by Kathy Robertson, Senior Staff Writer
Date: Friday, February 24, 2012, 3:00am PST
In what appears to be a coup for both sides, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the National Union of Healthcare Workers have signed a letter of intent to pursue a potential affiliation — one that could set the stage for a tougher union fight at Kaiser Permanente.
With 700,000 members across North America, IAM is the leading union for aerospace and transportation workers, not health care employees. But it’s got deep pockets, an aggressive stance on organizing, a connection to the 12 million member AFL-CIO — and, some say, a history of animosity with NUHW’s nemesis, Service Employees International Union.
Formal affiliation is a ways off, but the agreement is a milestone for a scrappy health care union fighting for traction in a changing health care industry among larger rivals. NUHW has organized about 9,000 workers in California and Michigan, including 400 in the Sacramento region.
“IAM believes in our long-term vision of a national union for health care workers,” NUHW president Sal Rosselli said. “We share the same ideology of democracy from the bottom up. The fact it’s not health care allows us to pursue our vision without competition and struggle.”
“Their record of success in winning industry standard contracts and organizing the unorganized speaks volumes,” IAM vice president Gary Allen said in a news release. “The IAM shares the NUHW’s commitment to free, fair and democratic membership control of the collective bargaining process. By standing together, all of us are stronger.”
An affiliation also could boost NUHW coffers and ground support at a time when it is facing a fight for survival at Kaiser Permanente against SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West.
Rosselli headed SEIU’s powerful California local until the international put it into trusteeship three years ago and kicked him out. Rosselli immediately launched NUHW and an aggressive fight to woo his former members to switch.
The union has about 1,800 members in seven bargaining units under contract; about 7,200 workers in 17 other units are organized but have not yet signed contracts.
The big organizing prize on the horizon is 43,000 service and technical employees at Kaiser — including 4,000 in the Sacramento area. NUHW tried to oust SEIU in 2010, but lost the election. A rerun is expected this year.
An affiliation with the machinists’ union will take months of committee work, discussion and a vote of the membership, but benefits are expected to flow in the meantime.
“Short-term, NUHW members will be in a stronger position because of a significant sharing of resources,” Rosselli said.
NUHW reported income of almost $5.6 million, disbursements of $4.9 million and net assets of negative $955,265 in 2010, the last data available. IAM reported income of $134.7 million, disbursements of $132.3 million and net assets of $144.3 million for the same period.
“To reach for an international with resources and leverage was not unexpected,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. “Not doing so would make their situation extremely difficult.”
Election timing uncertain
The affiliation process began in November, when the NUHW board authorized an effort to pursue a formal relationship with an AFL-CIO union. A final decision, expected to take months, will be subject to approval by the leadership of IAM and a membership vote by NUHW.
Rosselli and vice president John Borsos looked for an organization committed to member democracy, fighting for and protecting workers, organizing the unorganized and committing resources to help NUHW unite health care workers in California and across the country.
They found these qualities in IAM, which has 35,000 to 40,000 members in transportation and other industries in California, including “a couple thousand” in the Sacramento region. IAM’s Allen works out of a regional office in Folsom. The international has headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Md., about 30 minutes from Washington, D.C.
“We’re pretty proud they chose us,” said Kevin Cummings, union spokesman and Grand Lodge representative. “A large group of workers needed help and were looking for a home — and we think we have big enough arms to support them.”
Although IAM president Thomas Buffenbarger publicly opposed former SEIU president Andy Stern’s efforts to change organizing tactics nationwide, Cummings said possible affiliation with NUHW is “positive, not a shot at anybody.”
But IAM does expect to help NUHW win over members at Kaiser in what will be a rematch with SEIU — and the largest union election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board since 1941.
“We’re not going to hand over blank checks,” Cummings said, but IAM is looking to “raise boats for all workers.”
Resources mean more than checks, he added. IAM can be counted on to help with communications and outreach.
“We don’t look at the dollar value, but, in Kaiser’s case, will try to do what’s right for the 43,000 families, recognizing the decision will be up to the workers,” Cummings said.
SEIU-UHW spokeswoman Elizabeth Brennan blasted the potential affiliation.
“NUHW is a drowning organization clutching at a straw,” she said. “The machinists should not allow themselves to be used by them. This is a bailout, and it’s difficult to know why the machinists want to wade into this.”
When the election will occur is anybody’s guess.
NUHW filed a complaint with the NLRB soon after the initial election, alleging misconduct by SEIU and collusion by Kaiser — and asked for a new vote. An administrative law judge did not find collusion by Kaiser, but concluded SEIU misconduct interfered with workers’ right of free choice and called for a new election. Balloting was supposed to begin in September 2011, but another NUHW complaint is holding it up.
The union filed additional unfair labor practice charges just as balloting was set to begin. They allege Kaiser was continuing to interfere. Kaiser has denied the charges.
An investigation was conducted by the Oakland office of the NLRB; results were sent to the NLRB Division of Advice in Washington, D.C., about three months ago, according to NLRB official Tim Peck in San Francisco.
“That’s all we know,” he said. “It’s just sitting there.”
Kathy Robertson covers health care, labor/workplace issues, law, immigration, medical technology and biotechnology for the Sacramento Business Journal.