FightBackNews: Interview with Sal Rosselli, leader of National Union of Healthcare Workers
Fight Back!: We’re here with Sal Rosselli, Interim President of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). Could you tell us what’s at the heart of the dispute between NUHW and SEIU, the Service Employees International Union?
Sal Rosselli: There is a fundamental difference in ideology. The way we describe it is it’s a bottom-up perspective versus a top-down perspective. We believe in empowering workers and that there is no limit to empowering them. This differs from SEIU’s leadership who are increasingly concentrating power, their authority and resources among a few in Washington D.C. The labor movement is at a crossroads. The choice is between a union movement of workers, for workers and by workers, grassroots, bottom up versus a union movement that is a service organization – one where you pay dues, the union provides service, and when you’re needed you are activated to elect a politician. That’s what it’s all about – a fundamental difference in ideology.
We in NUHW believe that to achieve a progressive majority in this country, so that workers have good paying jobs, affordable housing, quality education and access to quality health care, and all the other things that are important to workers, is only going to happen if there’s a real grassroots bottom up movement of people, much like the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That’s the only way it’s going to be accomplished.
In terms of our fight within SEIU, first of all, NUHW and its predecessor unions were the first healthcare union in the country. Our folks have always had a longtime goal of uniting all healthcare workers together to change their lives. NUHW is not a new union; it’s just a new name. Our leaders have been healthcare workers since the 1970s. We fought hard throughout the 1980s and 90s against the corporatization of health care and our people led changing the way health care workers related to each other.
We worked very hard to get our contracts in hospitals and nursing homes to expire at the same time so that through collective bargaining people could be at their strongest place of leverage and bargain with the industry as a whole.
The issues that were most important to healthcare workers in this corporatization were number one, having a real voice for how health care was provided, staffing levels, how they provide care and two, to win rights to organize, to be able to organize workers to join us without major employer opposition. We accomplished that with some major employers in the 1990s, which led to unprecedented growth – 65,000 hospital workers in a seven or eight-year period
We have the best standards for hospital workers in the country. We have the most politically evolved and involved membership, because obviously healthcare is regulated and paid for by government subsidy and politics are important.
We were successful because workers were empowered and made as many decisions as possible themselves. It was their union – they led it. Inside SEIU, we were leaders of SEIU. In fact, for years, we supported Andy Stern when he ran for president in 1996. We helped reform SEIU. We led the fight for huge dues increases to be spent on organizing because it was fundamental to have the resources to grow.
We were on the same page with Stern until the International Convention in 2004. That’s where Stern got the authority from the convention to pull SEIU out of the AFL-CIO. That was a turning point, because in 2005, while that happened, we were celebrating this unprecedented hospital worker organizing – this growth, inside SEIU, Andy Stern described this 65,000 member group as incremental, and that we needed much bigger growth. With the creation of Change to Win, there was enormous focus on growth and enormous pressure on staff from the International and local unions to grow merely for the sake of growth. It got to that kind of a frenzy.
Then, in 2005, we uncovered a secret deal SEIU made with a national for-profit nursing home industry. SEIU had agreed to a ten-year contract in Washington state, where in exchange for a pre-negotiated ten-year contract that provided very tiny wage increases – just enough to cover dues – and compromised care givers’ ability to advocate for patients, SEIU got the right to organize a whole bunch of nursing homes.
So SEIU exchanged workers’ rights, workers’ benefits and patients’ rights for growth. We tried in a very constructive way to have a debate about that within SEIU. Our union in California had the experience of enormous growth and standards at the same time, and showed that both can happen at the same time. That disagreement from us was met with increased retaliation from SEIU leaders. It became a very unsafe environment to disagree.
There were a number of other examples of secret deals with for-profit employers: Sodexho, Compass, Aramark. These were similar deals of contracts that were pre-negotiated for future workers. The employers actually got to pick which places got to be organized in the future. We criticized and fought against this and faced greater retaliation.
The greatest retaliation was that our 150,000 member union in California that was obviously very strong was going to be divided. They were going to force our long-term care members into another union with leaders appointed by Stern, without a democratic vote or democratic process, and we said, “No.”
Throughout 2008, there was retaliation and an unprecedented assault on our leadership, where SEIU and other locals led by Stern and his appointees did mailings and site visits and home visits and robocalls – this all-out assault to discredit our leadership. And by that I mean 100 leaders, mostly rank and file. There were lawsuits accusing us of stealing money, kangaroo courts within SEIU. It lasted for a whole year.
There was a peak at the June 2008 convention where our union’s delegation of over 200 elected leaders were marginalized and attacked by SEIU leaders. We had a platform for change to make SEIU more democratic. Not a single one of our issues actually got to the convention floor. In reaction, they actually amended the SEIU constitution in a number of ways, including giving the authority to bargain contracts to the international president: the authority of the international president to appoint bargaining committees, as opposed to being elected by rank and file members.
In January 2009, SEIU, led by Stern and their Executive Board gave UHW leaders an ultimatum and said we were going to be put into trusteeship and taken over unless we agreed to a number of demands.
In [a] day’s time, we organized meetings in five cities. In the end of January 5000 rank and file leaders came. We presented these demands and presented an e-board recommended reply to SEIU’s leaders, which included agreeing to most of these demands except for two. If they wanted to remove 65,000 out of this union, we would support it and lead it once the members voted to do it.
SEIU had all the resources in the world to sell their campaign, their vision and we would cooperate with them doing that. But people had to vote. Secondly, we would not give up the right of our workers to control their relationship with the boss in terms of collective bargaining. The right to elect their bargaining committee and determine issues for negotiations.
That was our response, and two days later, SEIU put the union into trusteeship, fired an executive board of 100 folks, 85 of them being rank-and-file leaders and 15 staff officers. The next day, this elected board met. For three years, we had been saying SEIU is our union, and we have to reform it, when our members were saying, “why do we have to take this, why don’t we just leave?” after seeing the incredible assault being paid for with their dues money. But at that meeting, our leaders voted una
nimously to turn the page – that it was no longer possible to reform SEIU and realize our vision within SEIU, and we decided to leave.
Over the next few days, over 150 of the most incredible staff decided to resign from their jobs – during these economic times – to volunteer for NUHW. Then, during a six-week period, over 100,000 workers filed majority petitions with the NLRB and the State Board to leave SEIU and join NUHW.
Unfortunately, since then, over the last 15 months, SEIU has led the worst union-busting boss campaign with the NLRB to prevent these workers from voting. In fact, there’s only been about nine elections and most of them were public sector or new organizing campaigns, not decerts. In this turmoil NUHW organized the largest nonprofit hospital in the country last year, plus a number of smaller units. By some fluke, there were three Kaiser elections for some 2500 RNs and health professionals in LA. The nurses voted 19 to 1 to leave SEIU and join NUHW and the pros voted 6 to 1. That was in the midst of SEIU spending a lot of money and resources to convince them to stay.
There was an election in Fresno for 10,000 home care workers. SEIU sent in 1000 staff and spent $10 million for these 10,000 workers, to kill NUHW. There are speeches by Dave Regen, the trustee, in Fresno, that are chilling. He said he would drive a stake through the heart of NUHW. SEIU won by a couple of hundred votes, with 500 votes that the state agency never counted, and we’ve filed charges, because the election was clearly stolen. We think that’s going to be re-run. But that’s the kind of money they’re spending.
Fight Back!: The trial just ended in California where SEIU sued the former staff people of NUHW. What was that about?
Rosselli: It was a $25 million lawsuit against 28 individuals and NUHW with the goal of destroying NUHW. They failed in doing that. They spent $10 million and had four law firms from D.C., L.A. and San Francisco working on it.
It was a horrendous experience – the worst thing I’ve ever gone through. I was one of the people sued. The outcome was that 12 of the 28 individuals had their charges dismissed. The other 16 of us were fined varying amounts, totaling $740,000. But the judgment was less than 1/25th of what SEIU sued for.
There was a period in January 2009 when we were leading the union after SEIU e-board ordered 65,000 members out of the union. We continued resisting their ability to do that and opposing this threatened trusteeship. They concluded that we broke the SEIU constitution, that we broke their rules and therefore have to return that amount of money. Our lawyers say the judge didn’t allow us to tell the whole story so the jury never heard the background – the threats of trusteeship, the trusteeship and NUHW post-trusteeship. Because of that, we can appeal, and we have a good chance of turning it around, but it’ll take a year or more.
But, I’ll tell you – I’m personally fined for $70,600 and if that sticks for standing up for our workers’ democratic rights, for following the votes of our elected executive board, for opposing the trusteeship and the jurisdictional change, I would do it again. It’s a small price to pay.
Fight Back!: What has been the key to surviving those attacks?
Rosselli: Our healthcare workers have a deep commitment and a deep understanding of what’s at stake. They have a deep appreciation for the years of struggle they’ve gone through to achieve their contracts. Every contract that SEIU has bargained since the trusteeship has resulted in concessions. Concessions in health care, concessions in employment security and worker rights. Issues that folks fought for for decades. So it’s people’s resolve to control their own lives and to control their relationship with their employer, to control their union and to maintain the standards that they fought for for years.
Fight Back!: What do you think of Andy Stern’s resignation?
Rosselli: SEIU used to be a great union and perhaps it will be the end of a sad chapter in SEIU history. Andy Stern’s legacy is that he is leaving a once great union in disarray with little member democracy and great debt. He’s spent it all. They’re on the edge of going over the cliff economically. There is no leadership to lead it back to where it once was. Andy Stern used all of SEIU’s resources to build up his personality and that of Ana Burger’s as opposed to empowering workers. He’s the face of SEIU, not the workers. And that’s not transferable, so I think that there will be a number of years of disarray and divisions within SEIU.
Their fight with UNITE-HERE and the fight with NUHW – with us – has taken huge resources. Neither of those fights are going to stop. The top two contenders to replace Stern are Anna Burger and Mary Kay Henry. Anna Burger is Stern’s protégé. They’ve been together for 30 years. They came from the same local union. Every time Andy Stern took a step up, he promoted her. Mary Kay Henry is a leader of the trusteeship and the battle against NUHW. I don’t see either of them bringing a change in ideology.
Fight Back!: What advice would you have for workers in a non-responsive service model union?
Rosselli: They need to elect leaders that empower them and that come from them. Do not give up – just keep fighting. There are many SEIU unions in California, non-healthcare workers. Some have petitioned to join NUHW already. Once NUHW has the resources and wins the big Kaiser election [45,000 workers], we’ll be able to help a lot of other workers. We’ll be able to support them to have leaders that will let the members control their union or joining another movement that will empower them rather than control them.
Fight Back!: What do you look to for inspiration?
Rosselli: My whole career has been in this union – for 30 years. I get my inspiration from these health care workers who are so committed.
From the nursing home workers who worked two years at a time without a contract fighting their employer to achieve a common expiration date to change their lives. From the hospital workers who work for the Sutter corporation, our worst employer, who go without a contract for 15 months and go on five-week strikes in San Francisco to fight for their patients.
I’m inspired by these workers. Everything I have and have learned is because of them. I’m also privileged to be part of the most extraordinary collective of leaders, many that come from the rank and file, that are committed to this vision. Some of these staff leaders of UHW had been recruited to lead unions in other parts of the country or even came from leading unions in other parts of the country to join this movement and to be part of this vision that we have – to build a progressive majority in this country.
To achieve that, we recognize the need to be a bottom-up, rank-and-file workers’ movement. It’s a privilege to be a part of this team. That’s what keeps me going.