, we need have looked no farther than Sacramento and the budget debacle. There a deal between Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and California's biggest state employee union marked a significant turn in the state's labor relations, one that effects about half the state's unionized work force. On the Wednesday before the Kaiser ballots were counted, Local 1000 of  SEIU cut a deal, a midnight tentative pact (supported by Democrats) that allowed the legislature to help close California's $19 billion budget gap with legislation by allowing furloughs for state workers whose unions don't agree to contract concessions. At the same time, SEIU's new deal made the 95,000-employee union the seventh to agree to drastic reductions in pensions for new hires as well as higher pension contributions for current employees. The agreement also allowed for unpaid time off.

 

SEIU, then, helped clear the path for what virtually everyone agrees is a one-sided, draconian, anti-working class, anti-poor Sacramento agreement. Who will pay? California state workers for a start (tens of thousands represented by SEIU) – and these workers will be joined by the blind, the elderly, the disabled, and students above all in the Community College and K-12 systems.

 

The immediate threat here, for Kaiser workers, indeed for the states unionized workers, then, is not just the state, not just the company, but the company union, the union in collusion with the state and the employers. This, for SEIU, goes far beyond the workplace. United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), the 150,000 member SEIU local trusteed and wrecked by SEIU in early 2009 was a progressive union – it fought for education, it supported other unions in struggle, it had a long history of opposition to war, it advocated universal healthcare reform. Its members most common point of reference, the Civil Rights Movement and the United Farmworkers.

 

The “new” UHW now aligns itself with the worst in corporate California; it has allied itself with antiunion healthcare giant Sutter Health against a San Francisco coalition of community and health care advocates. (BeyondChron, Oct. 7, 2010) Now UHW is working with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to elect “pro-business” candidates in San Francisco supervisor elections, in according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian “an alliance backed by the Chamber of Commerce and the SF Police Officers Association.” The “Chamber-Police-UHW alliance has spent $20,000 on bilingual (English/Chinese) door hangers that feature photos of Chamber President Steve Falk and UHW political director Leon Chow.”

 

The results of the Kaiser elections were announced the very same day the details of new state budget were revealed. Not a good day for the workers. Not a good day for any of us.

 

SEIU is a problem. While new SEIU President Mary Kay Henry paraded in the October 2 “One Nation” spectacle in Washington, DC, California’s workers dwell in the grimmer habitations of the “Two States” of California – the bottom one is separated from one top by vast inequalities, discrimination, austerities, hardships, with the constant threat of personal/family catastrophe always just ahead.

 

The Kaiser workers faced three giant institutions and they faced these virtually alone: SEIU, Kaiser and the NLRB. Still, remember, they almost won – had the election not been delayed nearly 20 months they surely would have. Justice delayed is justice denied.

 

Here is just a taste (and the basis for the appeal concerning Kaiser):

 

Kaiser management is charged with threatening that workers would lose wages and benefits if they joined NUHW. In fact it illegally withheld raises from thousands of southern California Kaiser workers who joined NUHW in January 2010.

 

Kaiser is charged with allowing contract specialists – employees paid by Kaiser – to campaign for SEIU on company time.

 

Kaiser allowed SEIU free access to its facilities – thousands of SEIU full-time staff, nearly all from out of state, were given free access to Kaiser facilities. (The incumbent union, under labor law, has the right to continue to service members – it does not, however, have the right to invade facilities with thousands of campaigning staff and organizers).

 

Kaiser “Human Relations” and Security systematically restrained NUHW members and staff, restricting sanctioned activities, frequently removing them from cafeterias and hospital grounds. In Modesto United Farmworkers’ founder Dolores Huerta was forced to leave the hospital.

 

There’s much more to tell, but here is the point: SEIU and Kaiser were quite willing to break the law, the violations were legion. In the realm of the law, the odds favored them as they always do management. SEIU’s management style slash and burn campaign, no holds barred, even though this fight was with its own (dues paying) members, was based on the calculation that even if NUHW appealed, even if SEIU was found in violation, why should it care? It has the money, it has the lawyers, it has the time – and California members’ dues, many millions each month, will continue to flow, one way, into Washington, DC. – this is how it works, Kaiser knows it, the NLRB allows it. In the end the NLRB contested Kaiser’s withholding of NUHW members raises, but only when the election was all but concluded.

 

Goliath has won again. So, yes, workers are afraid. And with reason. But not all of them. NUHW’s huge rank-and-file organizing committee worked to counter SEIU and Kaiser’s misrepresentations, harassment, and intimidation in hundreds of workplaces throughout the state.

 

These workers remain the union at Kaiser if we understand union to mean an organization of the workers. They fought an heroic battle, outnumbered, out spent, with few allies aside from a group of courageous volunteers. They will regroup, they may well reemerge even stronger – it has been a fierce, intense struggle. There are many more elections to come.      

 

Andy Stern, the initiator of SEIU’s peculiar brand of corporate unionism (“organize the employers, not the workers”) is gone now, applying his skills to the dismantling of Social Security and the promotion of bio-warfare. His lieutenant, the generic union “leader” Eliseo Medina, a reluctant Trustee it seems, has been moved up to a new bureau, this one in Washington, DC. President Henry, Stern’s protégé, is busy inside the DC beltway; she seems unlikely to return much to California, certainly not to its healthcare facilities. Just poor old Cornell grad, Dave Regan, self-proclaimed “old school” thug, remains, his army of carpetbagging staff much diminished, its locals in ruins. This is the legacy of SEIU’s war on California’s workers. It’s about time labor and its “friends”, fence sitters especially, faced up to this.  So much then for SEIU – and the “organizing model.” Don’t expect much.

 

NUHW is still here. Saturday morning, the morning after, several hundred NUHW members met in Plumber’s Hall, on Market Street in San Francisco. The members spoke. I can’t say there weren’t tears; I can’t say everyone wasn’t feeling a little bruised. I can say there was no sign that this battle was over. It was a defiant, inspiring gathering. The struggle continues.

 

Think about it. In these dark days of disillusion, of fear and retreat, these workers won 11,000 votes in just one company – the votes of workers who aren’t afraid, who want to stand up to their employer, workers who want a fighting organization, workers who that believe that a union is a workers’ organization, meant to empower workers, meant to make this world a better place for themselves, their friends and families.

 

The Workers still need direction, leadership. A way forward. We all do. NUHW remains a beacon; they’re still fighting. They deserve our support. An Injury to One is an Injury to All!

 

 

 

Cal Winslow has written CounterPunch articles on the subject of the SEIU and NUHW, including “Stern’s Gang Seizes UHW Union Hall,” February 2, 2009. He is also the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, PM Press and an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies. He can be reached at [email protected]

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