In These Times: Will NUHW Election Win Spark Larger Exodus From SEIU?

NewsJanuary 27, 2010

By David Moberg

A year ago, Service Employees union (SEIU) president Andy Stern took control of the 150,000-member California healthcare workers local, putting United Healthcare Workers West (UHW) into trusteeship. The ousted president, Sal Rosselli, and many other officials, staff, stewards and members then launched a new union, National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and filed many petitions to decertify UHW/SEIU and replace it with the new union.

Now, after a year of bitter conflict, the battle is intensifying, with no clear indication of who will eventually win.

But on the eve of the trusteeship anniversary, NUHW yesterday won a strikingly lopsided victory among 2,300 workers in three highly skilled units at dozens of Kaiser Permanente facilities in southern California. As reported on this site yesterday, registered nurses voted 746-36, psychiatric and social workers 717-192, and healthcare professionals (like dietitians) 189-26—all for NUHW over SEIU-UHW.

“Now we’re at the beginning point of rebuilding our union as a membership-driven, democratic organization,” says psychiatric social worker and NUHW leader David Mallon.

The units in the election had long opposed SEIU’s policy of merging locals into statewide megalocals, but after the merger, Mallon says, members were impressed with Rosselli’s policies and widely regarded the trusteeship as “illegitimate,” ineffective and overly centralized.

UHW/SEIU spokesperson Steve Trossman agreed that opposition to the original merger played a role in the victory by the new union, but he downplayed the significance of the vote as coming from “a very unique group of workers” who “ had an axe to grind with SEIU.”

“I just want to emphasize that this is one day of 365 in a year when a lot of workers made difficult decisions, with their votes or their feet, saying they want SEIU.” He argues that over the past year only 2,600 UHW/SEIU members chose NUHW, while 55,000 members chose to remain with SEIU.

NUHW disputes that accounting, contending that most of the 55,000 SEIU counts never participated in elections and haven’t yet chosen sides. NUHW officials say that their union has won seven of the nine competitive elections, with SEIU narrowly winning the biggest election, which was among 10,000 Fresno home care workers.

While SEIU counts roughly 25,000 home care workers in San Francisco as having chosen to stay with them, there was no election. In that instance, NUHW says it withdrew its petition in order to avoid giving legitimacy to what the union regarded as a misguided definition of who should be in the unit. After one year, NUHW claims 3,357 members, including four newly organized groups of workers.

Throughout the year, SEIU challenged the NUHW petitions for decertification, some of which were not admitted because they did not occur during the periods around contract expirations when such petitions are legal. Now the two unions are fighting over when to schedule elections for 14,500 workers at 80 facilities. SEIU requested that the National Labor Relations Board schedule elections for about 4,000 to 5,000 of those workers. NUHW opposes that proposal, arguing that elections should be scheduled for all the units, not just the ones where SEIU sees its best chances to win–as NUHW interprets the SEIU request.

NUHW might be expected to have the strongest support in northern California, where the local originally was based, as well as among units where workers put a high value on internal democracy and membership participation. “We didn’t go to college for years to have people tell us, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of things,’ “ Mallon says. “And we’re not folks who are afraid of a fight. They [SEIU] didn’t understand us. They didn’t try.”

But SEIU is telling workers that they will be negotiating on their own, not with larger groups like the Kaiser council of unions, and that their contracts may be in jeopardy if they join NUHW.

SEIU has a clear advantage in resources it can–and has–put into the battle. But it obviously is dealing with a union workforce where there is widespread resentment of SEIU policies and behavior. No single election is likely to tip the balance for workers about whether to stick with big, established SEIU or try to build a new union which offers the promise of more control by members and a more assertive stance towards management.

But NUHW’s Mallon says, “I think [our election victory] will have a tremendous energizing effect. People will look and say the professionals left–and by such a wide margin.”

Source: In These Times