Against the Current: The NUHW Revolt
by Meredith Schafer
THE LARGEST BATTLE within the U.S. union movement in decades is happening right now. It is an organizing campaign to leave the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for the newly formed National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).
Like many fights within U.S. labor, the struggle within SEIU is being widely characterized as a battle between stubborn men — Sal Rosselli (ousted leader of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West) and SEIU national president Andy Stern. To understand what’s at stake, however, is to look beyond the personalities, rhetoric and ideological dispute among the top leaders. The actual goods democracy can deliver should be discussed concretely.
Within 72 hours of SEIU’s placing UHW in trusteeship, rank-and-file leaders at 100 worksites with some 9,000 workers signed up a majority of their coworkers on decertification or de-authorization petitions.(1) Currently petitions have been filed with majority support (far more than the 30% required) covering over 360 facilities, 100 employers, and close to 2/3 of the locals’ 150,000 members.
This April, over 700 workers were involved in a founding convention for NUHW, which included developing union bylaws and goals. The only workers so far granted an election are public sector workers covered by the California Public Employee Relations Board (not the NLRB).
In the first election, held in May at Doctors Medical Center in Contra Costa County, for every worker who voted to remain in SEIU seven voted to leave and join NUHW.(2) Fresno homecare workers may be the second group to go.
The costs to workers’ lives and careers in the course of this struggle has been no small sacrifice. SEIU has shown it will use the same union busting tactics as employers on its own members in this fight. The events of 2009 in California healthcare began long before the UHW trusteeship. In a public letter to trustee Dave Regan, Tony Aidukas, a former Chief Steward at Desert Regional Medical Center, Tenet Bargaining Team member, and former Executive Vice President of UHW makes this clear:
“I told you at the meeting that this is a member led revolt. It was insane to think that we, the members, would turn the keys to the kingdom over to you without a battle. And a battle you have on your hands. 96,000 members have filed for decertification. Many more thousand will follow. You may get temporary reprieves from the NLRB but eventually, we, the members, will have an opportunity to vote. We will not be denied.”(3)
Nursing Home Alliance Ends
The push to leave SEIU came from the ranks of UHW as much as it eventually also came from the local leadership. Both the leadership and staff underwent substantial shifts in their understanding of SEIU as trusteeship loomed, due in part to the militancy of workers in the Convalescent Division (nursing homes) of the former SEIU-UHW.
It is true that the UHW’s disagreement with SEIU president Stern can be traced back more than two years, and much of that disagreement was over the template agreement SEIU International had made with a group of nursing home operators in exchange for organizing rights to new facilities. The template agreement undercut standards in SEIU-UHW nursing homes and silenced workers from speaking up about patient care issues. It stipulated that the union could not support or sponsor any legislation related to the industry without the employers’ approval, nor could they publicly campaign for increased patient-staffing ratios, or most other quality of care issues.(4)
The Nursing Home Alliance template agreement was not renewed in 2007 after pressure from 20,000 SEIU-UHW members petitioning to end it, and SEIU-UHW approached negotiations with Alliance operators with demands for full union rights in collective bargaining and organizing rights. This left Stern no choice if he wanted to continue these types of agreements — he would have to take the long-term care members out of SEIU-UHW.
This conflict is hardly a superficial turf war over potential new members, considering the UHW’s massive contract campaign that was in progress at the time of the trusteeship hearings of 2008, involving some 77,000 nursing home and acute-care workers in 200 facilities.(5) (The fate of those contracts after trusteeship was imposed is complex.)
Since at least 2005, Stern has used mergers to repress dissent within SEIU. Mergers have been touted as the key to strengthening the union in negotiations and political work. But if “size matters,” what have the results of these consolidations been, for new organizing and for standards?
Four years ago, nursing home and homecare workers across the state (except for those already organized in UHW) were forced into a local with 174,000 members (SEIU Local 6434). Yet the workers who have been in that local for a decade (120,000+ Los Angeles County homecare workers) still make some of the lowest wages of any homecare workers in the state: $9 an hour with substandard health benefits that do not include dental or vision.
Meanwhile the majority of SEIU-UHW homecare workers make on average $1.25 more per hour, and have superior benefits, even though UHW is much smaller, and represents homecare workers in only ten out of 58 counties in the state.(6) One thing Stern has demonstrated for workers very clearly: Size alone does not create power with employers.
This is not an argument for smaller unions, but for more accountable leaders with a real industrial union approach. Stern’s mergers lack any consistent approach to industrial unionism, and many appointed leaders had little to no experience in industry-wide (or any) organizing.
By keeping long-term care workers divided from hospital workers in other locals, he created a “ghetto” union for low-wage workers outside of hospitals who are doing the same work. Additionally, keeping public sector hospital workers separate from private (SEIU-UHW lost public hospital members in the 2005 mergers) also flies in the face of industrial unionism.
To many local leaders then and now, the reasons for this reorganization were clear: to lessen the power of more militant locals, and increase the International union’s ability to impose employer-friendly agreements without rank-and-file interference in exchange for allowing the union to grow its “size.”
Long-Term Care Workers Face Off
Stern’s specious arguments about long-term care workers needing to be “united” in one union without hospital workers in order to increase their “power” is actually a push to continue to divide workers and weaken their position in the industry.
Hospitals, although nowadays managed more like Toyota factories (and by Toyota-expert consultants) more than as places where care might occur, are not closed systems. Most patients are pushed out of expensive hospital beds as quickly as possible, thanks to for-profit insurance mandates. Where do these patients go? The next link in the chain: long-term care facilities. Where do they go beyond that? Homecare.
SEIU-UHW leaders knew that as long as more and more care is shifted outside of traditional acute-care facilities, and into low-paying, less unionized nursing home facilities, the union will face more challenging employer fights in both divisions. Marti Garza, former Assistant Director of SEIU-UHW Convalescent Division (now a volunteer organizer for NUHW), explains the significance of what was more than a jurisdictional dispute:
“Our members worked tirelessly over the last several years to line up their contracts among nursing home operators and hospitals, not because they anticipated leaving SEIU but because they were engaging in a master contract campaign. Hospital and long term care workers were launching the closest thing the labor movement has seen in decades to a true industrial battle between labor and capital. Unfortunately much of that was obscured by Andy Stern’s attacks on the local.”
Many of the large hospital chains they were bargaining with in 2008 have business relationships with long-term care operators. The job titles overlap, the work is similar, and the employers are trying to extract every dollar from care they can. Additionally, as the hospital industry in California has seen massive consolidation over the last 15 years, so has the industry nationally. Many of the employers in California are national chains, so Stern’s argument that Sal Rosselli just wanted to build his local and ignore the rest of the country won’t stand up.
During the 2008 contract campaigns, says Garza, “For the first time in history, nursing home bargaining team members were fighting for proposals that tied wages standards to hospital jobs with similar duties across employers. Rather than proposing traditional COLA raises, members were demanding that nursing home wages be moved to 60%, 70%, even 80% of Kaiser — the hospital with the highest wages in the industry.”
But it wasn’t just about standards. Members were also able to extract concessions from the operators for the rights to organize as many as 29 non-union nursing homes. In fact, Garza continues, “The organizing rights that our members won through their struggle-oriented approach dwarfed what SEIU Local 6434 won through Andy Stern’s sell-out approach.”
UHW Offer Rejected
In March 2008, prior to these negotiations, the Director of Convalescent Care for SEIU-UHW, John Vellardita, wrote to President Tyrone Freeman of SEIU Local 6434, inviting his local to participate in this strategic campaign. Freeman had accused SEIU-UHW of having secret meetings with nursing home operators.
“UHW has not and will not have secret meetings with employers under any circumstances — we have no need to. We are currently engaged in a historic campaign for bargaining in the healthcare industry in California … The whole world knows this.”
Vellardita proposed (once more) to coordinate bargaining with Local 6434:
“That way we can speak and act as one voice with the nursing home industry. We have over 100 facilities with contracts expiring … you have approximately 50 nursing homes up for bargaining … We believe we are in a position of strength by coordinating our campaign with our hospital division… We think it is in the interest of all long-term care workers to gain from this advantage, regardless of what local represents them…We think that success would be incomplete if it were not extended to Southern California, where many of our hospitals and your nursing homes are located.”(7)
Freeman did not accept UHW’s offer. In fact it seemed that he actively tried to undermine their campaign by making quick sweetheart deals with the same operators later that year. Stern then escalated his attack on UHW’s long-term care jurisdiction, just as workers were at a critical stage of this campaign.
UHW’s bargaining strategy promoted militancy. Employers were faced with strike notices, pickets and lively contract campaigns in nursing home facilities throughout 2008. The union settled some of the best contracts the industry has ever seen. Living wages, improvements in benefits, establishing patient care committees — these were major victories, and workers felt righteous as contract after contract was won. This was possible despite the southern California homes being represented by another much larger local, in the same union.
SEIU-UHW had set out to prove that concessionary bargaining and undemocratic functioning not only hurts workers, but also hurts the union’s ability to grow. Growth — isn’t that what Stern is all about? Had he been shown up by UHW? Well yes, but not by big union boss Sal Rosselli or the powerful hospital division of the local, so much as by several thousand low-wage, mostly women and immigrant nursing home workers. Beyond imposing trusteeship, what is most disturbing is the way that Stern aggressively used resources to jeopardize SEIU-UHW’s position at the bargaining table with so many employers.
Inside SEIU-UHW in 2008, workers in the Convalescent Division were ready to leave SEIU long before staff and elected leaders or hospital workers got on board. They saw the difference between what they had won (or were still fighting for in their contract), and what SEIU International was willing to agree to in the template agreement.
New Organizing and Democracy
Many Change to Win leaders have framed the debate: if you’re not with us, you’re against growth. Stern might as well be saying if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists, given how the rhetoric obfuscates the issue of new organizing. The truth is SEIU has failed to grow through organizing workers in recent years. The primary growth the union has managed has been through mergers and raids, organizing employers and buying politicians — by a governor’s decrees making hundreds of thousands of homecare or childcare workers a “bargaining unit” or more precisely, a passive revenue source.
Even the few corporate campaigns the International union has funded in recent years have been subject to pressure for short-term results that resembles an investment banking approach to gaining new members. The concept is sometimes called “compression” and it involves a blitz-style campaign with lots of staff for a short period, followed by an attempt to extract a quick deal by giving up some of the very things workers join unions in order to get.
If this approach doesn’t show fast results, resources are quickly shifted elsewhere. Gary Jackson, a Kaiser shop steward who resigned after the trusteeship, lays out a prediction for this organizing model in a public letter to UHW trusteeship staff:
“You’re losing touch with what you should have been clear from the beginning. Grassroots, member-driven, democratic organizing is the only kind that matters. Growing numbers, money, and political clout through watered-down, corporate-friendly agendas is the equivalent of a financial bubble. It will burst one day and people like Andy Stern will end up covered in the residue of failure saying ‘What happened?’”(8)
Many observers believe that Stern’s real vision is not to build a trade union, but a well-funded political “advocacy” organization that is generally cooperative with employers and politicians. Collective bargaining by elected leaders and workplace struggle in this vision is unnecessary — and expensive.
The War At Home: “Californiraq”
Contributors to the popular anti-Stern blog PEREZ STERN (http://perezstern.blogspot.com) have dubbed the war between NUHW and SEIU as “Californiraq” due to the premature declaration of victory by SEIU’s executive vice-presidents Dave Regan and Eliseo Medina, appointed as trustees over UHW. (Regan was the organizer of the SEIU squad that attempted to smash its way into the Labor Notes Conference banquet in April, 2008 — ed.)
Despite public denials of any plans for trusteeship by Stern in spring of 2008, a memo sent on June 5, 2008 from headquarters staffer Bill Ragen to other senior staff titled “a few thoughts about UHW” lays out the inevitable plan to destroy the local. Under the heading “Post-convention UHW work” Ragen framed the options: “Trusteeship would be difficult — it’s like Iraq, easy to get in and then a slog…Implosion would be a better outcome but what will it take?”
It’s almost as if the SEIU leadership got both — the slog of trusteeship and the implosion of their most successful organizing local.(9) The trustees have indeed faced an unprecedented insurgent campaign. Whether or not they anticipated this level of resistance, their strategy in dealing with it has been dubious.
Despite the widespread revolt of members occupying union offices and signing petitions in the first few days of trusteeship, Medina and Regan declared victory.
Trustee staff aligned themselves with employers from the beginning. Managers held captive audience meetings and introduced the new SEIU staff to workers. “Enraged doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’ve watched our HR staff escort the SEIU rep around to all our boards, gleefully pulling down our NUHW notices.” says a Catholic Healthcare West steward.(10) It is hard to fathom why they thought such open partnership with the boss would instill confidence from workers who had struggled to build the union that was now being taken over.
I put my ass on the line organizing my facility,” says an anonymous former steward on Perez Stern, “I took lost time as an organizer and we LOST. I spent a year under an evil boss as the Union instigator. A year later we came back and won. I have invested myself in every bargaining and every aspect of our union. I was a chief shop steward and elected to the E Board. Now I’m treated by SEIU and CHW as some sort of criminal.”(11)
Medina and Regan have removed hundreds of elected shop stewards throughout the state, and then colluded with the employers to have these workers fired. It seems they aim to revive the use of “yellow dog contracts” with regard to workers who support NUHW, even though these were outlawed in 1932. A shop steward who refuses to sign a loyalty oath with SEIU will be removed from office, denied access to union meetings and the ability to represent co-workers. Former steward Mary Mundy in the Convalescent division explains the important flaw in SEIU’s systematic removal of stewards and officers:
“After I told them what I thought of SEIU, they fired me as a shop steward, but I told her as I was leaving, there is an old union saying that the best organizers are bad bosses and you couldn’t get much worse than SEIU. You can fire me from being a shop steward but you can’t fire me from being a leader… Eight people who work at the hospital next door to me, Greenfield, had been unjustly suspended and instead of helping the members get justice they are going around with a stack of papers signing your name and firing you when you demand a fair election and not declaring your loyalty to SEIU.”(12)
Will Brennan, a long-time employee at Olympia Medical Center in Los Angeles tells the story of being fired for union activity (such as circulating petitions):
“SEIU came to my house on Febuary 16th, unannounced and uninvited and they threatened me with my job if I didn’t comply with the way they were running SEIU…[they said] if I didn’t get on their boat that I could possibly lose my job. I said, are you threatening me in my own house? And I said, get out. And the employer fired me. They think workers are a dime a dozen… They are not going to break my spirit or the spirit of my stewards or the spirit of our new union, ever.”(13)
Former steward Starla Robbins wrote to her co-workers at Community Hospital of San Bernardino,
“They removed me not because I am not committed to my members, but because I don’t support their hypocrisy. When we formed our union eight years ago, we voted for a voice at work. Eight years later, SEIU, the union we don’t want to be in anymore, is silencing our voice. I strongly believe that WE, THE MEMBERS, ARE THE UNION. SEIU has no right to prohibit any member to participate in union activity.”(14)
The Struggle Grows
Protests and confrontations have occurred at SEIU-UHW offices when members try to show up to their own meetings; bargaining team members and stewards have been locked out and police called. In the facilities where members have tried to meet on breaks, SEIU staff have called security and tried to break up the meetings. Private security contractors were used to harass and target members and leaders of UHW prior to the trusteeship and after — as we now know, because SEIU is being sued for not paying the OSO security firm over $900,000 owed to them.(15)
In response, NUHW members have successfully disrupted secret attempts at closed-door bargaining between SEIU and employers. They have picketed workplaces and union offices, and they have organized majority support on petitions at hundreds of worksites in record time. SEIU staff have been physically chased out of facilities across California by workers.
Nursing home workers at several facilities have taken strike votes for unfair labor practice charges, including collusion between SEIU and management. Many of the SEIU staff sent to “liberate” UHW members have refused to stay or return, and many have quit. Long-time union staff including senior staff (management) have quit rather than be sent to enforce the trusteeship. These have included the organizing director of 1199 in Boston, organizing coordinators at the International, and the Research Director of their capital stewards program.
Some of these resignations have come from among the most loyal defenders of Stern’s organizing strategy over the last decade, touting it both necessary and innovative. The fight against members in California has made them question the consolidation of power tied to these strategies, and the notion that members don’t know what is best for their own union, not to mention what kind of union is being built.
The fight that Stern is waging against UHW members is seen by many inside SEIU to be a fight against the very things they thought they were championing under the purple banner. It seems you can be for growth, and decisively not with Andy Stern.
[Another article of related interest, “A Battle for Labor’s Future,” by Dan Clawson, is at www.zmag.org/zmag.view/Article21616. — ed.]
- Robertson, Kathy, “9,000 Health Care Employees Want to Decertify SEIU,” Sacramento Business Journal, 2 February 2009.
- NUHW.org. “Healthcare Workers Join NUHW in First Election.” Press Release 21 May 2009, https://nuhw.org/media/2009/5/21/healthcare-workers-join-nuhw-in-first-election.html.
- Stern, Perez. “From a real leader to a fake one.” Weblog Entry. 14 May 2009. 15 May 2009, http://perezstern.blogspot.com/2009/05/from-real-leader-to-fake-one.html.
- Brenner, Mark, “Service Employees End California Nursing Home Partnership.” Labor Notes Issue #340 July 2007.
- Vellardita, John, “Upcoming Nursing Home Negotiations” March 6, 2008. Letter to Tyrone Freeman. Accessed on 6 March 2009, http://img.seiu.org/pdfs/UHW-W-Exhs/Ex.52.pdf.
- United Domestic Workers/ AFSCME Local 3930 website. “Statewide Information on IHSS Wages. Benefits and Unions, updated April 29, 2009. Accessed on 2 June 2009, http://www.udwa.org/statewid.htm.
- Stern, Perez. “Members ‘Get Into It’ With Sam Ogren.” Web blog entry, Perez Stern. 16 April 2009, http://perezstern.blogspot.com/2009/04/members-get-into-it-with-sam-ogren.html.
- Stern, Perez. “Hands On Edgar Update,” Web blog entry, Perez Stern, 8 February 2009, http://perezstern.blogspot.com/2009/02/hands-on-edgar-update.html.
- Stern, Perez. “Members Get Into it With Sam Ogren.” Web blog entry, Perez Stern, 16 April 2009, http://perezstern.blogspot.com/2009/04/members-get-into-it-with-sam-ogren.html.
- Stern, Perez. “Another Zombie Attack.” Web blog entry, Perez Stern. 19 May 2009, http://perezstern.blogspot.com/2009/05/another-zombie-attack.html.
- National Union of Healthcare Workers. “Shop Stewards Fight Back.” Video posted on NUHW.org. 31 March 2009, https://nuhw.org/latest-news/2009/3/31/shop-stewards-fight-back.html.
- Stern, Perez. “Week in the life of a CHW member leader,” Web blog entry, Perez Stern. 4 May 2009, http://perezstern.blogspot.com/2009/05/week-in-life-of-chw-member-leader-and.html.
- Courthouse News Service. “Bodyguards Say SEIU Owes $924,000 For Protecting Bosses During Union Beef.” News Wire entry 4 May 2009, http://www.courthousenews.com/2009/05/04/Bodyguards_Say_SEIU_Owes_$924_000_For_Protecting_Bosses_During_Union_Beef.htm. Accessed through nuhw.org on 27 May 2009.
Source: Against the Current