Union battle over Kaiser Permanente hospital system is David vs. Goliath affair

NewsJuly 23, 2011

New York Daily News:

Friday, July 22, 2011

By Juan Gonzalez

A leadership split in the country’s most powerful labor union led to a bitter battle in California last fall over who would represent 43,000 workers in the state’s vast Kaiser Permanente hospital system.

The Kaiser contest was the biggest union representation election in the U.S. in more than half a century,

From the start, it was a David and Goliath affair.

On one side was the 2.2 million-member Service Employees International Union with its almost limitless war chest.

So influential is SEIU in Washington that it landed spots on the White House staff for some of its former leaders; its former president Andy Stern was a key player in the President’s health care plan; and one of its top lawyers was recently named to the National Labor Relations Board by President Obama.

Up against SEIU was the National Union of Healthcare Workers, a tiny 9,000-member militant breakaway group led by the former head of SEIU’s California health care division, Sal Rosselli.

“SEIU’s leadership just wants to treat members as property whose rights can be bargained away to politicians and employers,” Rosselli says.

Nonsense, says the SEIU. Rosselli and his followers were properly ousted “for misusing millions in union funds and violating members’ democratic rights,” the union said in a statement this week.

To defeat Rosselli’s rag-tag band, SEIU dispatched hundreds of staff members from around the country to California for several months last year and spent millions of dollars.

The Kaiser contest sparked such passion that three quarters of the eligible workers cast ballots – an astonishing turnout for any election. When the votes were tabulated, SEIU had won 18,290 to 11,364.

Rosselli’s group refused to concede. It filed a string of complaints claiming that Kaiser and SEIU had violated federal labor law and prevented a fair election.

Few experts gave the rebels much of a chance.

This week, an administrative law judge for the NLRB sided with David against Goliath.

Judge Lana Parke ruled that SEIU staff had misled workers by warning that Kaiser would not give them the same wage increases and benefits they currently enjoyed if they chose the rival union.

Kaiser had already canceled scheduled wage hikes and benefits for a smaller group of nurses and social workers who had opted to join the breakaway group, but an NLRB decision after the election declared those actions illegal and ordered the company to provide back pay to the workers.

During the election, SEIU used Kaiser’s illegal actions as a central part of its campaign to sway workers.

SEIU’s conduct had “a reasonable tendency to interfere with employees’ free and uncoerced choice in the election,” Parke ruled. She called for a new union election at Kaiser Permanente.

A final decision must await a formal ruling by the NLRB, one of whose four current members, former SEIU lawyer Craig Becker, will likely have to recuse himself.

For now at least, the little guys have won.