Monterey County Herald: Salinas Valley Memorial workers favor upstart union

NewsDecember 24, 2009

SEIU members petition to defect


Workers at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital have petitioned to join the fledgling National Union of Healthcare Workers, an organization that is going head-to-head with the giant Service Employees International Union in a statewide labor war.

Salinas Valley Memorial spokeswoman Adrienne Laurent said the SEIU currently represents 830 workers at the hospital.

A statement by the NUHW said “an overwhelming majority” of the hospital’s SEIU workers — a group that includes nurses, nursing assistants, cooks, dietary clerks and others — signed a petition filed Wednesday with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board.

The petition follows an earlier attempt to replace SEIU as the representative for some 600 Monterey County health care employees, including workers at Natividad Medical Center. That effort was abandoned in July.

Although opposition from the SEIU to the Salinas Valley hospital petition is considered likely, officials said an election for a new union at Salinas Valley could take place within a month.

That’s also when workers from several Kaiser hospitals around the state are expected to choose between the two unions or no union — elections that could give the NUHW critical momentum coming into the new year.

The rift between the two organizations began in late January, when SEIU’s national offices took control of its 150,000-member, Northern California-based United Healthcare Workers local.

The takeover caused an internal revoltthat, according to court documents, led to barricaded offices, accusations of stolen documents and financial mismanagement and, ultimately, a federal lawsuit still winding through the courts.

It also led to a defection of staff and workers to a brand-new union, the NUHW.

National labor expert and author Randy Shaw, who has followed the schism since it began, likens the split to a “civil war” and said the Salinas Valley petition comes at a time when the new union is gaining momentum around the state. He said he once praised SEIU’s strong community-building strategies, but now sees the union as being “on the wrong side of the fight.”

One reason the new union is growing, he said, is that after a “massive consolidation” of SEIU, workers now perceive that the powerful syndicate — which represents about 2 million members nationwide and about 4,500 in Monterey County — has grown too distant from its members. The NUHW, he said, feels closer to home.

“Workers realize that NUHW staff are the same people who organize them. These are the people they know,” he said. “They don’t even know SEIU.”

Adriana Surfas, a spokeswoman for the SEIU’s health care workers, now called SEIU-UHW, denies that the union has distanced itself from its members.

“This is a workers’ organization,” she said, adding that 300 members of its organizing committee recently met to strategize.

“We had a lot of back and forth,” she said. “These are workers from across the state.”

Although her union hadn’t been notified of Salinas Valley’s petition by late Wednesday, she said she believes SEIU will prevail if it comes to a vote.

“We are very confident about our track record of bargaining strong contracts for health care workers,” she said. “We believe workers would be much better off in a union of 150,000 members. In 2009, our hospital wages are nearly double the national average. That’s a really solid record.”

Although it has only around 100 members so far, NUHW representatives say more than 100,000 workers have petitioned to join since January.

On Monday, the NUHW claimed a major victory after workers at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, who previously had no representation, voted to join the new union.

Labor expert Shaw reported that the vote tally was 283 for NUHW, 263 for no union and only 13 for SEIU.

“Santa Rosa was a real game-changer,” Shaw said. “That’s a big victory.”

Surfas said that while SEIU officials were disappointed with the outcome, “we wish the hospital workers well. We support them.”

But the real test may come next month, when more than 2,000 Kaiser workers and more than 800 employees at Salinas Valley may take part in elections that could make or break the momentum of either side.

“Kaiser workers (represented by SEIU) have some of the higher standards in the industry,” Surfas said. “We are confident we have a lot to offer.”

As far as Salinas Valley’s role in the upcoming battles, Shaw said, “every victory is important.”

Source: Monterey County Herald