Labor’s Civil War in California

Book by Cal Winslow; PM Press, California, 2010, 128 pp.

This is a small book about a big subject: union democracy. Author Cal Winslow, an historian, draws in part on original reporting to make a case against the recent actions of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) leadership. The SEIU actions, in turn, spawned the creation of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which emerged from the demise of California's SEIU-United Healthcare Workers west (UHW) local. Winslow details the whys and wherefores of this David and Goliath conflict and what is at stake for workers across the U.S., where employers have run roughshod over them for three decades.


For Winslow, the public stance that SEIU executives take as a progressive labor organization belies the union's corporate governance structure; that is, its power over members, through dues money and autonomy generally, cause negative impact. This structure was central to the SEIU growth strategy under Andy Stern, the former president who just retired, but not before his conflict of interest with the SEIU-UHW, a 150,000-member California affiliate, erupted into open battle three years ago.


Winslow brings life to the roots of this dispute with accounts of workers' fighting for their right to act and speak for themselves and for the patients they serve. This is no mean feat, given the paucity of labor reporting and the fact that nine of ten workers in the private sector, where the vast bulk of U.S. workers toil, are without a union.


Winslow illustrates the SEIU leadership and UHW affiliate's different approaches to employer bargaining. SEIU preferred what the author terms class collaboration, which disempowered the rank and file. Sal Rosselli, former UHW president and current NUHW head, publicly criticized Stern in January 2007 for agreeing to a pact with the Tenet nursing home chain in California that, in part, barred workers from striking for ten years and limited their ability to publicly report resident care concerns.


UHW's approach empowered the rank and file to contest the privileges of employers, such as Kaiser Permanente and Catholic Healthcare West, to unilaterally control wages, benefits, and working conditions. UHW shop stewards were elected by their co-workers to be involved in contract talks with employers in the private and public sectors. UHW was also part of a third-party mediation structure to judge members' claims of employers' compliance with legal staffing levels for patients.


In January 2009, Stern, after hearings paid for by SEIU, placed UHW in trusteeship, taking over the union. SEIU suspended the union's constitution and bylaws, snatched its financial assets, and fired 100 elected union officials, including Rosselli. The NUHW formed later that month. SEIU responded to this challenge by bringing its vast resources to bear against NUHW, which bid to decertify SEIU as the collective bargaining agent for 10,000 homecare providers in a Fresno County election. This drive continues in other workplaces up and down California. Winslow's interviews with these healthcare workers illustrate what motivates working people to stand their ground when faced with the power of appointed union leaders who replace elected shop stewards and trusted co-workers.


It is noteworthy that Mary Kay Henry, the SEIU executive Stern appointed who is to succeed him as president of the 2.2 million member union, led the Oakland takeover of SEIU-UHW last year, which Winslow chronicles. She and other $200,000-per-year SEIU elites, based in Washington, DC, evicted rank-and-file members of UHW from their union hall with help from the Oakland police force. Winslow, whose book preceded Stern's departure, sees in Henry the continuation of SEIU leadership's antagonistic approach to union democracy.


Much is at stake for the class that lives on its labor from wages, Winslow writes. With no end in sight to 30 years of upward income distribution from the middle and bottom to the top of American society, his is an inspired tale of NUHW's struggle against the money and power of SEIU's leadership, chronologically told and jargon-free. All those concerned about the U.S. labor movement getting off its death bed should read Winslow's book.


Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento, California.