Santa Cruz Sentinel: Union dispute erupts at Watsonville Community Hospital

NewsApril 7, 2009


WATSONVILLE — Health care workers at Watsonville Community Hospital are taking sides in the dispute between their bargaining agent, Service Employees International Union, and National Union of Healthcare Workers, an upstart organization formed in January by leaders unhappy with SEIU.

“An overwhelming majority of us have signed petitions to choose NUHW as our union,” said Kermit Butch Cole, a surgery technician for 19 years. “We need a union we can trust, where we have a voice to stand up for ourselves and our patients.”

Cole, 65, said he received a letter Monday from SEIU asking him to resign his position as shop steward, a role he’s had for 17 years. He’s not about to go quietly.

“SEIU has the right to remove me, but until they do, I’m the steward,” he said, noting he was elected by co-workers.

Attempts to reach Pete Janhunan, communications director for United Health Workers West SEIU, were unsuccessful.About 180 workers at Watsonville Community Hospital are affected by the dispute. Watsonville workers filed a petition asking for a union election Friday with the National Labor Relations Board, according to Sadie Crabtree, spokeswoman for NUHW.

About 2,600 health care and government workers in Monterey County have filed similar petitions, which are being counted and verified.

At least 30 percent of members must request the election.

The national law firm Littler Mendelsohn, describing the situation as an “all-out battle,” suggests employers in the health care field put effective mechanisms in place to respond to union conflicts to “weather the potential war of attrition.”

The dispute erupted in 2007 when Northern California union leader Sal Rosselli, who headed the 140,000-member United Healthcare Workers West criticized plans by SEIU national leader Andy Stern to move 65,000 long-term health care workers out of the organization headed by Rosselli.

Rosselli resigned as SEIU vice president but remained president of UHW.

SEIU accused UHW leaders of diverting dues. A former labor secretary brought in as a hearing officer found “financial malpractice” and SEIU placed the UHW in trusteeship Feb. 1, removing all the top leaders and naming replacements.

Rosselli formed the new union, which claims workers at 62 locations have filed petitions seeking union elections.

Cole said SEIU has been pressuring workers, telling them if they voted for a new union, they would be fired and lose health insurance.

Health care workers pay about $64 a month in union dues, Cole said, which adds up to about $30 million a year in area dues going to SEIU’s headquarters.

“If we don’t have to send that $30 million to Washington, D.C., we’d be able to reduce dues by 25 percent,” he said, adding. “We decided we don’t want automatic dues deduction, we want SEIU to bill us.”

Their three-year contract at Watsonville Community Hospital expires July 31; negotiations have not begun.

Source: Santa Cruz Sentinel