Counterpunch: Fresno, the New Ground Zero
SEIU vs. the National Union of Healthcare Workers
By CAL WINSLOW
Ground zero in the California war between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) is now an election in the sprawling Central Valley city of Fresno, where in June 10,000 home healthcare workers will choose which union will represent them.
The election comes as the result of petitions signed in two weeks in February by 2500 Fresno County home workers – far more than the 1500 signatures required. These were delivered by NUHW supporters to the County on March 1 in accord with the requirements of the Public Employees Relations Act. While home care workers often technically work for the private individuals they care for, funding comes from the counties and the State; hence the workers are considered public employees.
On Tuesday, May 5, the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) recognized the workers’ petitions and set the election for June 1 to 15. This represents an important victory for healthcare workers in California, where SEIU lawyers, in collusion with Kaiser Permanente and other large healthcare employers, ran an employer –style, multi-million dollar campaign of obstruction, stall and intimidation, resulting in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision blocking decertification elections. NUHW members have submitted petitions representing more than 100,000 California healthcare workers demanding the right to have a union of their own, the right to an election and free choice, only to be put on hold by Kaiser, Catholic Healthcare West and others, plus the NLRB – in effect to be held hostage by SEIU – perhaps for as long as a year.
Both unions are now sending organizers into Fresno County. The free-spending, corporate SEIU is reportedly deploying more than 200 fulltime organizers (500 hotels rooms reserved?), mostly out of state “warriors” armed with lawyers , SUVs and credit cards, to be set-up in the best motels Fresno has to offer (sadly a step down from Hiltons of the Bay Area and southern California they’ve become accustomed to). NUHW, still only months old, its members’ collective assets seized by SEIU in the January trusteeship, will rely on Fresno homecare workers, member volunteers and former UHW staff –worker organizers volunteering or former UHW staff living on member donations.
It is fitting that this battle will involve home healthcare workers – the poorest on the national healthcare ladder, low wage workers, most often without benefits, who care for the poor, the aging, and the disabled. These “clients” themselves are often family members or neighbors, thus these workers both live and work the mean streets of the nation, quite removed from the American Dream – certainly here in the Central Valley. “Despite such socially necessary labor,” write Jennifer Klein and Eileen Boris, healthcare historians, the home care workers’ wage “is lower than all other jobs in health care with the exception of janitors.” Still home healthcare is one of the fastest growing sectors of the health care industry. And it has been a key target in SEIUs “organizing” campaigns designed for union growth – increased “density” (and “dues units”) – at all costs. Consequently home health care workers are often at the center of the wheeling and dealing back-room bargaining of SEIU President Andy Stern and his regime of appointed lieutenants. In 2004, SEIU gave now disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich $800,000 in return for collective bargaining rights for 37,000 home health care workers. SEIU gave Blagojevich $1.8 million in two runs for Governor and is knee deep in the Illinois senate- -seat- for- sale scheme.
Closer to home, SEIU’s January trusteeship of United Healthcare Workers -West (UHW), then a powerful and democratic local union 150,000 strong, allegedly was based on UHW’s refusal (without a vote) to surrender its 65,000 long term care workers to the scandal ridden southern California local 6434 – and the tender mercies of its SEIU trustees. These workers, including those in Fresno, were among the best paid home care workers in the country, whose wages were made possible in part due to UHW’s ability to leverage up standards towards those at the top, the hospital workers. The SEIU plan was to segregate California’s long term care providers into a massive statewide local, to be led by Stern appointees. Interestingly, this transfer has yet to happen and Fresno’s home care workers, along with thousands of other California healthcare workers, remain captive in the “zombie” UHW.
The fundamental issues in the Fresno contest are clear then – the NUHW, if it wins this election, will maintain and build on standards fought for and won by members of the now wrecked UHW, including restoring recent Fresno County proposed wage cuts, while fighting for healthcare benefits for all, and challenging state caps on wages and benefits and a system that perpetuates for these workers a cycle of permanent poverty. Andy Stern has predicted that Fresno will be the “death knell” for NUHW. On the contrary, an SEIU win could be the “death knell” for the home care workers. SEIU has already lost in arbitration and conceded the County’s wage cut demands. SEIU sent in staff from out of state, led by Rebecca Malberg, a DC staffer who didn’t know the contract, had never handled a grievance and never witnessed an arbitration. SEIU refused to allow the members’ local bargaining team to attend arbitration hearings. Since the arbitration ruling in favor of the County, the SEIU has refused to share the findings with members, but it still calls the secret contract a “victory.”
In early January, Eliseo Medina, now Trustee of UHW, then still an appointed SEIU Vice President (salary $200,000+) assigned to Texas wrote to me suggesting that I failed to grasp the issues involved in the SEIU-UHW dispute. Seizing, I suspect, on my habitation in cushy Northern California, he wrote: “Much of my current organizing is now taking place in the South and Southwest which is as far from SF /San Francisco/ in culture and worker power, as you can get.” This, of course, reflected the SEIU mantra of the moment, most often elaborated by another highly compensated Vice President, Stephen Lerner. The charge was that the then dissident UHW was content to confine its efforts to the easy places, like “…San Francisco that traditionally have had relatively strong labor movements and friendly political environments” rather than taking on, with Eliseo and company, real work in the “more difficult regions where workers face even greater obstacles.”
Where do these people live? I know Eliseo’s been to Fresno; I suspect many times. He began his career in California as a brilliant young farm worker organizer working the Valley in the heyday of Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.
Fresno is 170 miles from Oakland, less than a three hour drive. It is a poor city – residents were shocked to read a 2006 Brookings Institution report that ranked the city number one in concentrated poverty (number four in poverty), based on a study of the country’s 50 largest cities – in fact ahead even of pre-Katrina New Orleans as the city with the deepest neighborhood poverty nationwide.
Fresno, with 500,000 residents in a metropolitan area of a million, follows in the California pattern; it is in reality two cities, the home care workers live in the one that is comprised of Latinos and new immigrants. The latter still come in large numbers for jobs washing dishes, in the packing houses and in the fields, though the healthcare industry, as elsewhere is thriving. They live in the slums of the south side, sprawling neighborhoods of small homes, trailer parks and apartment complexes, with of course, everything that comes with poverty. They breathe some of the worst air in California; Fresno is ranked number two by the American Lung Association in short term particle pollution. It is in the top ten in everything we don’t want – resulting in all the usual health hazards. The Central Valley, as is also well-know, is one of the four super-centers of the sub-prime scandal – Fresno ranks number 14 in the country in foreclosures.
Nevertheless, the power of large scale agri-business persists and Fresno remains, like much of the Valley, conservative, dominated by white republicans. The representatives of these people, on the county Board of Supervisors, citing of course California’s permanent budget crisis, have proposed cutting the home care workers pay by almost 75 cents an hour – from $10.25 (with 60 cents an hour for health care coverage) to $9.50. A complicated formula set in the 2004 state Act, “Aging with Dignity” sets a cap on home care workers wages, but the process begins with the County’s contribution and the union negotiates with the County first. SEIU’s surrender here then – where it’s all easy-peasy – is not much of an endorsement for Medina and his much acclaimed “fastest growing union in the country.”
According to NUHW supporter Flo Furlow, a Fresno homecare worker, “Here’s what happened: SEIU stopped our elected bargaining team from attending an arbitration over our contract… The arbitrator allowed the County to slash our wages, and now SEIU has refused to share the arbitrator’s ruling with workers. I went to the SEIU-UHW office myself to ask for a copy, and they refused. Instead, they’ve kept it secret and told us that losing the arbitration was actually a “victory.”
This is indicative of what has become a statewide pattern, collusion, concessions, then a declaration of victory. Just two weeks ago, at Alameda Hospital in the East Bay, SEIU signed a contract including “groundbreaking concessions,” according to the employer, workers will now pay more than $1000 each year for family health insurance. SEIU has, according to NUHW organizers, “thrown away decades of hard work by caregivers to keep healthcare affordable and opened the door to takeaways across California.” Incredibly, surveying workers at the five hospital chain, Daughters of Charity, an SEIU questionnaire asked if members would like to add a management rights’ clause to the new contract! Now, that would be a real “victory!” No California hospital has won one. Yet!
The Fresno contest follows on the heels of NUHW’s founding convention – an event of great enthusiasm, perhaps even an historic moment – held in the magnificent Everett Middle School in the Mission on April 25 – just a short walk, we were reminded, from where the union, then local 250, was founded in the tumultuous San Francisco conflicts of 1934. Seven hundred workers attended, nearly all the formerly elected shop stewards of UHW – plus remaining staff, now working for NUHW on a volunteer basis.
The meeting began with a rousing welcome from Angela Glasper, formerly elected chief shop steward at Kaiser -Antioch, just back from a highly successful speaking tour on the East Coast. She was followed by Mike Casey, President of the San Francisco Central Labor Council and leader of UNITE-HERE, Local 2 in San Francisco – this union too now embroiled in a bitter national conflict with SEIU.
“Thank you for standing up,” he told NUHW members, predicting that “we would look back on this day as when we got the movement back on track.” He denounced SEIU President Andy Stern as a “misleader” who promoted the notion that concessions are the “tough decisions” unions must make. “I call it selling out!” Casey concluded that this “was our generation’s chance to make labor relevant – or be consigned to the dust bin.”
Sal Rosselli, the fired elected President of UHW, outlined a two year perspective for NUHW, a “foundation for growth” based on building NUHW “organizing committees in the workplace.” He acknowledged setbacks, the delays at the NLRB, but “the worst case scenario,” he predicted, would be elections at Kaiser next year: “There will be a vote in 2010 and there is nothing SEIU can do to stop it.” And, victories could come sooner, most immediately in Fresno.
The Convention voted to adopt a provisional Constitution and bye-laws; guaranteeing “our right to elect our co-workers to represent us in contract negotiations, and our right to elect stewards and officers.” Changes made it easier for members to run for office, by reducing the number of signatures needed to 25 and lowered dues to 1.5 percent (from SEIU-UHW’s 2 percent dues rate), with no initiation fee. It elected a founding committee of leaders “who are accountable to us, not to Washington, D.C.—the committee is made up of almost all of the same rank-and-file leaders we elected to lead SEIU-UHW before Stern’s takeover of our union.”
Finally, the Convention committed NUHW members to stay strong and build organizing committees in every worksite. “These committees will help us advance and defend the interests of our co-workers at work and with SEIU.”
The convention also heard Monterey County public sector workers and Esperanza Cardenas, a Fresno home healthcare worker for 31 years; she cares for her aging father and spoke to the Convention in Spanish. So “Si, se puede” of course! And a standing ovation. The first session concluded with an open mike – dozens of members spoke with defiance, pride and power. In the afternoon, there were divisional meetings – hospitals, long term care, public sector, practical sessions devoted to survival in hostile settings, faced with colluding HR reps and SEIU staff. But more importantly planning for the future, beginning with the challenge of Fresno.
History of course will be the judge of this meeting and this movement. I want to say for myself, however, that the meeting was a rare opportunity to see first-hand the potential of working class organization and power – yes, (and I think most observers agreed) it was an inspiring occasion. And for what it’s worth, I’ve been to more than a few such gatherings, some indeed historic.
It must also be reported, however, that there is much to this story that is no pleasure to tell. UHW was a progressive, democratic, fighting trade union whose power was based on literally hundreds of elected shop stewards, contract committees and divisional bodies throughout California. SEIU systematically set out to destroy this, working with management to deny healthcare workers democratic representation. Now these people, elected working class, workplace leaders must not only do their jobs, that is, work, day-in, day-out – in some of the most difficult, often dangerous work on offer today; they must, also on a daily basis, face, as part of SEIU’s hostile intervention, intimidations, threats, sometimes even assaults, not just from SEIU’s so-called reps, but from these in collaboration with “Human Resources” reps and, frequently, the police. In April NUHW rep Audrey Ward was arrested at the California Pacific Medical Center in Pacific Heights. Aaron Brickman was arrested in San Jose at Daughters of Charity. Loyalty oaths are imposed; secret meetings become the norm. Stewards and contract specialists, the elected leaders of the workers, have been arbitrarily removed and are still being removed. Dozens of former staff and rank and file leaders have been dragged by SEIU lawyers into court on spurious expensive, time-consuming charges – many remain mired in pointless proceedings. The bad news, a working class organization has been dismantled.
Good news – a new one has arisen to take its place. It is difficult to convey both the great courage of these workers in the face of this alliance – SEIU, employers, the police and the courts. There are now literally hundreds of examples, far too many to document here. It is also difficult to describe the depths to which SEIU has gone. The writer fears that the reader will retreat to disbelief – this can’t be true. Tune out, turn off. Better tone it down. Certainly this is still the case with too much of the progressive movement. I see that LAWCHA – the Labor and Working Class History Association, representing pro-union scholars—is featuring Illinois SEIU leader and Stern protégé, Tom Balanoff, on a major panel at its conference in Chicago later this month. This panel could easily have been set up as a highly informative debate about current controversies surrounding SEIU, its aggression against UHW members and more recently those of UNITE-HERE. Instead, Balanoff gets to hold forth all by himself, as an after-dinner speaker, on the challenges of “Labor in the 21st Century?” Will scholars in the crowd challenge this SEIU national V-P’s rubber-stamping of Stern’s attacks on UHW or his major role in inflicting the vulgar Blagojevich on the people of Illinois?
Allow me to cite but one example of why LAWCHA should be trying to hold Balanoff (and other SEIU board members) accountable for how SEIU is spending membership dues money in California. It is an example that betrays much concerning the current SEIU regime. It is a revealing window for those who will look:
Perez Stern, a website (perezstern.blogspot.com) sympathetic to NUHW, recently asked the following question: “What in the world would lead you to decide that you didn’t have to bother paying your creepy outsourced security contractor?
SEIU has been taken to US District Court, San Francisco, by the OSO Group (security specialists) charged with breach of contract, fraud, negligent representation, allegedly for failing to pay $924,434.13, a portion of charges for services during the “UHW transition” – that is the period of the imposition of the trusteeship.
OSO is led by a former Assistant US Attorney General; it boasts of a staff of former secret service agents, national and local law enforcement officers and veterans of the armed forces. It specializes, among other things, in “counter-terrorism,” and “intelligence and counter-intelligence.”
Court papers (readers are urged to see for themselves, perezstern.blogspot.com) reveal that OSO was contracted to “provide substantial manpower to SEIU for security, protection and surveillance at various UHW facilities, including the UHW headquarters in Oakland…”
It is interesting that OSO was contacted well before SEIU’s Executive Committee recommended trusteeship, defying the recommendations of Ray Marshall, the SEIU selected hearing officer.
OSO was to be responsible to “SEIU and its out-of-town leadership with twenty-four hour, seven day security, surveillance at various UHW facilities in California… executive protection and drivers for the upper echelon of SEIU leadership visiting California during the UHW transition period… /including/ the provision of protection and privacy for SEIU executives involved in discreet meetings with CEO’s of major hospital corporations and members of the California legislature… Between January 15 and January 20, 2009 the demand for manpower, security and protection services and drivers continued to increase exponentially at business facilities, hotels and private residences… the OSO Group established a command post at a hotel in Oakland…”
One would have thought it best to pay these guys first! But it seems OSO was not at the head of the queue. Juan Gonzalez, writing in the New York Daily News, reported that SEIU is now deep in debt to the Bank of America – in total $87.7 million, including $10 million in loans last year alone. Gonzalez asked, “So why would SEIU, which boasted nearly $250 million in dues income last year, even need to take out big loans from Bank of America and Amalgamated Bank? It turns out Stern’s organization has been burning through cash.”
It’s certainly been burn season in Californiraq! Where UHW members once contributed $30 million a year to SEIU, now this money is squandered, including, most viciously, in the war against UHW, now NUHW. And this must be placed in context, and in contrast to what is happening on the ground. It just must be suspected that SEIU Trustees Dave Regan, Eliseo Medina and the rest of the “upper echelon” of SEIU really do prefer “discreet meetings.” It must be that they have a real problem relating to members – including those home care workers in Fresno – who see the loss of 75 cents an hour, not as some infinitesimal factor in the drive for density – not as “Victory” – but as a significant reduction in their wages, that is a severe blow to themselves and their families.
It’s not a victory of course. Victory will come when the Fresno workers – the members, from the “bottom –up” – vote out SEIU and begin again to fight back.
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Cal Winslow is co-editor, with Aaron Brenner and Robert Brenner, of Rebel Rank and File, Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below in the Long Seventies (forthcoming, Verso.) He is author of the CounterPunch piece, “Stern’s Gang Seizes UHW Union Hall.” He is a Fellow in Environmental Politics at UC Berkeley and Director of the Mendocino Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org