In These Times: Upstart Union Deals Blow to SEIU, Raises Prospects for Future Fights

NewsDecember 24, 2009

By David Moberg

The union organizing effort at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital in California’s Sonoma county could be seen as a labor version of the David and Goliath story.

When the disputed votes cast last week are resolved, it seems virtually certain that the newly established National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) will have won the biggest hospital organizing election of the year, overcoming both a strong employer anti-union campaign and a large-scale effort but ultimately embarrassingly weak performance by the giant Service Employees union (SEIU).

Earlier this year, SEIU put its 150,000-member California United Healthcare Workers local into a trusteeship. SEIU cited financial irregularities, although it ultimately also reflected the outcome of a long internal union battle over strategy.  Officers and members of the old UHW formed a new union, and workers throughout the local signed petitions for an election to decertify SEIU as their union.

NUHW became the leader of the long-running organizing campaign at Santa Rosa, part of the Catholic St. Joseph’s Health System, but SEIU also put in a large organizing team over objections of the local central labor council.

Last Friday, December 18, the tally of the votes was 283 for NUHW, 263 for no union, and 13 for SEIU. NUHW and management were prepared to resolve the status of 17 disputed votes immediately, but SEIU objected, delaying the likely official victory for NUHW.

By running a highly negative campaign against NUHW, SEIU may have boosted the anti-union vote. It almost certainly did so by refusing to join with NUHW, hospital managers, and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich to reach agreement on ground rules restricting anti-union tactics, following a recent agreement between Catholic hospitals and bishops and organized labor, including SEIU.

SEIU’s poor showing at Santa Rosa is likely to give a boost to NUHW in January 4 elections to decide whether SEIU or NUHW will represent 2,500 professional workers at Kaiser Permanente in southern California. A majority of those workers had petitioned to decertify SEIU, which protested the balloting. In November, the NLRB ordered the vote to take place.

Yesterday, about 70 percent of workers at the Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital petitioned to have an election to choose NUHW as their union.

In the first showdown between SEIU and NUHW, SEIU last summer narrowly won the right to continue to represent 10,000 home care workers in Fresno after a hugely expensive organizing effort that brought in organizers from around the country. Initial NUHW protests were rejected, but NUHW has filed new objections claiming there was widespread intimidation, citing among other evidence confessions of a former SEIU organizer.

The Santa Rosa victory, if confirmed, greatly boosts NUHW’s credibility, which was in question since it now represents no members under contract. If NUHW prevails in the January Kaiser vote, its prospects for widespread decertification victories will soar.

NUHW leaders enthusiastically believe workers will opt for their approach to unionism over SEIU’s strategy, as they did at Santa Rosa. “We just cleaned their clocks,” vice-president John Borsos says. “I think it’s a monumental victory…There was an immediate effect, a huge galvanizing effect on Kaiser workers, showing the backward nature of SEIU.”

Borsos claims that since the trusteeship, SEIU in California has negotiated concessionary contracts, entered backdoor deals with employers, suspended by-laws, removed local officers, eliminated over 1,000 stewards and taken other actions that make the trusteed union unpopular with members. “People are fed up,” he contends.

Borsos says NUHW will continue to tell workers that it wants “to build a democratic union that puts interest of workers ahead of bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.” and empowers workers, by contrast with the corporate managers and the “corporate unionism” of SEIU.

SEIU’s strategy of pouring in money and outside organizers, attacking NUHW and running on its laurels as the biggest healthcare union proved, for the moment, it can win elections against NUHW, as in Fresno, even if it means winning ugly.

But the overwhelming defeat of that strategy at Santa Rosa suggests SEIU could end up losing ugly in this big fight in California. Ultimately the wounds inflicted there from misuse of unseemly tactics could weaken the credibility and influence of SEIU nationally.

Source: In These Times