Central Valley IndyMedia: Workers rebuild their union

NewsFebruary 22, 2009

by Mike Rhodes, [editor] at [fresnoalliance.com]

“We shall bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old, for the union makes us strong”

One of the most influential progressive political groups in Fresno, which is also the largest union of organized workers in this community, is in the midst of a radical transformation. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) took over the United Healthcare Workers (UHW) local on January 27, 2009. In the Fresno area, there are about 10,000 workers at Kaiser, homecare providers, and employees in long term care facilities who are affected by this hostile takeover. There are 150,000 UHW members statewide.

At the center of the dispute is the issue of how democratically unions are run, how well they represent the interests of the members, and the pace at which the union grows. The International wanted to take all of the homecare workers (including about 8,000 in Fresno) out of UHW and put them into a mega-local that represented homecare workers throughout the state. UHW leadership fought the International, because they believed the contracts they won for homecare workers were better than the wages and benefits they would receive through the new mega-local. When UHW put the issue to a vote late last year, 98% of those who cast a ballot wanted to stay with the UHW.

In late January, the International sent UHW an ultimatum demanding that homecare workers be transferred into the new mega-union. When UHW leadership responded that they would be willing to cooperate with the transfer if their members were allowed to hold a democratic vote on the matter, the International put them into a trusteeship and removed the elected leadership of UHW.

Norma Raya said “if anybody from SEIU, which is the International, comes to your facility or comes to your homes, just throw them out. Tell them to go away, sick your dogs on them or something, but throw them out.”Three days before the International put UHW into trusteeship, over 1,000 union members rallied at the Fresno District Fairgrounds. UHW member Connie Lara said “I helped build this union that we are in. From the very beginning, my hard work and the voices of other members have all gotten together and we intend to keep it and I’ll be damned if we are going to give it up like that to somebody else. We are going to fight!” Jackie Peppars said “they will hear the ring of our songs, they will be blinded by the color of our member driven force, by the sweat of our brows, the courage of our hearts, the strength of our backs, (SEIU president) Andy Stern … will know what we are made of.” Norma Raya was perhaps the most direct when it came to UHW members feelings about the International. She said that “if anybody from SEIU, which is the International, comes to your facility or comes to your homes, just throw them out. Tell them to go away, sick your dogs on them or something, but throw them out.”

A New Union is Formed

The decision to form a new national healthcare union comes after Andy Stern and other SEIU leaders rejected the compromise proposal from UHW to end the conflict with California healthcare workers. UHW’s compromise proposal would have enabled California healthcare workers to work within SEIU by guaranteeing that caregivers had the right to a fair vote before being transferred from one SEIU local union to another and that healthcare workers, rather than bureaucratic outsiders from Washington, would control the collective bargaining relationship with their Employer.

“For decades, healthcare workers in California have wanted to be part of a democratic, progressive movement that would raise standards for care givers and the patients and residents we serve. Events over the last several days have proven that’s not possible in SEIU,” said Angela Glasper, a 20-year optical services clerk from Kaiser Permanente. “Healthcare workers deserve to be part of a union that healthcare workers control democratically, not one that is led by a handful of outsiders from Washington D.C.”

The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) is the successor to United Healthcare Workers West (UHW) the oldest healthcare workers union in the country.

“As a healthcare workers union, NUHW is committed to continuing the tradition of a member-led, democratically controlled union,” said former UHW president Sal Rosselli, “There are lot of things that we still have to figure out, but we know NUHW will be all about accountability to the members, democratic-decision-making, organizing the unorganized and winning improvements for healthcare workers and the patients and residents we serve.”

The New Union is off to a Good Start

Over 1,000 homecare workers held a rally at the Fresno Fairgrounds in support of union democracy. Speakers demanded that the International keep their hands off their union.In the largest single-day filing in California healthcare history, the NUHW petitioned for elections in 62 California hospitals and healthcare facilities with National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) offices in Oakland and San Francisco.

Only days after its founding, NUHW filed petitions to represent nearly 25,000 workers. The union expects to file petitions for thousands more in coming weeks with the NLRB and with the California Public Relations Board for those workers whose employers fall under state rather than federal labor laws. “Thousands of workers are rushing to sign petitions for NUHW. I helped to signed up 106 people at my facility within hours,” said Suzanne Redell, a respiratory care practitioner at Saint Louise, a Daughters of Charity hospital in Gilroy, who is organizing her co-workers into NUHW.

The Union has Pledged to be more Democratic than SEIU

“What’s happening here is so exciting, we’re building a union of the healthcare workers, for healthcare workers and by healthcare workers united in NUHW,” said Anita Cook, a unit secretary at Kindred Hospital in San Leandro. “SEIU isn’t building anything. Their goal was and is to tear apart the most effective collective group of healthcare workers in the country. We’re tired of SEIU’s hostile tactics, threatening phone calls, their collusion with employers and governors like Blagojovich, and the corruption of Stern’s appointees like Local 6434 head Tyrone Freeman in Los Angeles, disgraced SEIU Executive Vice President Annelle Grajada, and the appointees who have just taken over what had been our local. We don’t trust them with our contracts, we don’t trust them with our dues—we just don’t trust them.”

Immediately after the filing with the NLRB at Oakland’s Federal Building, Cook added, “NUHW is building a union that respects workers. We have a chance to do things right, we can continue to fight for higher standards for workers and patients and give workers a voice. We’re tired of the SEIU lies. SEIU says they want non-union workers to have a voice, but they suppress members who don’t agree with them. Andy Stern also says labor law should be changed so that if a simple majority sign cards, an employer should recognize the union. We’ll see if he and SEIU walk away and leave us alone now that majorities have signed petitions saying we want NUHW.”

The NLRB is expected to schedule elections within the next month for the 9,000 nursing homes and hospitals named in the first NUHW filings. NUHW filed petitions at four Daughters of Charity facilities, Children’s Hospital of Oakland, four Sutter facilities, including Alta Bates Summit Medical Center and California Pacific Medical Center, as well as several nursing homes chains and independent nursing homes.

Organizing efforts under way in Fresno have signed up hundreds of homecare and Kaiser workers to join the new NUHW. More information about this important labor struggle can be found at http://www.nuhw.org.

Source: Central Valley IndyMedia