California healthcare workers fight for a union that will fight for them

April 30th, 2015

Another Rebellion in SEIU: California healthcare workers fight for a union that will fight for them

By Cal Winslow
Published April 30, 2015, in CounterPunch

Just what does “employee free choice” mean? In theory, it means allowing workers the choice, to be union or not. It also means restricting the rights of the employers to interfere with that choice.

The AFL-CIO has fought long and hard for this, and the “streamlining” of the representation process, even after the Employee Free Trade Act (EFCA) introduced in Congress in 2009, failed to get out of committee.

Nevertheless, that National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has recently taken steps, as labor journalist Steve Early has reported, “to shorten the average length of time it takes for workers to get a union vote after petitioning for one.”

The new, expedited election process, Early notes, “goes into effect this month and was hailed by national AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka as ‘modest but important.’”

“Too often, lengthy and unnecessary litigation over minor issues bogs down the election process and prevents workers from getting the vote they want,” according to Trumka.

In March, the workers at Enloe Medical Center in Chico, California, petitioned for an election –they filed a petition to leave the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and join its rival, the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

Enloe is a 300 bed, 100 year old independent, not for profit hospital; it serves Chico, a college town, and surrounding Butte County, in the rural, conservative northeastern corner of the Sacramento Valley, not the most union friendly county in the state.

The petitions were submitted with high hopes; “we had no choice,” says Patty Rusk, a monitor tech with 25 year at Enloe this July. “We had SEIU, but we didn’t have a union.” The 750 service workers employed at Enloe are members of the Service Employees International Union’s California healthcare affiliate, United Health Care Workers-West (UHW).

The workers’ petition, then, was for an election not just for a union, they had one, but for a union of their choice.

The list of their grievances is a long one; the hospital has subverted the seniority system, it’s subcontracted out union jobs, wages are far below those in comparable jobs in the region, benefits were conceded in the last contract, dismissals are routine.

But that list was for management, and to be expected, one supposes. But for the union, alas, the list is much longer, and disheartening, first of all for workers who fought very hard to get a union, and then for us – people who want to see unions revived, more, people who see flourishing unions as a potential powerful challenge to everything that is wrong in this country – poverty, inequality, police brutality, the empire.

Patty Rusk has been a union stalwart at Enloe from day one – she was a founder of the union and continues to be active even as her family works on their new house and as she cared for her mother-in-law who died from cancer just last year. She’s been steward; she’s been on the Executive Board of UHW. She worked with Enloe’s nurses in their last contract fight.

The workers’ problems are pretty straight forward; in a word, says Rusk, “no representation.” The union’s reps come and go, she cites a revolving door of “uncommitted people” – reps are hired, fired, they quit, they’d almost all rather be someplace else. More often than not they are “unavailable.” One told Rusk “the union doesn’t focus on arbitrations. She did not mention grievances, she was certainly not focused on them.”

The union’s “not protecting people,” according to Rusk, citing cases of unchallenged dismissals. At the hospital, the steward system has collapsed and it’s not possible to get enough people to fill out the bargaining team. Contract negotiations are now underway, but she is not optimistic. The last time the contract was negotiated, it was done all but in secret – ballots came out on the Fourth of July weekend, copies of the agreement were not made available. “All we got was a flyer from the union.” Members of the bargaining team told Rusk they hadn’t read it; what was the point? They “made us vote uninformed, people didn’t know what they were voting for.”

And in California’s burgeoning healthcare economy, the workers got 2% a year in wages increase over three years, but insurance premiums were increased as well as out of pocket expenses.

The problem, of course, is not just at Enloe; as a member of UHW’s Executive Board, Rusk has seen the union’s state leadership at work as well.

At one Board meeting, the leadership proposed a redoing of its dues structure, including a condition that members who fall behind on their dues (2% of wages) be terminated. Rusk believes that 2% is fair enough for her, but “we have workers, housekeepers, for instance, who work for minimum wages. There are times when they just can’t afford this. They shouldn’t be fired.”

She raised this at the Board meeting only to be told that Dave Regan, the President of UHW insisted on the restructuring. “This is how I want you to restructure,” he was reported to have demanded, “do this or I’ll veto it.”

Rusk responded (to herself), “I don’t need to be here.”

“There is simply a lack of transparency and democracy in SEIU. I found it very difficult to be around people who pretend to fight for workers, but all they really want to fight for are their own paychecks. They are not the type of people I enjoy being around.” Ultimately, Rusk resigned from the Board.

This is all bad enough, but it didn’t have to be this way. The Enloe workers began their fight in 2002, when a new CEO informed them that they were all “at will” – that is, they could be let go at any time without cause. It wasn’t an easy fight; they won over clear majority of the workers, the nurses (members of the California Nurses Association) supported them, so did the Central Labor Council, even the Mayor). “We walked out. We had lawn signs all over town.” Management resisted every step of the way. They held the union up in the courts until 2008 when the first contract was signed. “We got 14% wages increase over the first three years of the contract.”

This year is contract year again. There’s a bargaining team of ten, but only five workers have volunteered. No observers are allowed. “There’s been no outreach to the community.” No one is optimistic, and all the more so after seeing the poor results in last year’s the nurses’ contract.

What’s the difference? The truth must be told here, however much it flies in the face of the SEIU and its (many) apologists. The UHW today is not the same UHW the helped inspire the Enloe workers to their 2007 victory. It’s not the union that inspired Patty Rusk. She recalls her first big gathering of healthcare workers in San Francisco including a picket at Sutter’s medical center; “It was about a dismissal and the message was, ‘You take one of us on and you take all of us on.’”

UHW today is a pale reflection of that union; it’s President, Dave Regan led a small army of SEIU full-timers into California to trustee (wreck) UHW. Its leaders were fired, its assets seized, thousands of stewards were dismissed, a loyalty oath was imposed and a fighting union was replaced by one that prides itself in being business friendly, above all “partners” with the giant Kaiser chain. It is a union now in full retreat, fighting even its own leadership (Mary Kay Henry, et al.) for its survival. It’s no wonder Regan is so widely despised here in California and it’s no wonder the workers at Enloe want a new union.

And why not? Why not a free choice for workers and a union of their choice? It would seem to follow. But not in the byzantine world of our labor movement. Rather than allow a timely election, SEIU has turned to the NLRB with complaints and the issue of free choice has been metamorphosed into a “raid” – and, worse, Richard Trumka (remember, “too often, lengthy and unnecessary litigation over minor issues bogs down the election process and prevents workers from getting the vote they want”) has piled on, with a request that the NLRB suspend the further processing of the workers’ petition for at least 20 days – request granted. The Enloe workers , who expected a wait of weeks, may well not see an election for months. In the meantime, SEIU, typically, has assigned a team of organizers full-time to the long neglected hospital. And, as if that has been not enough, the long-standing history of solidarity between the rank-and-file nurses at Enloe and the insurgent workers has been undercut, now by the CNA. The union’s “Board of Directors” issued a “Notice to Nurses” disavowing any affiliation with NUHW, demanding strict neutrality (who decided this?). It was posted, as demanded, discreetly, by local nurses. So who’s passing it out? The SEIU reps, naturally.

Steve Early has made the case for the right of workers to have a union of their choice in detail in his book Save Our Unions (Monthly Review, 2012) as well as in numerous articles in these pages. The sociologist Jonathan Cutler in a study of the United Auto Workers, Labor’s Time(Temple 2004) has shown how the collaboration of the companies, the union and the labor board on this issue, strict jurisdictional demarcation, undermined rank-and-file initiatives in the 1950s. Before that the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) left the AFL and led labor’s upsurge in the 1950s. And farther back, it is interesting to see how, in what was in many ways labor’s heyday, the Industrial Workers of the World’s challenge to the AFL in the Pacific Northwest, resulted in both competition and coexistence and pushed labor to the left in the run-up to the great 1919 General Strike. There’s not much new under the sun, is there?

So, are we seeing a “raid” in Chico? Such things exist, of course, as students of the labor movement, including the SEIU, CNA and other unions will know. And yes, the AFL-CIO, once competitors, now have a no raid agreement. But at Enloe, I don’t think so. The fact is that it was the Enloe workers who appealed to the NUHW for support. And the fact is that while NUHW has made great progress in a few short years, it is no position to initiate such campaigns. It doesn’t have the resources. At the same time, that’s not its policy. According to Sal Rosselli, the President of NUHW (and trusteed President of UHW), “We sent no organizers to Chico, we didn’t collect the signatures. We said, ‘You get the signatures, you file the petitions, once you do that we’ll do our best to support you. And, yes, that’s what we’ve done. And it’s about time the labor movement stopped treating workers like property.”

A great deal is written today about the plight of workers and the incapacities of their unions. This is fair enough. But not enough attention is paid, I’m afraid, to stories like this one – still in progress – in Chico, and the many others, battles often hidden from sight, led by local unions, often rank-and-file initiatives from the bottom up, carried out in opposition to union leaders, battles mostly likely reported only in Labor Notes.

When Mary Kay Henry, President of SEIU, recently came to the Bay Area to build the Fight for $15 movement (a highly worthy cause), nothing was said about the strike of the workers at Park Merced in San Francisco, SEIU members making just more than the minimum wage. Nor of the thousands of Fresno home care workers, also SEIU members, many of who take home less than the minimum wage (once union dues have been deducted). And this is not just a California problem. It is national, international. Can unions be made into workers organizations that empower workers that fight for their interests and that make them a force in an increasingly dark world?

In the midst of the 2008-2009 “labor war” here in California, a war that was tragically lost and that still weighs terribly upon the labor movement here; it is a story we cannot allow to be buried. Back then, noted labor writers Bill Fletcher and Nelson Lichtenstein described the then 150,000 strong, pre-trusteeship UHW as a “model union.” They were right. It was progressive, it was militant, it was democratic and it was growing, rapidly. California has many hundreds of thousands of unorganized health care workers. The NUHW today has grown from zero to more than ten thousand members and in doing so has challenged the system that pays the CEOs of “non-profit” corporations millions, while raising costs and restricting services for patients and demanding a plethora of concessions from its employees. This is seen above all in the ongoing conflict at Kaiser, where mental healthcare workers confront the goliath of the industry.

The NUHW proposes to build “a model union.” This should be a project of great interest to those of us who want to see labor renewal.

What is the model? The NUHW is democratic, its officers, top to bottom, are elected directly. Its Executive Board is composed overwhelmingly by working members; power in the union is at the base, in the workplaces, stewards committees and rank-and-file bargaining teams. It’s committed to training and education. It’s easy to run for office; there are no political proscriptions. There is free speech, there are no loyalty oaths. It’s committed to organizing and it does that – that’s where its resources go and it has grown, grown at a time when labor’s decline continues. It’s a militant union, not afraid of a fight, and certainly this is, to say the least, indispensable in the face of today’s corporations and their allies in the courts and the government. The ongoing Kaiser fight surely underlines this. In December, its members walked out for a week, just the latest in a series of strikes against Kaiser. And it is progressive; its history is one of consistent opposition to war, support for civil rights, LBGT rights, single-payer health care, and solidarity with workers in struggle – it’s affiliated with the San Francisco Labor Council, US Labor Against the War, the National Single Payer Coalition, and Jobs with Justice.

Back to Enloe. The workers there deserve a free choice. They’re not property; they don’t belong to anyone. It’s not difficult to see why they need a change. Nor it is difficult to see why they’ve chosen NUHW. They deserve support.

Cal Winslow’s latest book is a collection of the writings of Edward Thompson, E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left (Monthly Review Press, 2014). He is the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, PM Press, 2012 (second edition, revised and expanded), an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies (Verso, 2010), Director of the Mendocino Institute and associated with the Bay Area gathering, Retort. He can be reached at cwinslow@berkeley.edu