Los Angeles Times: Kaiser’s California workers move to switch unions

NewsFebruary 27, 2009

The shift would be a major coup for a newly formed healthcare bargaining unit, created as a result of a long-running feud with United Healthcare Workers West.

By Evelyn Larrubia

Tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente’s California workers have signed a petition to leave United Healthcare Workers West and join the newly formed National Union of Healthcare Workers, officials announced Thursday.

The 50,000-employee bargaining unit is one of the largest among the nation’s private-sector employers, and taking it over would be a significant coup for the newly formed NUHW. The group was created last month by former leaders of the UHW after the Oakland-based local was placed under trusteeship by its parent organization, the Service Employees International Union, marking the culmination of a long-running feud.

Within days of its creation, the NUHW began filing requests with government officials, seeking elections at UHW-represented workplaces. The new union said it filed similar papers for Kaiser’s facilities Thursday, bringing to 80,000 the number of unionized employees in play, a majority of the UHW’s 150,000 members.

“Hopefully we’ll dole out some justice here,” said Brian Williams, a technician at Kaiser’s Sunset facility, who said he was ousted as the UHW’s contract specialist by its new trustees. “If nothing else, it gives our members the choice.”

The 2-million-member SEIU has fought back. More than 100 staffers from across the country have been sent to California to keep workers in the UHW and run the local.

It also filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the former leadership of UHW of violating labor laws by failing to bargain in good faith with employers in advance of the trusteeship. The SEIU said those leaders kept contracts open to allow them to make a play for the workers through the formation of a new union. Employees under contract are typically barred from switching unions.

Michelle Ringuette, a spokeswoman for the SEIU in Washington, D.C., said the Kaiser employees would not be open to what she called raiding by the new local because they are working under a contract. But NUHW officials said the law does allow the switch.

The UHW’s newly appointed trustees said the “former leaders failed in their duty to represent the members of this union by allowing contract negotiations to languish,” some for up to eight months.

As a result, the NLRB has launched an investigation, and NUHW officials said elections have been postponed on all their petitions to take over representation of UHW bargaining units.

“It’s just totally made up to simply cause the cancellation of the” elections, said Sal Rosselli, who was ousted as UHW president by the SEIU and is among the leaders of the new union.

The tug-of-war over tens of thousands of California’s unionized healthcare workers stems from a dispute between Rosselli and SEIU President Andy Stern.

Rosselli’s camp complained that, under Stern, the union had signed contracts that favor employers, kept workers out of negotiations and reorganized the locals, placing Stern loyalists in charge.

Stern and his allies argued that Rosselli was power-hungry, that his only complaint about reorganization was that he would lose members and that he has used underhanded means to try to keep them.

The battle came to a head last year over 65,000 home health aides and other workers that the SEIU wanted to peel away from the UHW and place under a single California local.

The SEIU accused the UHW’s leaders of creating a secret war chest to fight the move, hiding millions in dues money in a tax-exempt account created under the false heading of healthcare education and spending $100,000 of it on a campaign against the merger. The UHW denied wrongdoing.

The SEIU began trusteeship proceedings, tapping former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall as a hearing officer. Marshall found that the UHW’s leaders did mishandle dues but said the actions were a symptom of the underlying disagreements. He said that if the UHW’s leaders agreed unconditionally to the merger of long-term care workers, its elected leadership should remain.

Rosselli and others refused, saying members did not support what they saw as a forced merger. The SEIU immediately moved to take over the local.

Source: Los Angeles Times