New Haven Independent: West Coast visitors discuss health care union war

NewsFebruary 27, 2009

Martha Vazquez, a hospital radiology technologist and leader in NUHWBy Melinda Tuhus

Even as stars have aligned in Washington to pass health care reform, a civil war has broken out in the nation’s biggest health care union, with unpredictable results.

Two leaders of what was until a month ago California’s United Healthcare Workers West—a 150,000-member local of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—spoke Thursday night at Yale’s Ezra Stiles College as part of Yale’s Initiative on Labor and Culture.

Close to two-thirds of those union members work in hospitals; 65,000 work in nursing homes or in home care.

John Borsos said Andy Stern, the president of SEIU, wanted to split the two groups into separate locals, and when UHW leaders objected, Stern put the entire union into receivership.

The next day, UHW transformed itself into the National Union of Healthcare Workers — and is on its way to bringing tens of thousands of former UHW/SEIU members into its new fold, albeit. They have encountered firm opposition from Stern, who Borsos said has refused to allow union members to disaffiliate from SEIU with a simple majority vote.

Borsos was a vice president and organizer of UHC-West and is now a key organizer with the new union. He explained how the union is the oldest workers’ organization of health care employees, part of it dating back to the 1930s.

“It’s our belief that health care is a single industry,” he said, “and our vision of health care unionism is whether one works in a hospital or a nursing home or you provide the same work in somebody’s house — if you do the same work you should be entitled to the same wages and benefits.”

Martha Vazquez (pictured), a hospital radiology technologist, told her personal story of being won over to the need for the union and becoming a work site leader with UHW-West. She praised the excellent wages and benefits the union had negotiated and the democratic nature of the local.

Both she and Borsos criticized what they called the corruption and anti-democratic practices of SEIU under Andy Stern’s leadership.

Stern’s defenders say the split is mainly over his wanting to organize non-union workers into SEIU. They say he has been blocked by UHW’s emphasis on increasing wages and benefits for those already in the union. Click here for a New York Times story detailing the conflict.

At Yale Thursday night Vazquez charged — reminiscent of charges by employers whenever workers try to unionize — that SEIU looks on the 150,000 California health care workers “as a gold mine, where it’s all about dues. We send over $30 million a year to the international. God only knows what they do with … the money.”

About 40 people attended the talk, both Yale students and members of the New Haven community. Several asked questions after the two speakers’ presentations.

One asked, “How can a progressive health care union contribute to getting a better health care system overall in the U.S.? Single payer may or may not be on the table, but the next best thing. What is your role in that?”

Borsos replied, “We think we play an absolutely critical role in helping to shape it. Who knows better what goes on in the health care system than health care workers?”

Following up, another questioner asked, “Is there any sense that by splitting away, there is any damage done to organized labor’s ability as a whole to negotiate over national health care legislation or the public perception that a split labor movement might actually weaken that position?”

Borsos laid the divisions in the labor movement squarely on Stern. “We did not make a choice to leave SEIU,” he said. “SEIU put us into trusteeship, and if you have an international union that has that kind of power over a local union…were we really supposed to cooperate in having these 65,000 members moved out without a vote? This is the absolute worst time to pick this fight — it’s a once in a lifetime moment with a Democratically-controlled Congress; we have a new president that’s the most open to changes in labor law.”

The Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to join unions, is organized labor’s top issue in this session of Congress. President Barack Obama has been supportive of the legislation, which would enable workers to bring in a union when 50 percent plus one sign union cards. But Borsos said, “We’re worried that Andy Stern is jeopardizing the Employee Free Choice Act. It’s a concern that you have the self-appointed leading advocate of the [EFCA] who will not accept 50 percent plus one of members in his own union saying they want out, and he won’t accept that.”

Source: New Haven Independent