It’s not every day that a new national union is formed in the United States. But that’s exactly what happened on April 25 in San Francisco. If the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) turns out as planned, it’s a date for the history books.
"You will be able to tell your grandchildren in years to come," NUHW leader Sal Rosselli boldly predicted to 700 cheering delegates, "that you attended the founding convention of a five-million member healthcare workers’ union."
The convention approved a Constitution and elected interim officers which are basic legal requirements for certification by the Federal government. Provisions of the new Constitution include the right to elect and recall officers and stewards, regular membership meetings and an extensive steward structure and training program.
They are now off and running with their first scheduled election only a few weeks away.
At stake are 10,000 homecare workers employed by the California county of Fresno, four hours south of San Francisco. It’s a contest that pits the upstart NUHW directly against the powerful two million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the bargaining representative of the Fresno group.
These public workers are very dissatisfied with SEIU’s plan to place them in a separate local divided from other union healthcare workers at hospitals and clinics across California.
Displacing such a formidable opponent will test NUHW’s capacities and viability. It is arguably the most important union election in the country.
The new union is hoping to raise one million dollars to fund an all-out campaign to win the representation duel. Lacking resources until it recruits dues-paying members, thousands of worker volunteers are undoubtedly the largest capital acquisition NUHW presently has in the bank.
As one 30-year Fresno homecare worker told the convention, "SEIU has lots of power but united we have more power." There is something real behind this enthusiasm. In only a few days, over 25% of the 10,000 eligible workers in Fresno signed valid signatures authorizing NUHW’s first election.
In fact, in the five weeks since the new union was first publicly announced in January 2009, representation petitions covering 96,000 workers at over 350 California healthcare facilities were filed with the appropriate state, local and national government agencies.
Despite numerous, frivolous legal challenges by SEIU, Rosselli reported to the convention that he expected election victories would produce 56,000 members by early 2010, even before the huge California Kaiser Hospitals’ elections scheduled later that year.
Elected Leaders Ousted
Only a few short months ago, NUHW supporters had been leaders of Service Employees International Union, United Healthcare Workers-West (SEIU UHW-West). With 150,000 members, it was the second largest unit of the powerful national SEIU union.
Now the two organizations are at war with one another. Union democracy is at the center of the dispute and certainly the most important rallying point that is prompting tens of thousands of members to leave SEIU and to form a new union.
As an example, SEIU refused to allow a vote of UHW-West members on International President Andy Stern’s proposal to split off 65,000 homecare and nursing home workers.
This is an important issue because most homecare workers believe, as the Fresno example indicates, that their bargaining pressure increases by inclusion in the same unit with hospital and clinic workers. Stern believes each craft should essentially be divided into separate units.
The overwhelming majority of UHW-West argued the opposite; pointing out that combining the power of all crafts into one bargaining unit earned them the best contracts in the country.
Nonetheless, SEIU tops insisted on proceeding with the forced, massive reassignment into different mega-sized locals of tens of thousands of California healthcare workers. Many workers also complained these centralized locals were too far away from the geographically scattered worksites, establishing obstacles to rank and file participation.
Rejecting efforts to narrow the dispute, Stern instead overreacted by removing UHW-West officers, representatives, and even stewards, who refused to go along with his edict. He quickly followed up by taking over the union treasury, changing the locks on all union offices and placing UHW-West directly under control of his appointees.
This left the ousted former elected leaders of UHW-West very few options. It was the very next day, on January 28, 2009, that NUHW first came together.
The new union was immediately greeted with tremendous support by angry members who did not want to be lumped into newly established, unfamiliar and distant locals run by unelected acolytes of Stern.
This is an unprecedented response reminiscent of the massive outpouring of support for the Congress for Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s.
How Members Get Involved
Thousands of workers mobilizing to defend themselves cannot be explained away as simply a normal reaction against top-down, undemocratic policies. Other bureaucratic-led unions, as SEIU appears to be today, are guilty of similar heavy-handed intrusions. None, however, have aroused such broad rank and file opposition.
In fact, most dissident forces within unions fold once their powerful international union exerts jurisdiction such as Stern has done. Having personally experienced such a situation, I can report we dissidents licked our wounds and waited for a better day to unfurl our banner. This is usually what happens.
We certainly didn’t imagine forming an alternative national union. What makes NUHW so different?
Part of the difference is the large size of UHW-West. But there is more to it. Over ten years ago, SEIU-UHW West began making structural and political attempts to transform the union away from the typical staff-oriented, headquarters-based operation.
This is often referred as moving away from a "service-oriented" model where full-time union staff representatives perform most of the bargaining and contract enforcement tasks and moving toward what is sometimes termed an "organizing model" that empowers stewards elected at worksites to assume many of these same responsibilities.
Establishing a more direct relationship with members is exactly how unions traditionally wage successful new representation campaigns – establishing in-house, rank and file committees to promote and lead the organizing drive. Hence the name, "organizing model."
Unfortunately, however, these local committees usually dissolve after the successful election of a new union. The operation of the union reverts back to the traditional union apparatus that takes over bargaining and contract enforcement.
Potential new leaders are often discouraged from further participation after seeing their role significantly diminished by professional staff representatives.
Here is where SEIU UHW-West was different. The Rosselli-leadership made a serious commitment to create more direct relationships to the members.
Democracy as Militancy
As part of their efforts to expand the union power base, a massive steward training and education program was launched. Individual worksite steward councils were formed and met regularly. These formations are encoded in the NUHW Constitution.
The combination of education, training and delegation of duties both inspired and prepared members to take more active responsibility for enforcing their rights. Workers on the job obviously have a more direct relationship with the employer and potentially can collectively exert far more pressure than individual staff representatives.
It is a philosophy that believes the union apparatus should encourage and support members at the base where real union power lives rather than headquarters’ staff viewing themselves as the primary source of power within the union.
Under this new approach adopted some years ago by SEIU UHW-West, the union’s extensive and experienced staff reinforced rather than substituted for the new worksite leadership. As a result, members gained confidence and would not automaticallydefer to union officials.
In essence, these policies democratized the union and made it stronger. Years of leadership training produced hundreds of informed, articulate and active unionists, many of whom were seen and heard at the founding convention of NUHW.
Kathy Lipscomb, Lead Field Representative/Organizer, SEIU UHW-West (ret), whispered with pride to me amidst the loud applause and enthusiasm of the convention: "We got away from a rep-driven union some years ago and I believe it was a turning point. We began intensive shop steward training and developing leadership at the base. The meeting today would not have been possible without this. "
The boldness to break away from one of the most powerful unions in the country and the confidence to build a credible alternative is a staggering commitment and could only be attempted by a rank and file movement that has consistently been mobilized and empowered over recent years.
"The shop stewards were the closest to the day to day activities of the workers," Howard Wallace, Field Representative/Community Organizer (ret), SEIU- Local 250 Healthcare Workers Union, told me. "Very often they were the first to understand the issues. These unpaid, volunteer leaders had a lot of respect from all of us."
There is much to think about from the dispute between NUHW and SEIU. Lessons better learned if the rank and file revolt is actually successful. They act for all of us by standing for militant and democratic unionism. Let us wish them well.
Carl Finamore was an invited guest at the Founding Convention of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and is former President (ret), Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW, AFL-CIO.