(Reuters) - The Service Employees International Union fended off an upstart rival last week in a union-on-union battle over California healthcare workers, a symptom not of labor’s decline but of its growth in the health sector.
The SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, in the largest private-sector election since Ford Motor Company was unionized in the 1940s, bested the National Union of Healthcare Workers-California Nurses Association after receiving 58 percent of nearly 33,000 votes cast by Kaiser Permanente workers.
The replay of the SEIU’s 2010 election victory, which was thrown out by the National Labor Relations Board, was three years in the making, spawned dozens of unfair labor charges and cost both unions millions of dollars.
Kent Wong, director of the labor center at the University of California Los Angeles, characterized the long-running dispute as “growing pains” for organized labor in an industry where it has achieved significant growth even as union membership has declined nationwide.
“The success in organizing healthcare has resulted in some internal challenges,” Wong said in an interview. “It’s not unusual for unions to be competing for members, especially in an area where there has been a sharp rise in union density.”
The healthcare industry has been a bright spot for unions and California in particular has been the focus of successful labor unionization efforts. Healthcare workers make up more than half of the SEIU’s 2.1 million members, with local- and state-government workers, public school employees, and private-sector maintenance, cleaning and security employees rounding out its roster. The NUHW, with roughly 10,000 members, earlier this year joined forces with the California Nurses Association, an AFL-CIO affiliate that represents 85,000 nurses and other healthcare workers.
In 2012, there were 14.4 million workers who were members of a union in the United States and the membership rate was 11.3 percent, down from 14.8 million workers and a membership rate of 11.8 percent the year before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In California there was a membership rate of 17.2 percent in 2012. Some of the SEIU’s most successful recent organizing efforts have been in the healthcare industry and it now represents 110,000 nurses, 40,000 doctors, more than 50,000 home aides and 160,000 workers at nursing homes.
“The old image is of a union worker being a steel worker or an auto worker but the typical person today is a teacher, nurse, firefighter or airline pilot. Nurses are one of the most unionized groups in society,” said Alex Colvin, who chairs the labor relations department at Cornell University. “This isn’t an area where unions are dying.”
NEAR $9 MILLION ELECTION
But the Kaiser Permanente election, to the SEIU and the NUHW, was about more than bolstering membership ranks. It was about what sort of union should be representing nurses and healthcare workers.
The NUHW got its start in 2009 when its leader, Sal Rosselli, was ousted from the SEIU-UHW following a power struggle between leaders of United Healthcare Workers West and national SEIU officials.
Rosselli and other former SEIU leaders formed NUHW. Its second-in-command, John Borsos, described SEIU as being a “top-down, corporate” union while the NUHW is “bottom up, more democratic.”
“SEIU is too cozy with Kaiser and the industry,” Borsos said in an interview.
The two unions’ disagreements over workers, Kaiser contracts and the future of the labor movement within the healthcare industry have been costly. The do-over Kaiser election cost the SEIU $4.5 million, according to its own estimates. The CNA loaned a comparable amount to the NUHW this year to in large part finance the election effort.
“And at the end of the day, not a single new person is represented by a union,” SEIU spokesman Steve Trossman said. “Those are resources that could be used elsewhere.”
Cornell’s Colvin pointed out that the country’s largest union, the AFL-CIO, was formed in 1955 by the joining of two competitors, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
“I think the leadership of unions gets concerned because they don’t like to see the infighting, but it can indicate an area were unions are vital and there are groups of workers that want to be represented,” he said.
Borsos said NUHW is evaluating its next steps.