By Joyce Cutler
SAN FRANCISCO—California Kaiser Permanente workers voted to retain Service Employees International Union–United Healthcare Workers West in a rerun representation election for the largest health care bargaining unit in the West, consisting of 45,000 workers, according to a National Labor Relations Board tally of ballots released May 2.
After two days of counting mail-in ballots, NLRB said 18,844 ballots (58.4 percent) were cast for SEIU-UHW, and 13,101 (40.6 percent) went to the National Union of Healthcare Workers-California Nurses Association. Another 334, or 1 percent, voted for no union, and 309 ballots were challenged. NLRB said 32,588 valid mail ballots of the 45,000 eligible voters were received by the Oakland regional office during three weeks of balloting.
“At a time when unionization is down to 7 percent in the private sector, it’s time for people like the leaders of NUHW and CNA, who call themselves ‘progressives,’ to focus on organizing non-union workers instead of attacking people who already are in a union and have the best contract in the country,” SEIU-UHW President Dave Regan said in a statement May 2.
NUHW President Sal Rosselli in a statement issued the same day said he was “stunned” by the results.
“Speaking from decades of experience in elections like this, we have many questions that deserve answers,” he said.
NUHW in a separate statement that day charged that SEIU prevailed through a “campaign of fear, intimidation, and collusion with management.”
Rosselli told BNA May 3 that Kaiser withheld performance bonuses typically granted in spring, with SEIU used as a threat of future pension and benefit loss if workers went with NUHW.
NUHW and CNA officials will hold “internal legal and political meetings” over the next week to consider the matter of filing objections, Rosselli told BNA.
The rerun election had the same results and outcome as the 2010 representation election at Kaiser, NLRB said.
In a 2010 mail ballot election, Kaiser employees throughout California voted to remain with the incumbent SEIU UHW, rejecting NUHW (195 DLR AA-1, 10/8/10).
In July 2011, an NLRB administrative law judge, finding election interference by SEIU-UHW, recommended that a new election be conducted (138 DLR AA-1, 7/19/11). In August 2011, NLRB ordered that a new election be held (155 DLR AA-1, 8/11/11).
SEIU spokesman Steve Trossman told BNA May 3 that there was “absolute election fatigue among folks.”
“[B]ut what I think is really gratifying is that Kaiser workers hung in there and they voted their conscience and they voted because they understood what was at stake,” he said.
“And what was at stake was the best contract, the best jobs in the hospital industry, or turning it over to an organization that has utterly failed at Kaiser for the last three and a half years,” Trossman said.
“They still don’t have a contract. Those workers have lost 9 percent in raises that SEIU got that they would have had if they stayed with SEIU. [NUHW has] just been an utter failure,” Trossman said.
NUHW maintains that Kaiser management granted “unequal facility access to SEIU-UHW staff and illegally abridged the speech rights of workers supporting NUHW-CNA.”
NLRB, just days before the ballots were mailed April 5, issued a complaint alleging that a member of management at one Kaiser facility violated federal law by “interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees in the exercise of the rights’ guaranteed” workers under the law (Kaiser Found. Hosps., NLRB Reg’l Dir., No. 20-CA-096950,complaint issued 3/29/12; 75 DLR A-12, 4/18/13).
Harley Shaiken, a professor specializing in labor issues at the University of California at Berkeley, called the campaign “a long, tortured road.”
“But this looks like it’s the end of the line on it,” he told BNA May 3.
“It was a very bitter, costly dispute but the vote was decisive. I think it’s an important victory for the SEIU … in many ways, it’s a flagship contract in health care,” he said.
Trossman said NUHW-CNA spent $10 million on the election and SEIU$4 million to $5 million. NUHW says those numbers are reversed. CNA spent $5 million on the campaign, Rosselli said.
“We had 200 staff. SEIU brought in 800 staff from all over the country in addition to their California staff. Despite that and despite the fear, 14,000 folks voted for us, despite this David-Goliath scenario,” Rosselli said.
One issue, Shaiken said, is that with more than 93 percent of the private sector not organized, “having these kind of resources poured into decertifying a union within the labor movement, it’s hard to see what the positive outcome of it could be.”
Shaiken called the election fight “the nuclear option.”
“It is tried rarely and seldom if ever on this scale,” he said.
Yet the battle is “rooted in history as well as in contemporary disagreements,” the professor said. “And you can see how we got here, but it’s unclear what the gain from it is. Whatever the gain or loss, I do think this is a defining moment.”
Nelson Lichtenstein, UC Santa Barbara history professor and union watcher, told BNA May 2: “[The] original effort of SEIU to take over UHW-West, this will be SEIU’s Iraq, and I think the last four years has proven to be the case.”
Battles With Health Care Providers
The election is the largest since the 10,000-member NUHW affiliated with the 85,000-member CNA in January with a stated goal of restoring worker and patient safety standards. The groups found common enemies in SEIU, Kaiser, and Sutter Health (2 DLR A-11, 1/3/13).
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in March upheld a verdict finding that former officers of Service Employees International Union, United Healthcare Workers West, owe $1.5 million to UHW. The amount was based on successful claims that the officers breached fiduciary duties and violated UHW’s constitution by opposing SEIU’s jurisdictional plan for long-term health care workers in California and diverting UHW resources to form the rival NUHW (Service Employees v. Healthcare Workers, 195 LRRM 2341, 9th Cir., No. 10-16549, 3/26/13; 59 DLR A-2, 3/27/13).
NUHW is appealing the dismissal of a lawsuit alleging that SEIU and some of its top leaders violated California civil rights laws by engaging in a “policy and practice of utilizing physical intimidation against those in the labor movement who they consider to be enemies” as a violation of the state’s Strategic Lawsuit to Prevent Public Participation law (Rosselli v. SEIU, Cal. Ct. App., No. A133896, case argued and submitted 4/3/13; 162 DLR A-10, 8/22/11). A decision is due this summer.
Blunders and Olive Branches
Lichtenstein said “the whole thing was a blunder on the part of theSEIU.”
“It’s always been in SEIU’s court to extend their hand to NUHW and resolve this” as SEIU has done with other unions it battled, Lichtenstein said.
“The remarkable thing about NUHW, always in labor history established unions of whatever sort never back dissident factions. It’s just not done. But in this case it was done. Basically the political and union base of the Bay Area and California did back NUHW,” Lichtenstein said. “I do think that it will be wise on the part of the SEIU to extend an olive branch to the leadership and the activists of NUHW and end this thing, this internecine warfare.”
NUHW after results were announced said together with 18,000 CNA-represented Kaiser registered nurses and 5,000 NUHW-represented Kaiser employees, “13,000 workers belong to a majority of Kaiser workers in California who stand united and ready to fight the downward spiral of cuts that SEIU-UHW and employers like Kaiser are forcing on healthcare workers everywhere.”
“We’re happy to have it over,” Trossman said. “We think finally we’ve hit the end of the road. I’m hopeful they won’t do it again.”
Rosselli said the focus now is on the contract campaign “to force Kaiser to get off of their concessions for their workers and force Kaiser to deal with patient care issues around staffing.”
Kaiser representatives were not available for comment.