NUHW is at once the newest and oldest healthcare workers’ union in the nation. Though we took the name NUHW in 2009, we have a long and storied history that reaches back eight decades, to the origins of the modern labor movement.
Our union sprang from San Francisco’s historic General Strike in 1934. Founded as the Hospital & Institutional Workers Union, it was launched by service workers at San Francisco General Hospital who united to fight for better wages after individual appeals for pay raises were denied. Encouraged by their success in establishing higher wages and a six-day work week, they went on to organize the city’s private hospitals over the next few years.
Originally chartered by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), in 1938 the union received a new charter from the Building Service Employees Union (which became Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, in 1970) and was renamed Local 250.
Our union was the first healthcare union in the nation to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate as equals with employers. And we’ve been leading the way ever since. We established paid vacation, grievance procedures, and non-discrimination policies. We put in place the first comprehensive employer-paid health and welfare plan for hospital workers, the first retirement plan, and the first detailed seniority system. We extended the protection of health plans to spouses and children. And we expanded throughout California and went on to organize homecare workers as well as workers in nursing homes, convalescent hospitals, and the emergency services industry.
In 2005, Local 250 members voted to merge with Southern California’s Local 399, forming United Healthcare Workers West (UHW). A year later, we were joined by four thousand registered nurses, optical workers, and psychiatric and other professional caregivers from Local 535. Together our statewide local continued to establish the highest standards for healthcare workers and the patients they care for.
But within a few years, SEIU’s national leadership made a decisive and negative change in its policies. SEIU officials in Washington, D.C. started making backroom deals with healthcare corporations that gave away California workers’ rights and undermined patient care protections. To curry favor with employers, SEIU consistently caved to employer demands to reduce worker benefits at the bargaining table.
We blew the whistle on SEIU’s corruption and started a movement to reform the union from within. But rather than listen to its members, SEIU retaliated, launching a disastrous takeover of UHW in January 2009. SEIU ousted our leaders and nearly destroyed the union that hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers had been building since 1934.
The day following the SEIU takeover, scores of healthcare workers from across the state — elected leaders of our union — voted to declare our independence and to establish a new, democratic union: the National Union of Healthcare Workers. A new constitution was drafted, one that puts the power of the decision-making process firmly in the hands of workers. No contracts would be settled and no deals made with employers without member approval. In the years ahead, NUHW went head-to-head with SEIU in workplace elections, and thousands of workers voted to leave SEIU in favor of NUHW.
Today our union is more than 15,000-strong and steadily growing. NUHW is setting the bar for progressive unionism and serving as a model of democracy and worker involvement. We are organizing previously unorganized workers but also liberating workers trapped in compromised or undemocratic unions. We are building a worker-led movement to hold profit-driven healthcare corporations accountable to the public interest, to improve the lives of caregivers and patients, and to win quality, affordable healthcare for all. NUHW continues to achieve high standards in our contracts, including employment security, pensions, full family coverage, wage increases, and a strong voice in advocating for quality patient care.