Beyond Chron: NUHW, SEIU in Kaiser Election Showdown

NewsJanuary 25, 2010

by Randy Shaw

Almost one year to the date that SEIU placed its large UHW local in trusteeship (leading former UHW leaders to form NUHW), ballots will be counted at Kaiser Hospital in Los Angeles on Tuesday in a “game changer” for the winning union. The stakes are high. NUHW’s victory would give it strong momentum for winning 50,000 more Kaiser workers in June, while a defeat would be a major blow. SEIU faces equally stark outcomes: either win here, or preside over the likely inevitable march of all Kaiser workers out of their union – with other hospital workers to follow.

A clear majority of workers submitted decertification petitions and have shown little inclination to stay with SEIU. Many pro-NUHW workers predict victory, which is why SEIU fought to stop the election, and still seeks an NLRB ruling impounding the ballots prior to counting. SEIU faces the same problem here as in Santa Rosa: workers view the election as between “top-down” vs. “rank and file” decision-making, with NUHW clearly benefiting from the populist ardor sweeping the nation.

If, as I suggested in June, that its Fresno home care election represented “SEIU’s Vietnam,” the outcome at Kaiser Hospital tomorrow could be NUHW’s Tet Offensive. In other words, a largely volunteer, under-funded organizing force is mounting such a strong campaign against a powerful adversary on the latter’s home turf that public perceptions of the conflict are irrevocably altered.

Unlike its 283-13 loss to NUHW among unorganized workers in Santa Rosa, SEIU has represented Kaiser employees for over thirty years. Should these Los Angeles-area workers vote to leave the union for NUHW, which SEIU disparages as “corrupt” and not even a “real” union, it means NUHW will likely soon replace SEIU as Kaiser employees’ representative statewide.

SEIU’s Kaiser Problem

SEIU’s perceived “top down” process has cost them dearly at Kaiser, where many members are up in arms over a deal the union struck that reduced retirement pensions. Kaiser claimed that stock market failures required the reductions, and SEIU re-negotiated its deal to protect those retiring by November 2009 but to then reduce lump sum pension payments after that date.

Kaiser workers I spoke with like Leila Valdivia, a Registered Nurse who as worked at Kaiser for 25 years, were furious at SEIU’s handling of the pension issue. According to Valdivia, “the contract was closed and Kaiser had no legal ability to change it. Yet we came to work one day and were just told that SEIU had agreed to a new deal, which forced many of our friends and co-workers into retirement and reduced pensions after November 2009. Nurses are not used to feeling they are being taken advantage of.”

Stacy Eldridge, a registered dietician and SEIU shop steward at Kaiser Bakersfield, told me that “SEIU made changes to our pensions without giving us a vote, or giving us a chance to bargain.” David Mallon, a Psychiatric Social Worker at Kaiser Norwalk, echoed this, saying “SEIU re-negotiated the pension deal without participation of the rank and file.”

For many workers, SEIU’s conduct fits a pattern whereby members feel left out of key workplace decisions. Eldridge feels that a major reason she and others seek to leave SEIU is that “we want a union run by members, not by union officials in Washington DC.”

Last September, SEIU’s mixed messages about Kaiser layoffs caused consternation throughout the workforce. Add in the pensions, and it’s no wonder that tomorrow could be the beginning of the end for SEIU at Kaiser.

SEIU’s New Strategies

Like the United States in Vietnam, SEIU thought that massive firepower would obliterate its opposition. Its massive, multi-million dollar campaign brought victory in Fresno, key court wins delaying Kaiser and other hospital workers from holding elections, and most critically, SEIU had the resources to file “blocking” charges to prevent elections anywhere where NUHW had a chance to win.

SEIU’s strategy worked well for most of 2009, but as one former long-time SEIU organizer recently told me, “they are bailing water by bringing in staff from everywhere, but they don’t have enough fingers and toes to plug the dam.” The dam holding back worker petitions for de-certification elections began to crack last fall, forcing SEIU toward a new approach.

This new approach asks the NLRB to only move forward on elections where SEIU believes it will win, while continuing to deny voting in every other facility where SEIU has filed “blocking” charges. SEIU has publicly denounced NUHW “hypocrisy” for trying to stop these elections, even though NUHW has long favored prompt elections for all bargaining units filing de-certification petitions.

Calling SEIU’s tactic a “stunt,” NUHW noted that SEIU is “struggling to explain to the labor board why the exact same charges they’re trying to withdraw should continue to block elections for the majority of workers who want to join NUHW.”

SEIU’s other new strategy was to keep workers loyalty through campaign mailers relying on a legal analysis created by Fred Feinstein, the former top attorney at the NLRB under President Clinton and current Professor at the University of Maryland. Feldstein’s analysis suggested that Kaiser workers could get “less favorable” benefits if they left SEIU for another union, meaning NUHW.

But SEIU’s strategy ran into two problems.

First, it was uncovered that SEIU had paid Feldstein the exorbitant sum of $240,000 during 2007-08 to serve as a “consultant.”

Second, Feldstein was not authorized to use school letterhead for his private consulting work. Such creates, as the school made clear, the false impression that the school endorses – or is even connected – to the writer’s views.

Like Jonathan Gruber, the MIT professor who wrote articles backing excise taxes on middle-class health plans without divulging that the Obama Administration was paying him hundreds of thousands to express his views, Feldstein was “perplexed” that his financial arrangement with SEIU caused such controversy. He saw nothing wrong with his writing his SEIU-funded analysis on University of Maryland letterhead.


No NUHW official predicted victory in Fresno, and they were right. Just prior to the Santa Rosa counting, NUHW Vice-President John Borsos told me NUHW would win and that SEIU would only get 15 votes (it got 13). He was right on both.

Based on my talk with workers and staff, NUHW likely wins by a 60% margin. And as Kaiser activist Dan Mallen told me, workers in all Kaiser facilities are watching closely, and will be energized as never before should NUHW prevail.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

Source: Beyond Chron