Pawns in SEIU’s Game
By Cal Winslow
California’s healthcare unions are being reorganized. Again! The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), still the country’s second biggest union at just under 2 million members, has announced the creation of a new local union: statewide Local 2015 with 280,000 members, now set to be the largest such local union in the country.
But not without a fight, it seems. This new union, quite typically for SEIU, comes to life with much fanfare, but represents no new union members, no new contracts, no new victories on the ground. Rather, it is an amalgam. Most importantly, it will be constructed in large part by the dismantling of United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), until now California’s largest healthcare union – 70,000 long term care workers have been shifted to Local 2015.
Dave Regan, the President of UHW, has vowed to resist, even to the point of going to “war” with the SEIU national leadership. In an internal memo, Regan complains of “private, secret communications…strong-arm tactics…/in a union in which/ everything is for sale, everything has a price.” “Why,” he asks, “is it that honest, open discussion on something as significant as reassigning 70,000 human beings, without talking to a single one of them…” is not allowed? A situation, he, apparently, intends to challenge. (See http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/WhosGonnaBelltheCat.pdf)
The announcement of the new union itself came from the desk of Mary Kay Henry, the President of SEIU. Good news? SEIU is always about being the biggest, triumphalist in its campaigns – and gimmicks. Henry announced this “exciting news” in a glossy mailer to the workers, promising great things: added strength for the Fight for $15 Movement, a “focus” on “issues important to long term care workers.”
The details? Just how will all this happen? Well, we’ll have to wait. So will the workers. Not to worry, however; according to the mailer, “We are developing an orderly transition plan and will be in regular communication with you and all affected members over the next few months.” Questions? “Please call 844-259-1694. Your fellow union members are standing by to take your call.”
I called and was informed that eight members were ahead of me but “your call is important to us.” However, I could leave a question and receive a call back “within two business days.” I held on and after 16 minutes spoke to Minh, a “staff organizer” in Los Angeles. I asked him if it was indeed a done deal; he said yes. And would the new local be headed by Laphonza Butler, a Henry protégé, now of Local 6364, “yes, at this point… it is still a process in transition.” And would there be any informational meetings in my area, North Bay, Santa Rosa? “No, none were scheduled.”
I write this lest anyone think that a new regime will offer some relief for the 70,000 workers who until now have been members of UHW, headed by the thuggish, Cornell University grad Regan. UHW was once, at 150,000 members, California’s largest healthcare union, and a model of what a union might be.
Widely despised in trade union circles, not to mention amongst his own members, Regan came to California in 2008, parachuted in by Andy Stern, then President of SEIU, to take command of a trusteed UHW. Since then he has established himself as a friend of the hospital bosses par excellence, a grantor of concessions, champion of partnerships. His latest secret deal has been with Kaiser Permanente and its hospitals, one that stops the public (and the authorities) from knowing about quality of care problems in the state’s massive healthcare industry.
So one must suppose Regan knows what he’s talking about. In another leaked memo attacking Henry and her regime, this one obtained by the San Francisco Business Times, Regan calls the new rearrangement, which will effectively cut his local in half, “a massive betrayal” of the long-term-care workers and a political plot. “We are absolutely clear that this decision [to charter the new local] is malicious and undertaken with the full knowledge that the interests of California healthcare workers are being sacrificed to the political needs of Mary Kay Henry.” More, “We are ashamed and embarrassed for our union.”
Interestingly, Regan also complains that the “truth” of the transfer must be “so frightening that we need to adopt and enforce gag orders barring even internal union communication among affected members…” Interesting also because, simultaneously, Regan himself is imposing a “whistleblower gag order” on his own members — that is, an agreement, a “code of conduct,” with the state’s hospitals that would forbid healthcare workers from reporting patient-care issues to government agencies and the media.*
No, it’s not a pretty picture, but alas it’s all too true. All the more discouraging at a time when a booming healthcare industry is bringing home billions in profits and paying its captains millions in compensation, all the while demanding concessions from employees, reducing staffing in its facilities and making care nightmarish for increasing numbers of members and patients (10 million now at Kaiser alone).
So is Regan right? Is this a “massive betrayal of our stated principles and values”?
There are two points to be made here:
The first point is about the history of UHW, just six years ago the flagship of California healthcare unions, a growing, democratic, militant and progressive union that had won the best standards for healthcare workers in the country. That story begins with SEIU Local 250 in the Bay Area, a union with origins in San Francisco’s 1934 upheaval, led by the longshoremen. Local 250 porters became the first unionized hospital workers in the country.
As elsewhere, the 80s were hard times for the union. A 1986 strike at Kaiser was lost, the union all but bankrupted, and then trusteed by SEIU President John Sweeney. After trusteeship, however, a group of militants, led by Sal Rosselli, then working as a nursing assistant in a nursing home, won the leadership of the 25,000-member union and set it on a new course, one based on raising the floor of wages, benefits and working conditions by winning good contracts, organizing new workers and putting members first. They believed in workers’ power.
Organizing became a priority. Organizers were hired. A strike fund was created.
The vision was of an industrial union of healthcare workers, the strong would help the weak, an injury to one would be an injury to all. Contracts were lined up with this in mind. The hospital workers, for example, subsidized home-care workers, allowing for more staff and lower dues in a sector typified by isolated workers and low wages.
In the 1990s, there were strikes at Sutter Hospitals and Catholic Healthcare West (CHW). With San Francisco as a base, 30 CHW hospitals were organized. The workers at Kaiser became a powerful force for a new unionism. In the late 1990s and 2000s, nursing homes were organized, as well as home-care workers, the latter county by county. The San Francisco County home-care workers had the best contract in the country. The union underwrote the organizing of healthcare workers in Las Vegas and became a pole of attraction nationally.
At the 2004 SEIU national convention, its growth, along with Local 399’s in Southern California, was celebrated: 100,000 healthcare members. 60,000 workers had been organized in four years — a story still not well-known. Locals 250 and 399 in Southern California would merge – democratically, by membership vote — and become UHW, then grow to 150,000 members. There was nothing else quite like it and this when the labor movement nationally was mired in defeat and decline.
Tragically, this would all come to an end. At that same convention, SEIU President Andy Stern raised the “organize or die” mantra – “organize at any cost.”
It sounded nice; in fact, as a strategy, it was just the opposite of what UHW was doing. The national leadership fine-tuned a “politics” of “the deal,” a top-down course based on collaboration and sweetheart agreements with hospital chains and state’s governors, a reincarnation of the “company union.” It included deals with the corrupt Tenet chain. Its “Alliance” strategy in nursing homes (the “sweatshops of the 21st century”) took away not just the right to strike, but also the right to free speech. An agreement in Washington State ties home-care workers to a ten-year contract. All deals cut at the top. And Regan was a key operative in this. As was Henry.
The workers themselves were increasingly piled up into mega-locals, though discussion, let alone voting, was rare. 1199 UHW East now represents workers from Florida to Massachusetts. Have a grievance? Need a shop steward? Call this number. “Your call is important to us.” So now in California, home care and nursing home workers, the most atomized workers in healthcare – and the most poorly paid – will be concentrated in one, statewide mega-local.
Journalist Juan Gonzalez called SEIU under Stern “the Roman Empire of the labor movement….Stern is forever on the prowl for new workers to absorb into his empire and he doesn’t much care how he does it….”
This next part of the story, sadly, is perhaps better known. The UHW leaders (and members) objected to the Stern scheme. Stern and SEIU retaliated. Hundreds of SEIU staff were sent into California. SEIU put UHW in trusteeship, removed its officers, seized its assets, and thousands of elected stewards were fired. Staff was subjected to a loyalty oath, administered personally in Southern California by then national Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina (now out of retirement to serve as the “hearing officer” in ironing out the current “transition”).
Henry, then an SEIU Vice-President, referred to the California invaders as “warriors.” The SEIU had a “war council,” “a war room” and a “green zone” in Oakland — Iraqspeak from union leaders while thousands died in a real war. Now Regan says it’s “war” again.
Why? What was this “war” all about? Well, politics, for one thing. The SEIU national leadership, including Regan and Henry, demanded in the run-up to the trusteeship that 65,000 long-term care workers be transferred from UHW to Local 6364 in Los Angeles. Sound familiar? SEIU wheeled out 80-year-old former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall to preside over the trusteeship hearings.
Dismissing charges of malfeasance, conspiracy with the nurses’ union, chilling free speech, etc., Marshall astonishingly concluded, however, that UHW must accept the forced transfer of the 65,000 members — with no vote — to Local 6364, in five days or else. The UHW officers refused. Trusteeship was imposed, but the members were never transferred. Yes, six years later, these are the very same workers that Dave Regan today so desperately wants to hold on to – in another political fight. So, we can ask, just what are the values involved here? What values are at stake?
(Local 6364 was then led by Tyrone Freeman, a Stern appointee and favorite, now imprisoned for racketeering and embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from union funds.)
The late English historian, Edward Thompson, (author of “The Making of the English Working Class”) famously argued that, in his day, the Left had a crisis of “values.” It was necessary, he insisted, that we ask ourselves not just “how” but also “why.” Why do we do what we do? Here, what sort of unions do we want? What sort of society are we organizing for?
Dave Regan now wants to talk about values: “This unprecedented reality [the transfer] marks a sad new chapter at SEIU that speaks volumes about our leadership culture, our identity, our values and the integrity of our mission going forward.” This is a breathtaking admission, all the more so from someone whose fingerprints are all over the 2009 trusteeship. But the fact is that values are clearly not on this table – certainly not SEIU’s, not here in California and not in Washington, DC. Why shift 70,000 members? Surely in this case, as in 2009, it is an act devoid of “values,” an empty spectacle, simply a power struggle, and one between rather mediocre contestants.
Dave Regan again: “In actuality, the California decision was about political power within the union and everybody knows it. In private conversations, dozens of people, from SEIU national officers, to members of the SEIU Executive Board, to senior staff at both the national and local level, will acknowledge this obvious reality. However, in public there are only a few people who will say what they truly believe for fear of retaliation, punishment or loss of favor with the current administration. In other words, we now have a culture where telling the truth is dangerous.”
Indeed! And, as it happens, SEIU elections are set for next year. Gerry Hudson, a lifer at SEIU, now an Executive Vice-President in charge of long-term care workers, is, apparently, a challenger. He is supported by George Gresham, head of the huge 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East. Regan is allied with these men and their supporters. Mary Kay Henry will have noticed Regan has appetites of his own. SEIU being a democratic centralist organization, she is working on the centralism. In SEIU elections, delegates vote in blocs, by local union, blocs manipulated by the national regime. The issues involved? Strategy? Principles? Values? Impossible to discern. Nothing visible. But Henry relieves Regan of 70,000 votes. Makes perfect sense, moreover, it’s a two-fer: the 70, 000 bloc ends up with Laphonza Butler, a Henry ally. Then too, Regan, wildly unpopular, gets a good rap on the knuckles.
And on we go.
A personal note. Sad as this story may be, it is not reason to despair. Best the truth be out. Because there is an alternative.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers was founded in 2009 in the wreckage of UHW. Today it has more than 10,000 members, making it one of the fastest growing unions in the country. Just this month it filed a complaint with the California Attorney General asking for an injunction to stop California hospital companies from enforcing a gag clause that bars hospital employees from reporting patient-care violations to government or the media.
In May 2014, Kaiser Permanente was fined $4 million by the California Department of Managed Health for committing “serious” and “systemic” mental health violations. It has now been revealed that in spite of this – or because of this – multiple hospital systems have signed a secret agreement with the leaders of SEIU-UHW that includes a gag clause designed to silence workers engaged in the sort of whistleblower activity that led to the fines at Kaiser.
The agreement bars healthcare workers and their unions from “pursuing, sponsoring, or supporting any legislation, initiative, regulatory or other efforts that are adverse to the interests” of the hospital companies. It prohibits workers and their union from “instigating or supporting…adverse action by any branch of government” and forbids workers from issuing communications to the public, media, and legislature that “raise concerns about hospital pricing and executive compensation in health care.”
Thanks to the sites sternburgerwithfries.blogspot.com, and NUHW.org and Jamie Court at Consumer Watchdog for information in this article.
Cal Winslow is author of Labor’s Civil War in California (PM Press) and an editor of Rebel Rank and File (Verso). His latest book is E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left ((Monthly Review). He can be reached at email@example.com