Central Valley Indymedia: Fresno is ground zero in labor struggle

NewsMay 19, 2009

by Mike Rhodes, Editor, Community Alliance Newspaper

Fresno is ground zero of an epic battle for the heart and soul of the union movement. Will 10,000+ Fresno homecare workers be represented by a union run by unelected, out-of-town bureaucrats who negotiate sweetheart deals behind closed doors with corporate CEOs? OR, will workers support the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) who is a member-driven organization that fights for better pay and benefits for their members?

Local healthcare union activists charge that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is run by unelected, out-of-town bureaucrats who negotiate sweetheart deals behind closed doors with corporate CEOs. Organizers and members of the National Union for Healthcare Workers (NUHW) believe labor unions should be militant, member-driven organizations that fight for better pay and benefits for their members. They are in a David & Goliath–like struggle with SEIU (aka Goliath), which has everything money can buy, but NUHW (aka David) has a secret weapon—the support of the workers.

Fresno is ground zero in this struggle over the future of the union movement because more than 10,000 home care workers will vote this month (June 2009) to decide which union will represent them. This is the first major election in the country where workers will get to chose between NUHW and SEIU. The outcome of this election will determine whether home care workers will have a grassroots democratically elected union or one that imposes leadership from the top down.

SEIU, which is based in Washington D.C., took over the local home care workers union in a trusteeship that took place on Jan. 27, 2009. As a result of the trusteeship, the elected leadership of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers-West (SEIU-UHW) was removed, members and their supporters were forced out of their own union hall and SEIU appointed new “leaders” for SEIU-UHW. When the takeover happened, most of the staff of SEIU-UHW left and, along with thousands of healthcare workers, formed NUHW.

Kaiser workers in Fresno and throughout the state were affected by the hostile takeover of SEIU-UHW. Within a month of the takeover, a majority of the 60,000 statewide Kaiser workers petitioned to leave SEIU-UHW and join NUHW. Kaiser members said that the new union was more democratically run and would be successful at winning better contracts at the bargaining table.

“We want to stay united in NUHW with the leaders we elected,” said Janet Shepherd, a respiratory therapist at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. “They helped us build our union and win the best healthcare contract standards in the country. Why would we want to be part of an SEIU union run by unelected staff we’ve never heard of?”

SEIU’s response to the majority of workers at Kaiser, who wanted to be represented by NUHW, might have been to support the democratic will of the workers. SEIU is currently lobbying Congress to support the Employee Free Choice Act, which would recognize workers as a collective bargaining unit if a majority of them sign a union card. The irony is that SEIU’s response to the Kaiser workers was to send in their attorneys to argue that workers did not have the right to a card check or even a democratic election to determine which union they wanted to represent them. SEIU has stalled elections at Kaiser facilities, but their legal posturing is being challenged by NUHW.

SEIU has threatened workers, saying that they can be fired from their jobs or removed as shop stewards for union activity in support of NUHW. Maria Garcia, a union steward and certified nursing assistant at Bay Point Healthcare Center in Hayward, was fired for circulating a petition to join NUHW.

“I’ve circulated union petitions for years with no problem,” Garcia said.

“But this time my boss said he was going to call SEIU Trustee Eliseo Medina and if he didn’t like the petition, I would be removed. After he called SEIU, he fired me, and now the union won’t respond when I call them for help. Union leaders should be on our side, not team up with administrators against us.”

Recently revealed papers, filed in federal court, show that SEIU ran up a $2.2 million bill with the OSO Group, which is just one of several security companies hired by SEIU to carry out the trusteeship of UHW. OSO Group deployed off-duty and retired police officers—at $110 per hour—to conduct surveillance of UHW’s offices and intimidate, photograph and videotape members and staff. SEIU directed the OSO Group to spy on meetings where UHW members discussed SEIU plans to move 65,000 workers to a new union without a democratic vote on the matter. The OSO Group has also been providing “protection services” for out-of-state SEIU brass visiting California.

The takeover of the union happened when SEIU demanded that California’s healthcare union force home care and nursing home workers to join a separate union that would be run by SEIU staff from Washington, D.C. Home care workers’ elected local leaders said they would only comply if workers were allowed to vote on the transfer. Instead of allowing a vote, SEIU seized control of the local union in a hostile takeover.

Since then, healthcare workers have been organizing to stay united in NUHW. Nearly 100,000 workers at more than 360 facilities have petitioned to hold elections, including nearly every facility in Fresno County where workers are represented by SEIU.

Disability advocates support the caregivers’ decision to change unions.

“These caregivers have been working together for years and raising quality standards for the seniors and people with disabilities who depend on their care,” said John Wilkins, an advocate for home care services in Fresno. “But their old union was spending too much time and money fighting against them.”

When the takeover took place, most of the union staff left to work/volunteer for NUHW. SEIU responded by bringing in replacement workers to take over the union. Those replacement workers, who are being brought in from all over the country, are now pouring into Fresno and are expected to visit home care workers at their homes in groups of 4–5 to intimidate them into voting for SEIU. Reliable sources say they are bringing in 300–500 replacement workers to Fresno to work on this campaign, an indication of both their resources and the importance of this election.

The outcome of the home care workers’ election will have a profound impact both on the workers and the progressive community of Fresno. For home care workers, an NUHW victory would mean being represented by a union that is willing to fight on their behalf. For example, NUHW organized more than 100 Fresno home care workers to attend the Fresno County Board of Supervisors in April and oppose an agenda item that would reduce their wages and benefits to $9.50 an hour. But they weren’t just there to protest the wage cuts; they also pointed to the repeated failure of their union, SEIU, to support them in stopping the cuts.

“SEIU just failed to stop a different set of cuts last week,” said Flo Furlow, a home care worker. “Now the county wants to cut our wages even more, and this time SEIU isn’t even going to take it to arbitration. How many times can we let this happen?”

Providers’ wages are paid by In-Home Supportive Services, a service that saves tax dollars by allowing people with long-term medical needs to receive care in their own homes rather than in more costly nursing homes. It is funded jointly by the county, state and federal governments.

Despite pleas from home care providers and their consumers, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted 3 to 2 to submit a “rate request” packet to the California Department of Social Services—an administrative step that would allow the cuts to take effect starting July 1.

When Fresno County began seeking cuts in September, home care workers and their elected union leaders successfully organized to stop the cuts from taking effect. That work ground to a halt in January, when national SEIU officials took over California’s healthcare union.

“Before SEIU took over, home care workers stood strong and protected our contract against these cuts,” said Furlow, who was a member of the elected bargaining team that negotiated the contract in 2006. “Now SEIU is throwing it all away. We’re joining NUHW to take back our union and protect our families and our home care consumers.”

The stake for the progressive community in this struggle can’t be understated. Having a union like NUHW in Fresno will mean having the resources to help elect progressive candidates to the City Council and Board of Supervisors. Progressive unions are one of the few organizations on the left that have the resources to move a political agenda, whether it is support for a candidate or lobbying for clean air and water or better public transportation.

The rank-and-file union members and staff that originally organized home care workers sent a “wake-up call” to employers throughout Fresno County when they won salary increases and secured healthcare benefits for these low-income workers. The symbolism and reality of thousands of minimum-wage earning workers uniting and joining a union to improve their working conditions sent a shiver up the spine of the bosses who enrich themselves off our labor. The bosses know that the example of what these workers accomplished goes beyond the healthcare sector. The message was clear: If low-income home care workers can unite and win, other groups of workers can do it too.

NUHW, on its Web site at http://www.nuhw.org, states a goal to provide “a principled and powerful, vibrant and democratic movement of healthcare workers, dedicated to the achievement of dignity and justice for all healthcare workers and quality, affordable healthcare for all.” It is the goal of providing a living wage, a democratic union and dignity to low-income workers that is driving NUHW in this David & Goliath–like struggle with SEIU. Ballots for the home care workers’ election will be mailed out on June 1. Home care workers will have until June 15 to return the ballot.

Mike Rhodes is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. He can be contacted by e-mail at editor [at] fresnoalliance.com.

Source: Central Valley Indymedia