First They Ignore You: Healthcare Workers Savor a Victory

First They Ignore You: Healthcare Workers Savor a Victory
Connie Lara and Mary Padilla join Fresno homecare workers picket of the SEIU office to protest lies and intimidation by SEIU.

By: Cal Winslow

California’s healthcare workers and their new union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), have won, in this winter of recession and war, a significant victory in a key series of electoral contests. Just last month, healthcare workers managing their own campaigns defeated the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) by choosing NUHW in three representational elections. There are more than 100 elections to come this year.

Just one year ago, SEIU trusteed its California local, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), in a hostile takeover, which was a predatory retaliation for standing up to Andy Stern, president of SEIU. The West Coast workers had dared to dissent, which was unconscionable in Stern’s “one voice” regime. Worse, they opposed the SEIU “one strategy”–a strategy that seemed aimed more toward organizing employers than workers.

The result of the trusteeship has not been exactly what SEIU intended. One immediate consequence was the formation of a new union, the NUHW, followed by the rapid degeneration of the shell that SEIU left behind, SEIU-UHW. SEIU wrecked a progressive, militant 150,000-member strong union-one of the most powerful in California.

NUHW set out to build a new union, really to rebuild their union. This effort was, one must say, a defiant, highly audacious retort. For better or worse, SEIU remains large, and its pockets are deep.

NUHW and its supporters ran an astonishing campaign. In just weeks, these workers led a petition drive to decertify SEIU. Their success was historic-the largest decertification campaign ever. Nearly 100,000 workers signed on. This meant that the majority of SEIU-UHW members, including some 50,000 at the giant Kaiser Permanente healthcare chain, wanted SEIU out. They demanded the right to have a union of their own choice. They asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to schedule elections and to establish NUHW as their union.

SEIU viewed this affront as war. It established itself in California as an occupying army. Its commanders, the trustees, were two International SEIU vice presidents, Eliseo Medina and Dave Regan. SEIU resolved, in trustee Regan’s terms, to drive a stake through the heart of the new union. It was imperial overreach, and it has become, in Randy Shaw’s words, SEIU’s Vietnam. For an assortment of carpetbagging SEIU “warriors” on the ground, it became a slog, a quagmire.

There was another front, however, where, perversely, SEIU succeeded but just temporarily. Here the invasion most resembled an anti-union management campaign. This typically was led by the lawyers. They took the battle into the Kafkaesque caverns of the NLRB, then still staffed by Bush appointees. They argued that the healthcare workers’ requests for fair elections were illegal and unfounded. They obstructed, they demanded delays and they spent a fortune. They did what management does, and they got their way. For a year. Nevertheless, in December 2009, the NLRB-sanctioned January elections for three Kaiser chapters, including 2,300 southern California nurses and professional workers (e.g., social workers, therapists, dietitians, educators).

The results in these first elections were as follows:
*Nurses at Kaiser Sunset voted NUHW 736, SEIU 36: 95%, 20 to 1!
* Psychiatric and social workers voted NUHW 717, SEIU 192; 78% or nearly 4 to 1.
* Healthcare professionals voted NUHW 189, SEIU 26: 86% or 7 to 1.

These results speak for themselves, yet they are all the more sensational considering that this vote was so long delayed, and that, while the lawyers were at work, SEIU had carried out in the hospitals and clinics a campaign of search and destroy-intimidation, harassment and, in collusion with Kaiser and the other employers, discipline and dismissals. With the assistance of the NLRB, SEIU blocked all elections and held 100,000 workers legally hostage (the majority remain captive still, but not for long).

Kaiser Workers
Kaiser workers celebrate their victory and liberation from SEIU.

SEIU dismantled the infrastructure of the union. It fired elected stewards and disbanded bargaining committees. It attempted to eliminate a democratic structure of leadership, the human base of the healthcare workers union, a foundation built through years of struggle.

What would be put in place? The headquarters, the know-it-alls in Washington, apparently were not concerned. What mattered to them was income, the dues of these often not-so-well-paid workers. Thus, they entered into secret negotiations with hospital managements, agreed to cutbacks, reduced pensions and healthcare, gave management the green light for layoffs, and opened the door for management rights agreements.

SEIU fought fair elections to the end. Indeed, it is still fighting. It responded to the NLRB’s decision with, “NUHW is not a union” and “a vote for NUHW will put workers ‘at risk.'” Steve Trossman is a generic traveling union staff man, the proud organizer, it seems, of the SEIU egg-throwing attack on NUHW supporters at the hall of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) in November. He is the communications director for SEIU. He threatened workers that an NUHW win would cost each member”$15,000.” Glossy mailers accused NUHW leaders Barbara Lewis, John Borsos and Sal Rosselli with corruption. Picket signs called them crooks, charging they stole “millions.”

But no deal. Listen to the workers: “We couldn’t fall for this,” says Jim Clifford, a therapist at Kaiser’s bilingual clinic on the Tijuana border, a fired steward. “We’ve been paying attention. We’ve seen the anti-democratic changes. We know what happened at the convention in Puerto Rico. We’ve got corruption all around us here in southern California. We could see very clearly that we couldn’t trust anything SEIU said.”

Leila Valdivia, once the president of an earlier Sunset nurse’s organization, the American Federation of Nurses (AFN), was reactivated by the election. She said, “SEIU didn’t bank on our relationships and our history, our history of fighting and going on strike. I got back involved because I believe in autonomy. I don’t want just another union. I don’t want SEIU. We believe in the bottom up, we came from the bottom, it’s in our culture. No one believed SEIU.”

Santa Rosa
Workers at Santa Rosa Memorial win their union election in spite of SEIU fear tactics.

No, they didn’t, and they overcame great odds-SEIU, BIG, “the fastest growing union in the country,” connections in Washington. It didn’t matter. The workers voted for themselves and they won. These Kaiser victories came on the heels of the Christmas present workers received (gave themselves) in December at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital where workers brought down SEIU in another election, this one for union representation: NUHW 283 to SEIU 13. This was the culmination of a six-year drive to unionize-six years of sacrifice, hard work and struggle inside the hospital-almost flushed down the drain thanks to the SEIU intervention. Instead, the NUHW victory was the single biggest hospital win in the United States during the year.

The Memorial workers, cards in hand, had expected fierce resistance from the Catholic St. Joseph’s Health System-yet they refused to concede. But who could have predicted that SEIU would join in to kill their dream? Without a single Memorial worker willing to publicly endorse them, SEIU-UHW refused pleas to remove themselves from the ballot. Instead, days before the election, they bused in hundreds of staff and members for a provocative, anti-NUHW demonstration on the hospital steps. They harassed workers with robo calls and invasive house visits, they flooded the campaign with glossy mailers and full-page ads in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, as well as radio spots. There is no doubt that all this pushed the “no union” vote dangerously high.

NUHW distributed just one mailer, produced gratis, but the workers’ organizing committee, with strong backing from NUHW volunteers, plus community and religious leaders, and the North Bay Labor Council (which asked SEIU to withdraw) overcame-David and Goliath all over again.

These victories have been widely publicized and quite rightly. The press is getting the idea that something is happening here. Still, I think they sometimes miss the real point of this story. There’s lot of Sal Rosselli (the former UHW elected president) versus Stern in the reporting and, if not that, the rather sterile NUHW
versus SEIU.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard nothing but praise for Barbara Lewis, Ralph Cornejo and Rosselli, the NUHW leaders-and, if anything, I’ve heard even more praise for NUHW volunteer organizers. But here is the judgment of Lewis, a spokesperson for NUHW in southern California: “This victory is a tribute to a rank-and-file leadership that was heavily invested in a member-driven union. The workers organized around this vision and sought a union that the workers would control.”

So what is a “member-driven union”? How is it different than the SEIU corporate model, a staff-driven, now you see them, now you don’t, dues hungry project? “The SEIU under Stern,” writes Juan Gonzalez, “is the Roman Empire of the Labor movement.Stern is forever on the prowl for new workers to absorb into his empire and he doesn’t much care how he does it.”

The three chapters, nurses at Kaiser Sunset and two professional units scattered across southern California, were given just one month to prepare for these elections. What did they do?

Kaiser Sunset is seven floors; it is the size of three football fields, a huge facility. The nurses there worked on their days off and after work. They walked the floors. “We educated the new nurses,” says Leila Valdivia. “Some of them didn’t know why we had a good contract. They didn’t know we had strikes every three years in the ’80s and ’90s, our last strike was for 11 weeks in 1997-it was against mandatory overtime-this is important for nurses, they have children, families, they often work two jobs. We are militant people. The new nurses listened to the older nurses. They learned the history.”

“We were ready to change,” according to Tessie Costales, also a Sunset RN, a fired steward. “We had no representation. They got rid of our stewards-all because they wouldn’t sign the SEIU pledge of allegiance. They abolished our union.

“But we were ready, it was not new to us, we’d done this before-no money, etc. We just volunteered, hours, material. We stayed connected, from the very bottom. We kept everyone informed. We wanted autonomy, democracy, a voice. And we wanted to win, not just to win, but to win BIG. We did!”

Turusew Gedebu-Wilson is a member of the professional chapter, a dietitian at Kaiser West LA. She was a UHW steward, and she was fired by SEIU.

“We saw this coming, the trusteeship. We went to the Puerto Rico convention. We witnessed where this was headed. It was a long, long struggle, a whole year. We just kept engaged, stayed focused. And it’s done, done-that’s the great thing.

“We never gave them legitimacy. We wouldn’t attend their meetings. We detached ourselves. They tried to intimidate us, they used scare tactics, and they lied and lied. But our stewards just kept on going.

“I was kept going by this from Gandhi, ‘First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.’

“We built this union, it’s our union. We’ll build it again. We won because we trusted and respected each other and believed in our cause of building a democratic, transparent and member-driven union. We knew what we wanted. It was a long time coming, but we made it!”

“I wasn’t sure at first what I wanted to do,” says Valdivia. “I was burned by SEIU. I never forgave them for butchering 535 (535 was an SEIU local that succeeded AFN as the union of Sunset nurses and was then merged into UHW). I hated that. I want a union, but I don’t want just any union. And I don’t want SEIU.

“We’ve been fighting here for 30 years. We’re rambunctious; we needed a chance to speak up. I spoke to Ralph [Cornejo] and Sal [Rosselli], they convinced me to join in. We convinced others, the older nurses. SEIU fired all our stewards. Did they think we wouldn’t notice? The whole thing just exploded in the last three weeks. SEIU didn’t have a chance.”

The professional workers tell the same story. They work in some 50 facilities, some with just a handful of co-workers-a challenge, to be sure, to organize.

NUHW Founding Convention
Healthcare workers attend NUHW founding convention in April 2009.

David Mallon, a therapist at Kaiser Downey, tells me, “No staff could have made us do this, not even NUHW. We believe in democratic unions, we don’t work well in hierarchical structures. And we’ve been interested in this for a long time. We believe in unions and we are militant.”

The professional workers had also been burned when SEIU dissolved Local 535 in 2006. “It was our union-since 1975. It was dissolved without our consent,” says Mallon. “We petitioned against merger, but Stern ignored us. And then comes trusteeship. We’ve been treated like furniture.

“Another thing. SEIU was our best ally. They fired all our stewards, our elected leaders. Everyone knew these people; they had voted for these people, we were irate. The members were irate; 62% signed the decertification petitions. These fired stewards were our backbone, but there were many other activists.

“We built networks, we made personal calls, we used Blackberries, cell phones, text messages. We had meetings, members invited members to speak and to debate, and we had debates with SEIU staff. We sent hundreds, probably thousands of e-mails.

“We met with the nurses, we had an inside committee and Barbara Lewis and the outside committee, we worked hand in glove with them. It was symbiosis. We have active members and an idealist staff-all volunteers. What more could we want? SEIU would never understand. We were very confident. We predicted maybe 60%. Who would have thought 85%?”

I believe these members have it right. There existed in UHW, before trusteeship, a powerful, democratic and militant workplace culture-based on workers. And years of struggle. It was the foundation of a member-driven union. This included a deep respect for the capacity of workers to organize, self-organize, for their courage and creativity-all so absent in SEIU. It still exists, a little battered perhaps, but if these three Kaiser units are any indication, it is, if anything, tougher than ever.

“We can handle this,” says David Mallon. “We aren’t people who are afraid of a fight.” I think SEIU can expect more of the same.

A little background. What do these workers mean by the merger? Simply that they have been pawns in Stern’s grand scheme (the “one strategy,” centralize, bigger is better) to reorganize SEIU in California-regardless of what was wanted by the workers out here. SEIU Local 535, I have been told, allowed these workers space, their own leaders, control of finances. All this was threatened when Stern merged them. At first, the workers blamed UHW, but, according to Mallon, “Ralph and Sal were patient with us, they worked with us. We made the best of it. We got what we wanted. They earned our trust. They kept their promises.”

And corruption? There’s plenty of it, most spectacularly the 2008 Tyrone Freeman scandals in southern California SEIU Local 6434. Freeman, a Stern appointee and favorite, and once president of 6434, is now fired and facing federal charges. Why? He is accused of stealing more than $1 million from the local. Then Annelle Graheda, another Stern appointee, was removed as head of the SEIU California state council. And now, in San Diego, there is the mysterious departure of SEIU Local 221 President Sharon-Frances Moore, with a six-figure severance handout and ongoing SEIU work as a “consultant.” Moore is yet another Stern appointee.

Perhaps SEIU thinks that members do not read the papers. Apparently, for the trustees’ response is more bluster. “Yes,” Steve Trossman tells us, “the results of the Kaiser election were disappointing.” But what next? “Kaiser Members Launch Huge Contract Campaign!” Trossman tells us that “more than 100-plus members of our stewards council met this month.Our facilities are abuzz.” He promises “raises for all members, locking in all our current benefits and our voice at work, [and] securing our jobs well into the future.”

There will be perhaps as many as 100 elections in the months to come. In June, Kaiser workers can again petition to decertify SEIU. What can we expect? David Moberg, the senior labor writer for In These Times, reminds us that “SEIU has a clear advantage in resources it can-and has-put into battle.” He also tells us that “it is dealing with a union workforce where there is widespread resentment of SEIU policies and behaviors.”

An NUHW victory will be good for healthcare workers and patients, for the working people of California, for working people and the labor movement everywhere. So we need to get involved. As we said a year ago, “Now is the Hour! Stand Up for the Healthcare Workers! Stand up for NUHW!”

A footnote: Part of the SEIU attack on California healthcare workers is its management-style legal assault. Thirty former leaders and staff of UHW have been accused with various specious charges; SEIU is suing them for $19 million. Legal defense costs are now in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. SEIU’s clear intention is to humiliate and break these people-all good union men and women.

You can help by contributing to the following fund:

The Fund for Union Democracy and Reform
465 California St., Suite 1600
San Francisco, CA 94104


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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