Kaiser Election

In April, 43,000 Kaiser Permanente workers in California will vote, again, to decide which union will represent them, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), the latter now allied with the California Nurses Association (CNA-NNU).

The issues in this contest are many. What is at stake is important. Very important. Let me say this right off – it is likely that this event, this election, will be as important as any for labor, in the coming year, indeed in the foreseeable future. What is at stake is in part about numbers, big numbers here and who gets them, also the shrinking numbers in US labor, as grim reports routinely remind us. But it is not just about “density” (the number of union members in a population or industry) that vastly exaggerated concept; we’ll return to this.

What is at stake here goes much farther than that. Rather, it is about what   in 2011 – and the bulk of all this here in California, where it’s Oakland based CEO, George Halverson “earns” $9 million in salary annually and benefits beyond belief.

SEIU remains the nation’s second largest union, with nearly 2 million members, 600,000 of whom work in California. Its healthcare affiliate, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) represents for now 45,000 Kaiser service and tech workers; its leaders and staff inherited their positions, beneficiaries of the 2009 trusteeship imposed by the SEIU international. Dave Regan, its Cornell University grad president, receives $300,000 a year (plus benefits), this in an industry where tens of thousands (in California hospitals) work for less than $20,000 annually.

Against them, the NUHW, founded by members expelled in 2009 from UHW, now 10,000 members strong, and the CNA, with  85,000, 17,000 of them working for Kaiser in northern California.

Inequality, then.

And if that isn’t enough, Kaiser and SEIU have combined against the latter, working together here; they are a team, a labor-management partnership in the deepest sense of this concept. When Judge Lana Parke, the Washington, DC based administrative judge, threw out the first Kaiser election, she did so, because, she found, “that certain conduct of SEIU-UHW in the circumstances of unfair labor practices committed by Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Southern California Kaiser Permanente Medical Group  among three professional collective-bargaining units of Kaiser employees in Southern California interfered with the employee’s exercise of a free and reasoned choice among /Kaiser/employees…”

That is, she argued, SEIU used Kaiser’s “illegal” denial of raises to NUHW members in southern California, the case in point, to frighten and intimidate Kaiser’s workers into supporting SEIU and SEIU rode this to victory in the election. Moreover, she wrote, “the Board does not lightly set aside representational elections…” concluding that “a new election will be held in accordance with the terms of this notice of election. All eligible voters should understand that the National labor Relations Board Act, as amended, gives them the right to cast their ballots as they see fit and protects them in the exercise of this right, free from interference by any other parties.”

If only this could be true (and remember it took the NLRB more than a year to schedule the first election, almost as much time to set the second. The wheels of “justice” at NLRB turn slowly). Nevertheless the elections are scheduled now, ballots are to be sent out on April 5, voting is to be completed by April 29, with counting to begin May 1.

What are the issues? Much of this will be fought out over current contracts and contracts to come – the CNA northern California nurses contract with Kaiser expires next year, 2014. NUHW contends that SEIU has given away concessions at every turn, not just at Kaiser but in hospitals throughout the state, and notably in negotiations with the giant chains, including Sutter Health, Dignity, and Daughters of Charity. CNA concurs.

At Kaiser, these concessions already include: cutbacks in medical benefits, including an invasive “Wellness Program,” also in retirement benefits plus retiree medical benefits, also dental coverage. Protections from subcontracting have been given away as well as seniority rights and job security – Kaiser has eliminated 1000 jobs under SEIU’s current contract.

And still Kaiser wants more – this is clear for all to see in the demands that Kaiser has placed on the table with NUHW’s 4,000 Kaiser members, demands they have steadfastly and bravely rejected. It is interesting here to note that at the same time, now, Sutter Health has more than 100 concessionary demands on the bargaining table with its nurses. These and Kaiser’s demands are, of course, exactly what nurses there can expect next year. Across the industry things are, if anything worse. Among the most provocative ingredients in these negotiations is SEIU’s tactic of coupling concessions with “winning” “me too” clauses. These clauses involve management’s agreement to match for SEIU members any gains made in bargaining by other unions – in practice they work as an incentive for management to maintain a hard line.

Deborah Burger, a CNA co-president and Kaiser RN at Santa Rosa, argues “look what SEIU has already agreed to, there have just been too many takeaways, what’s at stake for us is the precedent for everyone who works in the industry. It’s staggering. It makes our fight all that much harder. It already is at Sutter and everywhere else.

“Our contract with Kaiser comes up in 2014. We knew it was going to be a fight, just look at the proposals Kaiser has put on the table for NUHW. If SEIU had held the line and fought, we’d be out there with them. But, no, so NUHW’s fight is our fight. It’s better for us to fight now, to help NUHW, to stop management now, to put a stop to these precedents.

“So we’re out there every day, the nurses are walking the floors, every unit, every shift; we’re talking about the importance of this election. Kaiser has had it easy with SEIU; they’ve been let off the hook. It won’t be so easy this time.”

In 2010, NUHW fought alone. They relied on the self-help of the members, a depleted staff, little money and volunteers. SEIU ran what Randy Shaw called “the classic union-busters strategy of relying on massive spending (between $20-40 million) to spread falsehoods about NUHW in robo-calls, email blasts, slick mailers and worksite visits font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
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LA Times January 28, 2013). A note, this was all done on Eliseo Medina’s watch; Medina was then an SEIU vice president in southern California. He’s now the union’s secretary-treasurer!

  The chair of CNA’s Kaiser bargaining team, Zenei Cortez, RN (also a CNA co-president) explained, “Uniting together, CNA and NUHW are taking a huge step forward in achieving our joint goals.”

Numbers count. So does money. The nurses, however, bring more, beginning with the respect with which they are held in the hospitals. One CNA banner reads, “Save a life, you’re a hero. Save 100, you’re a nurse!” Then, add to this, these nurses are fighters; they have a history of fighting. The CNA, born in a 1990’s rebellion, is one of the few examples of such a union in the US today – above all it is known for its stunning victories in the fight for staffing in California hospitals, magnificent victories, and victories for workers and patients alike, for us all. It’s a progressive union– it stands for single payer healthcare, for fair taxation (the Robin Hood tax), for killing the Keystone pipeline. (Am I saying CNA is perfect? Why would I? Same goes for NUHW, but certainly that’s not the issue we face and we’re likely to wait a long time for something much better.) The CNA, it might be added, has entered this fray with its plate full already. In a knock-down fight with Sutter, nurses at   It has long been plagued by this, criticisms compounded by the fact that Sutter has San Francisco’s lowest rate of providing charity care to low-income patients, hardly consistent, it seems, with its non-profit status and medical mission.

Stern Berger with Fries.”

gained union members, another 100,000 (though it’s not at all clear just where and how, but we’ll leave that for now). The point would seem to be, importantly, that unions not grow in conditions such as these?

       Also, “the fight between NUHW and SEIU is not a question of an old-fashioned ‘raid’. /It is/instead a process which seeks to reestablish an ongoing, democratic and highly successful union whose health and outlook is essential to any revitalization of trade unionism, on both a state and national basis.”            

Nation magazine roundtable on the state of labor was a lament that it was happening at all.

  analysis. Revolutionary new tactics. Indeed we do need these. But into what kind of unions?

normal”>kind of unions we need. And what kind of members? This is not, again, just a question about numbers then. It’s about people. I sometimes think this conflict in California is a little like the rank-and-file rebellions of the 1970s, the fights to transform the unions, to change them into something better color:black”>trucking is in the service sector, it’s non-exportable, and there are more trucks moving than ever before.” So there’s still much to do in “core sectors of industry” but that needs “commitment from international – and money.”The Kaiser workers, organized, inevitably represent this kind of project. There are literally millions of unorganized healthcare workers today. I think we don’t pay enough attention to this. And in this case, the Kaiser fight is in many ways organizing, or reorganizing the organized, that is the Kaiser workers trapped in SEIU. It’s a fight within the unions – but it’s an important fight, there’s no escaping it. Is this so bad? The Nation correspondent writes that “the font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";color:#252525;mso-ansi-language:EN”>  I don’t think this is true. We needed the CIO in the 1930s; it precipitated giant steps for labor. A win for CNA-NUHW will be such a step, and today. Walmart workers, port truckers, the vast numbers of the unorganized can only be beneficiaries.

normal”>Jacobin, suggests this:

normal”>kind of union, but this is what the California election is all about.

mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi”> is the author of mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi”>West of Eden, Communes and Utopia in Northern California (PM Press, 2012). He is editor of the e-pamphlet, “Which Way to Wellness, A Workers Guide to Healthcare in the Workplace.” He is a Fellow at UC Berkeley, Director of the Mendocino Institute and associated with the Bay Area collective, Retort. He can be reached at

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