Sacramento Business Journal Interview: John Borsos, Secretary-Treasurer, NUHW

NUHW In the NewsJanuary 18, 2013

Kathy Robertson.Senior staff writer
Sacramento Business Journal

John Borsos hopes labor history is about to repeat itself.

Secretary-treasurer at the National Union of Healthcare Workers, Borsos wrote his doctoral thesis on how a sharp decline for the labor movement in the 1920s gave way to an upsurge in strike activity and organizing in the 1930s.

Organized labor has taken hits in recent years, as unionized industries face steep competitive challenges and public-sector unions face fights to retain collective bargaining rights amid state budget deficits. Now the economy is on an upswing, and unions are angling to nab a bigger share of the American dream for their members.

Second-in-command at the National Union for Healthcare Workers, Borsos sees 2013 as a pivotal year for the scrappy start-up run by labor heavyweight Sal Rosselli . The decks appear cleared for a re-run of the largest ever private-sector union election in California. NUHW has 10,000 members; success could quadruple that number.

In 2010, NUHW made a run at convincing 43,500 service employees at Kaiser Permanente to dump Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West and join the rival started by former SEIU execs. SEIU won but the new union, NUHW, alleged election misconduct by SEIU and collusion by Kaiser. A judge concluded SEIU misconduct interfered with workers’ rights of free choice, but did not find collusion by Kaiser. A new election was ordered, however. It will affect about 6,500 workers at Kaiser’s hospitals in Sacramento, South Sacramento and Roseville.

Will the Kaiser election finally take place this year?

“This spring,” Borsos said, adding it’s going to be a fight. “SEIU is Kaiser’s preferred union — despite Kaiser’s statements they are neutral — and they’ll do everything they can to make sure SEIU wins.”

Why do you see a different outcome this time around?

“Last time, they stuck with a union they knew,” Borsos said. “After three, almost four, years of dealing with SEIU, they can’t get their phone calls returned or grievances called.”

Health care employers have taken advantage of the down economy to demand concessions, even though the industry remained strong during the recession, Borsos said. And SEIU, under leadership by Dave Regan , has agreed to work with management and the California Hospital Association to solve problems.

“This is not union moderating industry, it’s the industry defanging the union,” Borsos said.

What have the last four years been like, given the uphill battle to woo back SEIU members?

“It’s certainly not been easy for us,” Borsos said. “But, again, it’s been worse for workers stuck in SEIU.”

Most officials with the new union have stuck tight even though they have the experience to head up other union locals, Borsos said. “Ideologically, we are still committed to the union we built.”

What’s it like, working with Sal Rosselli?

“Sal’s probably the most incredible labor leader of his generation,” Borsos said. “He’s incredibly easy to work with. He gives people the independence to blossom in their own way, with appropriate accountability. The whole team was built here because of his leadership — and it includes a lot of people who could be leading their own locals.”

Tell me a proud moment for you as a labor leader.

SEIU ratified its first contract with Catholic Healthcare West in 2002. It took almost four years to organize about 1,850 local workers.

“We got wage scales, a fully paid pension and health insurance. When we explained the provisions, people were crying,” Borsos said. “Some people got a $9-an-hour wage increase. Nobody thought it was possible.”

NUHW recently announced an affiliation with the California Nurses Association. How does this change the picture?

“Our affiliation will have a tremendous impact, with CNA providing both staff and resources as well as a strong ideological commitment to win at Kaiser and beyond,” Borsos said. “Both we and CNA recognize the danger that Dave Regan and SEIU-UHW poses to health care workers and patients as a stooge for health-care corporations.”

The Essentials

 Age: 49

Education: Undergraduate degree in history from Walsh College in Canton, Ohio; master’s degree in history from the University of South Carolina; doctorate in American history from Indiana University.

Personal: Born into a family of labor supporters in Barberton, Ohio, Borsos has been married for 26 years, has three children and a beloved cocker spaniel. They live in the Pocket area of Sacramento.

Career: Worked as an organizer for Service Employees International Union in Pennsylvania, where he met Sal Rosselli. Moved to California in 1996 to work for Rosselli at SEIU-United Healthcare Workers Local 250 as an organizer and field representative in the hospital division. Directed the hospital division in 1997 and was administrative vice president when SEIU imposed a trusteeship on Local 250 and fired its leaders on Jan. 28, 2009. Rosselli, Borsos and others launched the National Union for Healthcare Workers the next day.

One thing people would be surprised to know about you: A dedicated runner who has completed two marathons, including the California International Marathon in Sacramento.

Kathy Robertson covers health care, law, lobbying and labor and workplace issues for the Sacramento Business Journal.

Kathy Robertson
Senior staff writer
Sacramento Business Journal