Solidarity: A new type of union in the USA?

NewsMarch 12, 2010

By Kim Moody

Last year, US unions lost 771,000 members, enough to wipe out the slim gains of the previous two years. Simultaneously, organised labour’s political agenda, highly dependent on an Obama Administration in disarray and a crippled Congress, collapsed as big business put up $380,000 to undermine Obama’s already lame healthcare reform and $80 million to gut labour law changes that would make it easier to win union recognition. The escalation of the war in Afghanistan will drain further resources that might have gone to create real jobs or fund healthcare. None of this was helped by the ‘civil war’ (see Issue 25) among unions provoked by the incessant raiding of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Yet, out of this chaos and defeat has come something new that holds promise for American unions should they chose to follow. This is not so much a trend as an experiment, one, like so many experiments, brought on by necessity. Last year as reported here, a new union of healthcare workers was formed when the SEIU tried to put its big California branch, the United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), into trusteeship. The new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) faced the daunting task of winning back its 150,000 members, who due the fact that the national SEIU legally held the agreements covering these workers could not switch to the new union without a new recognition election. There is little doubt that the vast majority of former UHW members feel loyal to the new NUHW, whose leaders had won some of the best agreements in the industry. But NUHW faces some 100 representation elections this year to win them for SEIU. The new union has already succeeded in winning an important unit of 2,300 professional employees at the giant Kaiser Permanente California healthcare chain, despite all manner of intimidations by SEIU officials.

NUHW has also recruited workers at previously non-union facilities. Recently the National Labour Relations Board cleared the way for elections at three more hospitals covering over a 1,000 workers.

What makes all of this unique is not so much the split of NUHW from SEIU, although that is unusual. Rather it is the fact that this new union has no paid full-time officers or staff! All of its actions and campaigns are conducted by volunteers, both regular workers and former staffers and officers. Nor does it have the automatic ‘dues check-off’ that support most US unions. Such funds as it has it have come from donations by prospective members and contributions from other unions and friends. It is, in other words, a totally voluntary grassroots union. If NUHW can win the majority of its 150,000 former members simply by relying on workplace, rank and file mobilisation, as it has done so far, something entirely new will have stepped on to the stage of American class relations.

Strong workplace and shop steward organisation

Furthermore, it is a union whose members and leaders have been committed to strong workplace and shop steward organisation, democratic practices, and progressive politics. Its opposition to ‘partnership,’ commitment to union democracy, and support for universal, free-at point-of delivery healthcare characterised it even while in the SEIU. Indeed, these policies were part of what brought on SEIU President Andy Stern’s decision to trustee the UHW, destroy its steward organisation, and get rid of its leaders.

The NUHW also has real and potential allies. The NUHW has been allied with UNITE-HERE, which was raided and split by SEIU last year (issue 25). Even before NUHW left the SEIU or UNITE-HERE was raided, these two unions had worked together in California around UNITE-HERE’s bitter struggle with San Francisco hotels. In February, NUHW members rallied to support UNITE-HERE members conducting a hunger strike at a Disney hotel in Southern California. UNITE-HERE has about 20% of the workers in the full service hotel industry. Its ‘Hotel Workers Rising’ campaign is both organising hotel workers and working to bring a common standard to wages and working conditions in that industry. This year it is bargaining for some 50,000 hotel workers in several major chains across the country. While historically, it is a more conventional union that either NUHW or NNU, it has increasingly been willing to use militant mobilisation tactics, including the current hunger strike and sit-ins at hotels.

More important is the potential for an alliance in the hospital industry if NUHW can coalesce with the new National Nurses United, formed last year from the merger of three nurses unions led by the militant California Nurses Association. This new union has some 150,000 nurses across the country and shares many of the same politics as NUHW. Of course, it is also a potential competitor as NUHW also has nurses and usually organises on an industrial, rather than occupational basis. However, the bargaining unit structure set up by the National Labour Relations Board some years ago for hospitals would allow both unions a presence in hospitals, if they could agree. Such an alliance could pave the way to organising the 83% of hospital workers not covered by union agreements.

The SEIU is currently the largest single union in hospitals, but it is not the only one and has less than half the 951,000 unionised hospital workers. Furthermore, its strength among these workers is on the country’s two coasts. The loss of tens of thousands to NUHW on the West Coast would weaken its claim to hegemony in that industry nationally. On top of this, its increasingly top-down super-centralised style of administration and its practice of settling for substandard ‘template’ agreements is likely to put it at a disadvantage to the NUHW and NNU’s more open organisation and successful bargaining results. The NUHW and NNU, which has strength in the Midwest as well, will have the opportunity to aggressively organise in the middle of the country where SEIU is weak in healthcare.

Healthcare is a growing industry in the U.S. Obama’s healthcare reform package, should it pass in almost any form, will no doubt see the industry grow even more as millions gain medical insurance who didn’t have it before. It is projected that the demand in the US for medical assistants will grow by 35% by 2016, that for registered nurses by 24%, and that for orderlies, aides and attendants by 18%. Obviously the potential for rapid unionisation is enormous. The recession has given even more reason for hospital workers to turn to unions. Employment levels are holding up, but according to Labor Notes, hospitals are ‘churning through a round of reorganisation, strapping on more work, and trying to stuff contract concessions through.’ They are also de-skilling and bringing in untrained people to do nursing work. The incentive to join a union is high.

Both NUHW and NNU have a heavy focus on upholding skills, working conditions, and patient care. One thing seems clear, if a union with no paid staff or officers can recruit thousands simply by involving its active members and supporters, while other unions spending millions to organise are essentially stuck in the mud, it will be a big blow to the whole business union model that has dominated US trade unionism and presided over its decline for decades. 

Source: Solidarity (UK)