By Cal Winslow
On Wednesday, May 18, 2011, 2500 members of the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) struck Kaiser Permanente in Southern California; 1100 nurses and nearly 1000 professionals (social workers, therapists, dieticians, other medical technicians, etc.) picketed Kaiser’s Los Angeles Medical Center in Hollywood. This strike, 24 hours in duration, came as NUHW members fight to win a decent contract at Kaiser – challenging the healthcare giant’s demand for contract concessions.
The RN’s on strike represented virtually every nurse in the huge medical facility; the healthcare professionals represented 80 Southern California workplaces – they came from as far as Bakersfield and San Diego in a powerful display of solidarity.
The strike comes on the heels of another important victory for NUHW in its struggle to rebuild California’s healthcare union movement.
In an election delayed fully twenty-eight months, NUHW members have won at Sutter Health’s San Francisco facilities – the California Pacific Medical Centers (CPMC) at the Pacific, California and Davies hospitals, defeating the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) captive local, United Healthcare Workers (UHW).
This victory wins 800 new members for NUHW and reestablishes the union in this San Francisco center of the hospital industry. Sutter is a hospital giant in California, employing nearly 50,000 people. In a related election, SEIU held on to win at CPMC’s St. Luke’s Hospital.
“This is a truly historic event,” said Helen York-Jones, a cashier at the California hospital of CPMC. “For over two years, we’ve waited for our chance to leave SEIU and regain control of our union with NUHW. Now, we finally have a chance to get back everything SEIU has given away to management.”
The win at CPMC pushes NUHW toward the 10,000 member mark, a fast start in this era of trade unionism in decline and under attack. At the same time, NUHW is now bargaining for new contracts throughout the state – on the 13th of this month NUHW began long delayed negotiations with St Joseph’s Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa.
More, NUHW continues to receive support not just in California but from SEIU members and healthcare workers throughout the country – in March, Michigan workers at the Mercy Health Partners Hackley Campus in Muskegon filed petitions to leave SEIU and join NUHW.
Why? Kim Vossekuil, Surgical Technologist, an elected steward, now removed, reports: “We were bargaining, but things got just too shady. We couldn’t trust SEIU on anything. We said to ourselves, is this what we want? No. We want a union where we will be listened to. We did some research. The NUHW seemed to be what we were looking for – a union that gives power to the members – we wanted member power.”
They are not the only ones. Workers at Luther Manor skilled nursing facility in Saginaw, on the other side of the state, have done the same.
The NUHW victory is all the more significant in that it comes in the face of SEIU tactics in this ongoing labor war – tactics now commonplace in California’s healthcare. In this key contest, NUHW faced not just SEIU, the nation’s second largest union; it faced SEIU in an open alliance with Sutter.
Typically, SEIU flooded Sutter with staff- outnumbering NUHW organizers and supporters by ten to one. The 1.9 million member national union spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on glossy leaflets, mailings, phone calls and home visits.
More importantly, in what is now standard practice; UHW brazenly collaborated with management in a desperate attempt to hold off NUHW. Sutter, long known for fiercely resisting unions, might have campaigned in these National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conducted elections for the option “no union.” Instead, following precedent set last summer at Kaiser, it openly supported SEIU-UHW. SEIU staff were granted unlimited access to all areas of the hospitals – Sutter gave union staff access badges. Sutter workers were required to sit through pro-SEIU briefings, mandatory meetings held in every department on every shift – pressing workers to vote SEIU. In these sessions, workers were told, contrary to NLRB rulings at Kaiser, that, in the event of an NUHW victory, they would lose their contracts.
Two years ago, February 2009, Sutter workers at CPMC, along with the majority of UHW hospital workers, voted to leave SEIU, petitioning elections to decertify SEIU and establish NUHW as their union. This was the result of SEIU’s tragic – and foolhardy – trusteeing of UHW, its California 150,000 strong local, a militant, democratic, progressive force in West Coast labor. In January, 2009, SEIU trusteed UHW firing its elected officers and staff, removing its stewards and delegates, seizing its assets, essentially wrecking UHW in what journalist Steve Early, in his new book, Civil Wars in US Labor, has called “the mother of all trusteeships.”
SEIU responded in two ways; first, it set about dismantling the infrastructure of the once militant union, firing hundreds of stewards and delegates, banning (in in-house kangaroo-court hearings) its officers, isolating its supporters. Then, led by several teams of “labor” lawyers, it set about to “block”, or delay, NLRB elections. In a corporate-style onslaught, these lawyers appealed, objected, filed charges, filed charges again, and again, relenting only when the timing seemed to favor an SEIU win. This, it must be said, took place not on the Bush NLRB – no, this time it’s on Obama’s watch. In Oakland, workers at Children’s Hospital still wait to vote. Latika Malkani, a lawyer who represents NUHW, says these maneuvers represent the essence of the catch phrase “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied.”
In the meantime, SEIU has relentlessly undertaken virtually every step possible to impose its monolithic, corporate-oriented style of “unionism” on California’s healthcare workers, mostly, of course, at their expense. This has involved, chiefly, cementing relations with industry employers. Thus far, for just a taste, SEIU-UHW has agreed to lay-offs at Daughters of Charity Hospital in Daly City. It let the ban on outsourcing jobs expire at Alta Bates Hospital in Oakland (it had agreed to this at CPMC as well). In its new Kaiser contract, SEIU-UHW agreed to pension concessions and pledges to review, with Kaiser, healthcare benefits – i.e., cuts.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that workers at Sutter in San Francisco have rejected this “bosses union.” As I write, free elections, in every department, on every shift, are beginning at CPMC – underscoring NUHW’s commitment that every worker must be heard and every worker represented.
No purges, no bans, no loyalty oaths.
Is SEIU a “bosses” union”, is this too strong? These are not my words; they are heard repeatedly at CPMC. Readers are welcome to investigate the facts, in particular any who hoped that the departure of Andy Stern, and his replacement by Mary Kay Henry might herald a new, nicer SEIU. There is more to it. This is not just the story of the union in bed with the bosses – the usual backroom horse trading, the time-honored tradition in much of the history of US labor.
SEIU - UHW, in San Francisco, now led by its former trustee, carpetbagger, Ivy League grad, International Vice-President, Dave Regan takes us a step farther. In its new “partnership” with Sutter, SEIU-UHW supports CPMC’s plans, no questions asked, to build a massive new hospital center on Cathedral Hill, a $2.5billion facility that has nearly everyone with a heart in San Francisco deeply concerned.
The proposed development still needs County Supervisors consent. A community coalition is demanding answers to questions including -the impact of this center on low-income housing, on healthcare access for the poor, on the future of St. Luke’s Hospital in the Mission and on transit issues – the new facility may well result in an estimated thousands of new car trips per day into this already congested neighborhood. Even SEIU’s local 1021, a local that represents thousands of San Francisco and Northern California service and public workers is concerned.
According to Randy Shaw, Executive Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, “The NUHW victory is extremely important.
“The SEIU-UHW Sutter alliance brought critical labor support to the hospital’s development agenda. While the Good Neighbor Coalition and a citywide coalition of health care groups including the California Nurses Association opposed them, it was tragic to see UHW members testifying together with CPMC against the community.
“Now, the union representing workers at CPMC hospitals is solidly on the community’s side. This will go a long way in seeing that we get a fair shake here.”
In related news, NUHW’s contract dispute with Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital (SVMH) in Salinas has now become statewide news, as union members have exposed massive financial giveaways by the hospital’s management – a management demanding, of course, cut-backs, lay-off’s and other concessions from its workers.
The hospital is under fire for granting its outgoing chief executive, CEO Samuel Downing, $3.9 million in retirement payments, also giving nearly $1 million to the executive as part of a severance agreement.
These payments are among the most generous public pensions ever given in California. This disclosure has prompted the state Assembly to order an audit of the hospital district’s finances.
This Salinas fight, important as it is for these NUHW members, has a much greater significance: as Dave Jamieson and Ryan Grim have recently reported: “It’s a sharp break from the national labor playbook.”
Writing in the Huffington Post, they continue, “From Maine to California, unions have been negotiating just how deep the concessions they’ll give management will be. Even in Wisconsin, public workers immediately accepted drastic cuts to pay, pensions and health care, drawing the line only at the right to collectively bargain.
“In Washington, D.C., Democrats have similarly capitulated to GOP demands for major cuts in social spending under reasoning succinctly laid out by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio): “We’re broke.”
These NUHW California hospital workers have said, “No you’re not.”
It is not news today that we face a deepening crisis. Last week the California Teachers Association declared “a state of emergency.”
True, but not enough. In the face of this crisis, this emergency, we need strong unions – and we need united communities. We also need action and this remains the message of Madison – and Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and Salinas - action, and grassroots support, a democratic movement from the bottom up.
The labor civil war in California continues. Workers won at Sutter in San Francisco; corporations lost. One side right, one side wrong. NUHW deserves your support. Which side are you on?
SEIU continues its legal assault on NUHW staff. The costs of defense are now in the hundreds for thousands of dollars. SEIU’s clear intention is to humiliate and break these people, all good union men and women.
You can help. Contribute to:
Fund for Union Democracy and Reform
465 California Street Ste. 1600
San Francisco, CA 94104
Cal Winslow has written extensively for Znet on the subject of the SEIU and NUHW. He is 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 (Verso, 2010). He is a Fellow at UC Berkeley and Director of the Mendocino Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org