Counterpunch: Healthcare Workers Savor a Victory

NewsFebruary 5, 2010


California’s healthcare workers and their new union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) have won, in this winter of recession and war, a magnificent victory in a key series of electoral contests. Just last week, worker volunteers, health care workers managing their own campaigns, defeated the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) by choosing NUHW in three representational elections. There are more than one hundred elections to come this year.

Just one year ago SEIU trusteed its California local, United Healthcare Workers- West (UHW), in a hostile takeover, a predatory retaliation for standing up to Andy Stern, President of SEIU. The West Coast workers had dared to dissent, unconscionable in Stern’s “one voice” regime. Worse, they opposed the SEIU “one strategy” – in this case a strategy that seemed aimed more toward organizing employers than workers.  But the result of the trusteeship has not been exactly what SEIU intended; one immediate consequence was the formation of a new union, National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW); then followed the rapid degeneration of the shell SEIU left behind, SEIU-UHW.  SEIU wrecked a progressive, militant 150,000 strong union – one of the most powerful in California.

NUHW set out to build a new union, really to rebuild their union; this was, one must say, a defiant, highly audacious retort ; for better or worse, SEIU remains large, its pockets are deep. Still, NUHW and its supporters ran an astonishing campaign. In just weeks, these workers led a petition drive to decertify SEIU. Their success was historic, the largest decertification campaign ever.  Nearly 100,000 workers signed on. This meant the majority of SEIU-UHW members, including some 50,000 at the giant Kaiser Permanente healthcare chain, wanted SEIU out. They demanded the right to have a union of their own choice. They asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to schedule elections – to establish NUHW as their union.

SEIU viewed this as war; it established itself in California as an occupying army. Its commanders, the trustees, were two International SEIU Vice Presidents, Eliseo Medina and Dave Regan; it resolved, in trustee Regan’s terms, to drive a stake through the heart of the new union.  It was imperial overreach, however; it has become, in Randy Shaw’s words, SEIU’s Vietnam. For an assortment of carpet bagging  SEIU “warriors” on the ground it became a slog, a quagmire. There was another front, however, where, perversely, SEIU succeeded but just temporarily. Here the invasion most resembled an anti-union management campaign. This typically was led by the lawyers. They took the battle into the Kafkaesque caverns of the NLRB, then still staffed by Bush appointees. They argued that the healthcare workers’ requests for fair elections were illegal, unfounded, they obstructed, they demanded delays, they spent a fortune. They did what management does, and they got their way. For a year. Nevertheless, in December 2009, the NLRB sanctioned January elections for three Kaiser Chapters, 2300 southern California nurses and professional workers (social workers, therapists, dietitians, educators, etc.).

These results in these first elections were as follows:

Nurses at Kaiser Sunset voted NUHW 736 – SEIU 36: 95 percent, twenty to one!

Psychiatric and social workers voted NUHW 717 – SEIU 192; 78 percent or nearly four to one.

Healthcare professionals voted NUHW 189 – SEIU 26: 86 percent or seven to one.

These results speak for themselves, yet they are all the more sensational considering that this vote was so long delayed, and that, while the lawyers were at work,  SEIU had carried out in the hospitals and clinics a campaign of search and destroy – intimidation, harassment and, in collusion with Kaiser and the other employers, discipline and dismissals. It not only, with the assistance of the NLRB, blocked all elections and held 100,000 workers legally hostage (the majority remain captive still, but not for long). SEIU dismantled the infrastructure of the union; it fired elected stewards and disbanded bargaining committees.  It attempted to eliminate a democratic structure of leadership, the human base of the healthcare workers union, a foundation built in years of struggle. What would be put in place? The headquarters, the know-it-alls in Washington, apparently were not concerned. What mattered to them was income, the dues of these often not-so-well paid workers. Thus they entered into secret negotiations with hospital managements, agreed to cutbacks, reduced pensions and healthcare, gave management the green light for layoffs, and opened the door for management rights agreements.

SEIU fought fair elections to the end; indeed it is still fighting. It responded to the NLRB’s decision with, “NUHW is not a union,” “a vote for NUHW will put workers “at risk.” Steve Trossman is a generic traveling union staff man, the proud organizer, it seems, of the SEIU egg-throwing attack on NUHW supporters at the hall of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) in November. He is a “communications director” for SEIU; he threatened workers that a NUHW win would cost each member“$15,000.” Glossy mailers accused NUHW leaders Barbara Lewis, John Borsos and Sal Rosselli with corruption; picket signs called them crooks, charging they stole “millions.”

But no deal. Listen to the workers: “We couldn’t fall for this,” says Jim Clifford, a therapist at Kaiser’s bilingual clinic on the Tijuana border, a fired steward. “We’ve been paying attention. We’ve seen the anti-democratic changes. We know what happened at the convention in Puerto Rico. We’ve got corruption all around us here in southern California. We could see very clearly that we couldn’t trust anything SEIU said.”

Leila Valdivia, once the President of an earlier Sunset nurse’s organization, the American Federation of Nurses (AFN), was reactivated by the election. She said, “SEIU didn’t bank on our relationships and our history, our history of fighting and going on strike. I got back involved because I believe in autonomy; I don’t want just another union. I don’t want SEIU. We believe in the bottom up, we came from the bottom, it’s in our culture. No one believed SEIU.”

No, they didn’t, and they overcame great odds – SEIU, BIG, “the fastest growing union in the country,” connections in Washington. It didn’t matter. The workers voted for themselves and they won. These Kaiser victories came on the heels of the Christmas present workers received (gave themselves) in December at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital where workers brought down SEIU in another election, this one for union representation: NUHW 283 to SEIU 13. This was the culmination of a six year drive to unionize – six years of sacrifice, hard work and struggle – inside the hospital – to have a union, almost flushed down the drain thanks to the SEIU intervention. Instead, the NUHW victory, the single biggest hospital win in the US in the year.

The Memorial workers, cards in hand, had expected fierce resistance from the Catholic St. Joseph’s Health System – yet they refused to concede. But who could have predicted that SEIU would join in to kill their dream? Without a single Memorial worker willing to publically endorse them, SEIU-UHW refused pleas to remove themselves from the ballot; instead, days before the election, they bused in hundreds of staff and members for a provocative, anti-NUHW demonstration on the hospital steps. They harassed workers with robo calls and invasive house visits, they flooded the campaign with glossy mailers and full page ads in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, also radio spots. There is no doubt that all this pushed the “no union” vote dangerously high. NUHW distributed just one mailer, produced gratis, but the workers’ organizing committee, with strong backing from NUHW volunteers, plus community and religious leaders, and the North Bay Labor Council (which asked SEIU to withdraw) overcame –David and Goliath all over again.

These victories have been widely publicized and quite rightly. The press is getting the idea that something is happening here. Still, I think they sometimes miss the real point of this story. There’s lot of Rosselli (the former UHW elected President) v. Stern, in the reporting, and if not that, the rather sterile NUHW v. SEIU. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard nothing but praise for Barbara Lewis, Ralph Cornejo and Sal Rosselli, the NUHW leaders –and  if anything I’ve heard even more praise for NUHW volunteer organizers. But here is the judgment of Barbara Lewis, a spokesperson for NUHW in Southern California: “This victory is a tribute to a rank-and-file leadership that was heavily invested in a member driven union. The workers organized around this vision, and sought a union that the workers would control.”

So what is a “member driven union”? How is it different than the SEIU corporate model, a staff driven, now you see them, now you don’t, dues hungry project. “The SEIU under Stern,”’ writes Juan Gonzalez “is the Roman Empire of the Labor movement… Stern is forever on the prowl for new workers to absorb into his empire and he doesn’t much care how he does it.”

The three Chapters, nurses at Kaiser Sunset and two professional units scattered across southern California, were given just one month to prepare for these elections. What did they do?

Kaiser Sunset is seven floors; it’s the size of three football fields, a huge facility. The nurses there worked on their days off, they worked after work. They walked the floors. “We educated the new nurses,” says Leila Valdivia, “Some of them didn’t know why we had a good contract. They didn’t know we had strikes every three years in the eighties and nineties, our last strike was for 11 weeks in 1997 – it was against mandatory overtime – this is important for nurses, they have children, families, they often work two jobs. We are militant people. The new nurses listened to the older nurses. They learned the history.”

“We were ready to change,” according to Tessie Costales, also a Sunset RN, a fired steward. “We had no representation; they got rid of our stewards – all because they wouldn’t sign the SEIU pledge of allegiance. They abolished our union.

“But we were ready, it was not new to us, we’d done this before -no money, etc. We just volunteered, hours, material. We stayed connected, from the very bottom. We kept everyone informed. We wanted autonomy, democracy, a voice. And we wanted to win, not just to win, but to win BIG. We did!

Turusew Gedebu-Wilson is a member of the professional chapter, a dietitian at Kaiser West LA. She was a UHW steward; she was fired by SEIU.

“We saw this coming, the trusteeship. We went to the Puerto Rico Convention. We witnessed where this was headed. It was a long, long struggle, a whole year. We just kept engaged, stayed focused. And it’s done, done – that’s the great thing.

“We never gave them legitimacy. We wouldn’t attend their meetings.  We detached ourselves. They tried to intimidate us, they used scare tactics, and they lied and lied. But our stewards just kept on going.

“I was kept going by this from Gandhi, ‘First they ignore you, Then they laugh at you, Then they fight you, Then you win.’ 

“We built this union, it’s our union. We’ll build it again. We won because we trusted and respected each other and believed in our cause of building a democratic, transparent and member driven union. We knew what we wanted, it was a long time coming but we made it!”

“I wasn’t sure at first what I wanted to do,” says Valdivia. “I was burned by SEIU, I never forgave them for butchering 535 (535 was an SEIU local that succeeded AFN as the union of Sunset nurses and was then merged into UHW). I hated that. I want a union but I don’t want just any union. And I don’t’ want SEIU.

“We’ve been fighting here for thirty years. We’re rambunctious; we needed a chance to speak up. I spoke to Ralph (Cornejo) and Sal (Rosselli), they convinced me to join in. We convinced others, the older nurses. SEIU fired all our stewards. Did they think we wouldn’t notice? The whole thing just exploded in the last three weeks – SEIU didn’t have a chance.”

The professional workers tell the same story. They work in some fifty facilities, some with just a handful of co-workers – a challenge, to be sure, to organize.

David Mallon, a therapist at Kaiser Downey, tells me, “No staff could have made us do this, not even NUHW. We believe in democratic unions, we don’t work well in hierarchical structures. And we’ve been interested in this for a long time. We believe in unions and we are militant.”

The professional workers had also been burned when SEIU dissolved local 535 in 2006. “It was our union – since 1975. It was dissolved without our consent,” says Mallon. “We petitioned against merger, Stern ignored us. And then comes trusteeship. We’ve been treated like furniture.

“Another thing. SEIU was our best ally. They fired all our stewards, our elected leaders. Everyone knew these people; they had voted for these people, we were irate. The members were irate; 62 per cent   signed the decertification petitions. These fired stewards were our backbone, but there were many other activists. We built networks, we made personal calls, we used Blackberries, cell phones, text messages. We had meetings, members invited members to speak and to debate, and we had debates with SEIU staff. We sent hundreds, probably thousands of emails.

“We met with the nurses, we had an inside committee and Barbara Lewis and the outside committee, we worked hand in glove with them. It was symbiosis – we have active members and an idealist staff – all volunteers. What more could we want. SEIU would never understand. We were very confident; we predicted maybe 60 per cent   – who would have thought 85 per cent  ?

I think these members have it right. There existed in UHW, before trusteeship, a powerful, democratic and militant workplace culture – based on workers. And years of struggle. It was the foundation of a member driven union. This included a deep respect for the capacity of workers to organize, self-organize, for their courage and creativity – all so absent in SEIU. It still exists, a little battered perhaps, but if these three Kaiser units are any indication, it is, if anything, tougher than ever. “We can handle this,” says David Mallon. “We aren’t people who are afraid of a fight.” I think SEIU can expect more of the same.

A little background. What do these workers mean by the merger? Simply that they have been pawns in Stern’s grand scheme (the “one strategy,” centralize, bigger is better) to reorganize SEIU in California – regardless of what was wanted by the workers out here. The SEIU local 535, I have been told, allowed these workers space, their own leaders, control of finances. All this was threatened when Stern merged them. At first the workers blamed UHW – but, according to Mallon, “Ralph and Sal were patient with us, they worked with us. We made the best of it. We got what we wanted. They earned our trust. They kept their promises.”

And corruption? There’s plenty of it, most spectacular the 2008 Tyrone Freeman scandals in southern California SEIU local 6434 – Freeman, a Stern appointee and favorite, once President of 6434 is now fired and facing federal charges. Why? Accused of stealing more than $1 million dollars from the local. And then Annelle Graheda, another Stern appointee, was removed as head of the SEIU California state council. Now, in San Diego, the mysterious departure of SEIU local 221 President Sharon-Frances Moore, with a six-figure severance handout and ongoing SEIU work as a “consultant.” Moore is yet another Stern appointee.

Perhaps SEIU thinks that members do not read the papers. Apparently, for the trustees response is more bluster. “Yes,” Steve Trossman tells us, “the results /of the Kaiser election/ were disappointing…” But what next? “Kaiser Members Launch Huge Contract Campaign!”  Trossman tells us that “more than 100 plus members of our stewards council met this month… our facilities are abuzz …” He promises “raises for all members; locking in all our current benefits and our voice at work; securing our jobs well into the future.”

There will be perhaps as many as 100 elections in the months to come, in June Kaiser workers can again petition to decertify SEIU. What can we expect? David Moberg, the senior labor writer for In These Times, reminds us that “SEIU has a clear advantage in resources it can – and has –put into battle.” He also tells us that “it is dealing with a union workforce where there is widespread resentment of SEIU policies and behaviors.”

A NUHW victory will be good for healthcare workers and patients, for the working people of California, for working people and the labor movement everywhere. So we need to get involved – as we said a year ago, Now is the Hour! Stand Up for the Healthcare Workers! Stand up for NUHW!

A footnote: Part of the SEIU attack on California healthcare workers is their management-style legal assault. Thirty former leaders and staff of UHW have been accused with various specious charges – SEIU is suing them for $19 million. Legal defense costs are now in the hundreds for thousands of dollars. SEIU’s clear intention is to humiliate and break these people – all good union men and women.

You can help. Contribute to:

    The Fund for Union Democracy and Reform
    465 California Street Ste. 1600
    San Francisco, CA 94104

Cal Winslow has written CounterPunch articles on the subject of the SEIU and NUHW, including “Stern’s Gang Seizes UHW Union Hall,” February 2, 2009. He is also the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, PM Press (forthcoming, March 2010) and an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies Verso (forthcoming, April 2010). He can be reached at

Source: Counterpunch