Dolores Huerta stands with healthcare workers at Kaiser Modesto and faces Kaiser Permanente’s private security guards.

The Battle for Kaiser: SEIU Calls for World War III

California Healthcare Workers Showdown

The new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) has won another stunning victory in its campaign to decertify and defeat the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in California’s hospitals and healthcare industry.

Its May 27 election victory, however, at the large University of Southern California (USC) Hospital in Los Angeles was not technically a triumph over SEIU but rather a 393 to 122 victory for NUHW against “no union.” It came after SEIU’s last-minute withdrawal from the contest, fearing the humiliating defeat sure to follow; SEIU joined management in urging workers (its own members) to vote “no union.”

This followed on the heels of victory earlier in May at Salinas Valley Memorial, where NUHW supporters defeated SEIU 408 to 242, which, in turn, followed NUHW landslide wins in southern California by Kaiser nurses (the 800 nurses supported NUHW 20 to 1) and professionals in January, and before that the hard-fought triumph, also over SEIU’s implicit “no union” stance, at Santa Rosa Memorial in December.

Taken together, these victories set the stage for what will be, at least in this round, the crowning conflict: elections at Kaiser Permanente. The huge healthcare enterprise has 32 medical centers and 200 clinics in California and is the fifth largest private company in the United States.

NUHW launched its drive to decertify the SEIU at Kaiser on June 2; its intention is to sign up a majority (30% is required by the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB]) of Kaiser’s 47,000 eligible employees with the goal of securing representational elections no later than the fall. A majority of the 1,300 northern California mental health professionals at Kaiser Permanente have already turned in decertification petitions-on the first day of the drive.

NUHW, according to NLRB rules, will have six weeks to do so. If NUHW is successful, the NLRB is supposed to schedule elections within 42 days (expect SEIU inspired, and financed, delays).

This will be the second time in 16 months that Kaiser workers have petitioned to leave SEIU. They did so overwhelmingly in early 2009 only to have their wishes stifled by SEIU’s employer-style multimillion dollar legal campaign that stalled and then blocked elections. As a result, Kaiser workers effectively remain captives inside the moribund United Healthcare West (UHW), which is the local taken over by SEIU.

Surely, these will be among the most important union elections in our time. Sal Rosselli, the fired president of UHW and now the interim leader of NUHW, says, “It’s ours to lose.” But he adds, “We have so much to do to win!”

NUHW makes no predictions, but it expects the worst. SEIU has already rushed through a sweetheart deal, a tentative contract with Kaiser. It has agreed to a 3% increase in wages for two years, but this is what workers were guaranteed in the current contract; they would have received this increase next year even if they had simply walked away from bargaining. It marks the lowest wage settlement in 15 years.

SEIU has also left the door wide open for healthcare concessions; a committee will be convened next year to review Kaiser’s proposed cuts. This is in line with SEIU-UHW’s healthcare concession policies in California: Sign anything, keep NUHW out.

This new “national” agreement was cut and rushed through by SEIU-UHW “old school” trustee Dave Regan. Breaking longstanding precedent, there will be no local bargaining. The agreement, clearly settled with the NUHW Kaiser campaign in mind, comes as Kaiser reported record profits of $2.2 billion in 2009 and $600,000 in the first quarter of 2010.

On the ground, things no doubt will be tough. Remember, in the electoral contest in Fresno a year ago, where 10,000 homecare workers were their target, SEIU sent in 1,000 paid staff and spent more than $10 million. In addition, it rolled out its corporate campaign of wild promises, false advertising, intimidation and thuggery; it was in Fresno that SEIU President Andy Stern, now departed, predicted the “death knell” of NUHW. It was there that Ivy League grad Regan promised “an old school ass-whipping.”

Expect, we’re told, “Fresno times five.” Yes. But SEIU won in Fresno by the narrowest of margins, and the outcome is still in dispute. And now these workers, on SEIU’s watch, traditionally among the poorest paid, have just learned that their wages-$10.25 an hour before trusteeship-will be cut to $8.00. That means, astonishingly, that these workers, SEIU members, are paid, once union dues are deducted, less than minimum wage!

What is at stake here? Nothing less than the right of workers to have a union of their choice-in this case by recapturing the union they themselves built into one of the most progressive and powerful in California. Recapturing their union only with a new name.

In January 2009, SEIU trusteed (which means they took over) United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), the 150,000-member union that then represented Kaiser workers, as well as other hospital workers and long-term care workers. These are the workers that fought and won the Kaiser contract, then known as the “gold standard” of hospital collective bargaining agreements. These are the workers leading the fight to bring other healthcare workers up to this standard. They still are.

SEIU wrecked UHW, firing its officers and then removing 2,000 stewards, the human infrastructure of the union. Since then, in collusion with management, SEIU has conspired to discipline and tame the most militant members and their supporters, and, failing that, to drive these people, that is, its own dues-paying members, from the hospitals, nursing homes and bedsides of California.

SEIU has systematically and, for the most part, secretly courted management with promises of collaboration and all-too-real concessions. And the hollow shell that remains of SEIU-UHW has dedicated itself first to one thing-defeating NUHW (and, of course, securing for the future the $3.5 million that flows from the pockets of Kaiser workers into its Washington, .D.C., coffers each month).

What next? What should we expect in the next six weeks?

SEIU, predictably, incredibly, offers us its blitz, this time “World War III”? Yes, this is the vile language of the SEIU in California. It is the language of the people who compared their initial assault on the UHW to the invasion of Iraq. It is the language of Mary Kay Henry, who is now, in the aftermath of Stern’s hasty departure, SEIU’s president.

Henry supervised the invasion of SEIU’s carpetbagging staff; she christened them “warriors.” She personally led the invaders who, with the help of the police, evicted UHW members from their Oakland offices. So, it is “war”; in a memo obtained by NUHW, we learn that the SEIU strategy is to “basically create World War III. Let NUHW know that they have no right to be here, and this is UHW territory.”

This is what NUHW is up against: the 1.8 million member SEIU, its bank accounts, its lawyers and its thousands of staff. NUHW is 16 months old with 75 people on staff, mostly volunteers, and 5,000 members. These members, however, are not your ordinary union members. These are the workers who built UHW. They won against union busters in Santa Rosa. These are Kaiser’s L.A. Sunset nurses who demolished SEIU! These are the workers that SEIU smeared at USC, the workers suspended at USC, those arrested at USC while SEIU looked on; these are exceptional union men and women. They haven’t once backed down; they’ve won.

NUHW has what SEIU doesn’t have; it has committed members. At two leadership meetings, on May 15 in Oakland and May 22 in Los Angeles, more than 500 rank-and-file workers came out to plan the Kaiser campaign. They came on their own dime, no buses, no hotel rooms, no free lunch and no beer and no false promises. Just a commitment to win this fight. I haven’t seen meetings like this since the 1970s.

What’s up with SEIU? Collusion, concessions, thuggery. Why write this? Let’s keep it positive, I’m told. And isn’t the arrival of Henry, the new president of SEIU, the portent of a new, kinder, gentler SEIU? Hasn’t she pledged to take SEIU back to its organizing roots? Hasn’t she promised to make nice with progressive friends and the rest of labor?

I hear she’s also got a bridge for sale. Consider these examples, just a few from the reign of the Stern regime and its trustees in California-including Henry.

  • Prior to the USC election, SEIU met secretly with management and its antiunion consultants, the Ohio-based Weissman Group, to plan the “no union” campaign. The Weissman Group promotes itself as offering “Union Avoidance Consulting and Strategy” (on its Web site).
  • SEIU staff and members not only called the police at USC but also photographed the arrests of NUHW organizers.
  • SEIU sent a busload of “purpled-up” (purple is the official color of SEIU) staff to Kaiser Modesto, surrounding and screaming at NUHW members in their own cafeteria-all under the watch of Human Resources (HR) and security. It then supported HR’s refusal to allow former farmworker leader Delores Huerta to speak to workers in that same cafeteria. SEIU members shouted at the 80-year-old activist, taunting her “to go back to the fields.”
  • SEIU, represented by four law firms, dragged former UHW staff and officers into civil court, demanding $25 million in damages. Spending as much as $10 million on the trial, SEIU dropped its claims to less than $5 million, but won just $750,000; that judgment is being appealed. Countless leaflets, speeches and smears to the contrary, no NUHW leader has been charged with criminal activity, let alone convicted. Still, SEIU brazenly shouts the charges “criminals” and “guilty.”

Now, SEIU plans yet another hearing, demanding that 45 NUHW staff appear at an SEIU internal trial to be administered by International Executive Board member and hearing officer Doug Collier, now scheduled for July 19-23. The charges will be the same as in the civil case. It appears SEIU wants to ban these union leaders from SEIU for life and to have a show trial, to shore up, no doubt, flagging members. Sadly, it is reminiscent of darker days when the “purge” was a standard response to dissent.

Connected to this, we have been informed of a new dimension in NUHW’s iniquities. Referring to its campaign to destroy NUHW, Stern had this to say: “It’s a tragedy in terms of how the money was spent, but a necessity in terms of preserving the organization’s integrity. I don’t want to analogize this, but there is not enough money you can spend in America to protect us from terrorists. And you know sometimes you have to spend money to protect the integrity of the institution from its own version of self-righteousness and terrorism” (Washington Post, May 15, 2010). Thank you, George W.

SEIU members and staff are currently charged with intimidation, assault and unfair labor practices in a dozen cities. The “World War III” memo advised members to work with company security and HR to “remove NUHW” from hospital cafeterias and rest areas. It informed members to work “as a group” to make NUHW supporters, that is, SEIU members, “uncomfortable.” In Los Angeles in November, SEIU staff threw eggs and water bottles at people attending an NUHW informational meeting held at the hall of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. (See Randy Shaw, BeyondChron, April 5, 2010, for an account of SEIU conduct and comparisons to Teamster violence against the United Farmworkers in the 1970s.)

Concessions? More than we can count, but a recent example? Workers at Sutter’s Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, once the beneficiaries of full health benefits for themselves and their families, now must enroll in Sutter’s “wellness” program-or be penalized. Smokers, of course, beware. But get this: The hospital intends to analyze the workers’ body mass with penalties promised for those who don’t match up to indexes acceptable to the hospital.

At Kaiser, workers learned of pension reductions-25% cuts in lump-sum payments. No vote was taken. Workers were informed of layoffs, in violation of the 2005 ban on layoffs during the life of the contract. No vote. Pharmacy workers, once guaranteed assignment to worksites in the vicinity of their home, learned that SEIU had agreed to flexing workers-allowing Kaiser to force commutes with almost unchallenged freedom in assigning these workers. Again, no vote.

This is all, of course, in keeping with SEIU’s management-friendly approach to bargaining. A year ago, with SEIU just taking the reins at Alameda Hospital, the San Jose Mercury reported following negotiations that “the contract.requires employees to pay health care contributions for their spouses and children, which Easthorpe (the hospital administrator) said is a groundbreaking concession for hospitals to gain in the Bay Area.”

Mike Casey, president of San Francisco-based Unite Here! Local 2 and president of the San Francisco Labor Council, has called SEIU a “company union” more than once. “This is exactly how a company union operates.”  Others wonder if SEIU is a union at all.

Casey and Unite Here! have done more than talk, however. In exceptional acts of solidarity, they have backed words with action. Unite Here! organizers from across California and Nevada will be working in the Kaiser campaign. They will join other volunteers, organizers and union supporters from around the country who also plan to come to California; it will be a union summer, albeit an anti-SEIU union summer.

These supporters will join Kaiser workers, other healthcare workers and their supporters, families and friends. We can be honest: The NUHW staff is tiny and its bank account limited to say the least. SEIU has already promised to spend $2 million on glossy mailings. Who knows how many staff are on the way. Perhaps even Mary Kay Henry will return, the woman who has never been a hospital worker, has never been an SEIU member, has never been a shop steward or elected to local office, has never negotiated a contract, has never been accountable to members. Will she come back to California? With her bodyguards? And driver?

Solidarity today begins with backing NUHW. Yet, there are still far too many people who look the other way-people who watch unions, write about unions, work for unions, who support some and not others. We may have differences on what constitutes a union worth fighting for, and we may differ on past history and who did what and when.

But the question now is this: How can you be neutral here? One side’s right, the other’s wrong. I have heard people say a curse on both houses or that SEIU is no worse than the rest. And, of course, we’re reminded that there will be no omelets without breaking eggs. This is just false. I don’t believe anyone who observed the May NUHW meetings could believe any of this. Not after listening to Turusew Gedebu-Wilson, a leader of the Kaiser Sunset nurses; not after watching therapists Dave Mallon of Kaiser Downey and Jim Clifford of San Diego in action. “Look at this,” they told me, “watch our victories. No staff could do this.” And not after listening to the USC committee-Michael Torres, Julio Estrada and Noemi Aguirre, the USC respiratory therapists and the leaders of the NUHW team. Torres was suspended and demoted by management.

At the victory rally, Estrada reminded workers that they “beat one of the most vicious union busting groups in the country.”

Torres added, “We’ve been kicked around a lot, but that’s okay. We won.”

William Hooper, environmental services, reminded the celebrants, “They said we didn’t have no money. They said we didn’t have no members. Well, we do! It was rough, it was a three-year fight. But, as I said, ‘The bully always gets his in the end.'”

Aguirre singled out the USC students who supported NUHW and praised their professor, Laura Pulido, who attended the rally to congratulate the workers on their victory.

This is a workers’ movement, composed of workers, led by workers. These are workers who don’t do concessions. They have seen a union grow. They know what a strong union is. They want one back.

Danielle Estrada, a patient coder at Kaiser Baldwin Hills, recounted the week she’d taken off-her vacation-to campaign for NUHW. She’d visited almost every Kaiser facility in southern California. She demanded that others do the same: “We’re almost there. We’re winning. But it’s not been done by magic; it’s been members, members on committees, members going out, recruiting, going from department to department, shift to shift, member to member. I took that week because we have to talk to the workers, every one of them, one by one.

“How can we not do this? Consider the alternative, stuck with SEIU. And the prize-a union of our own!”

  • 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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