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"Nurses are Facing an Unprecedented Attack"

California’s Health Care Wars

by CAL WINSLOW

California’s healthcare workers’ wars continue, in the streets, in collective bargaining and in the courts, at a level of conflict not often matched in the US today. More, in these California conflicts, healthcare workers and their unions are as often as not on the offensive.

The new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) has struck the huge healthcare chain Kaiser Permanente four times now in the past year, twice with support from California Nurses Association (CNA-NNU) RNs. These two walk-outs (in September 2011 and January 2012), involving 20,000 strikers plus each, rank as the largest but one (the Verizon strike) on the table of recent strikes. At the same time, this spring,  the NUHW has won first contracts – with wage increases and no concessions – at  hospitals including Keck Medical Center, University of Southern California; Sutter Health’s California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco; Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital; the Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital; and Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo.

At Kaiser, NUHW members are refusing to accept demands in deliberately stalled negotiations for concessions by a (non-profit?) corporation that “profited” $2.1 billion last year and pays its CEO George Halvorson $9 million annually (eight pension plans thrown in). And they are doing this while the rival Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has caved in to Kaiser yet again, this time signing a backroom deal that includes concessions demanded by Kaiser in particular in healthcare benefits. The union has agreed to a “Wellness Program” that commits members to (among other things) “holding down the costs of care at KP” and “enhancing the effectiveness and productivity of the organization” –an agreement that sets a very dangerous precedent for unions in California and a primary reason the Kaiser nurses have already been out – in solidarity strikes, supporting NUHW – twice. All this comes as NUHW members prepare for the upcoming rerun of the big Kaiser election (43,000 service and technical workers) of 2010 –  the results of that election, won by SEIU in collusion with Kaiser, having been thrown out by an NLRB judge, based on evidence of widespread misconduct by SEIU.

At the same time, NUHW’s fight with SEIU has gone through another round in the courts. On Wednesday, June 13, in a San Francisco courtroom packed with NUHW members and supporters, NUHW lawyers presented oral arguments in the appeal of sixteen former United Healthcare Workers West (UHW) elected officers and leaders and the NUHW. They appealed damages awarded in the 2010 civil suit brought by the SEIU.

The 2010 San Francisco civil case was a sordid episode, another low in SEIU’s most recent low road adventures. SEIU, to the surprise of few, had trusteed its militant, progressive, 150,000 member California local, UHW.

SEIU seized the assets of UHW, fired its officers, removed its elected executive board and purged its stewards. Not content with trusteeship, SEIU was determined, in the words of its then vice president, “Wall Street” Dave Regan, now UHW president, “to drive a stake through the heart” of the new union, and, more, to see that the former, elected, UHW leaders and staff would “never again work in the labor movement.”

SEIU’s goal, then, was not just to wreck UHW (which it now has done), but to punish its leaders and staff. In the extraordinary trial in Federal Court, 28 NUHW leaders were sued for “damages” – SEIU, in a civil lawsuit, demanded of the defendants $25 million. It was astonishing, an assault on a group of working class organizers, all the more vicious given lifestyles of SEIU’s top leaders (Regan: salary $300,000 plus), not to mention their millionaire lawyers. It charged that these people, all union men and women, had “conspired” (for “personal power and profit”) – for years and all on “company” time – to leave SEIU and found a new union. It claimed they were responsible for an array of alleged offences including alleged illegal actions. They were charged with  “theft, violence, and sabotage;” they “left contacts open,” “neglected grievances,” were guilty of “fiduciary malfeasance.”

But all these were dropped, and the pursuit of damages was reduced to $4 million. The case essentially came down to the charge that the UHW leaders were working – for two or three weeks in January, 2009 – against SEIU while still on the payroll. The judge, William Alsup, clearly agreed and the he instructed the jury to fix awards accordingly.

The jury – which included not a single union member – found against sixteen of the defendants, all former UHW leaders and held them liable for $725,000. NUHW was also found liable for $725,000, though this too was extraordinary; NUHW had no “fiduciary duty” to SEIU and did not exist in the weeks at issue. $1.5 million, nevertheless, was awarded, a far cry from the $25 million first demanded, but cruel punishment for sixteen working men and women.

The appeal was argued before a three judge panel of the US Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. Oakland attorney Dan Siegel contested the awards in the 2010 trial. Siegel challenged the basis for these findings, focusing on the alleged “fiduciary malfeasance.” –the charge  that the UHW leaders had defied “fiduciary obligations” to SEIU leadership. In addition, he argued that the judge had erred in his instructions to the jury. In the 2010 trial, Alsup had repeatedly hectored the jurors, explaining at one point that this case – this conflict between a national union and its members in a local – was analogous to a dispute between the Bank of America and a branch office. A sort of corporate affair, an internal conflict within a corporation. He prohibited any discussion of any of the issues in the dispute within SEIU. No one on the jury was a union member.

Siegel insisted that the then elected officers and leaders of UHW had the right to contest the trusteeship, including the right to oppose the SEIU national leadership’s forced transfer of 65,000 long-term care workers from UHW to another local California, the key issue at the time, the one that ultimately was decisive in SEIU’s case for the trusteeship. The then UHW leadership had insisted that these workers had the right to decide the local of their choice – including the right to vote on the transfer.

Siegel argued that these officers’ responsibilities, then, were not simply to the SEIU‘s national leadership, led at the time by Andy Stern, but also to the members of UHW (including the 65,000), the people who had elected them, who determined the local union’s policies and paid the bills. Indeed they had an obligation to abide by the member’s decisions.

He contended that this fact invalidated the award of damages – these officers and leaders, even as SEIU members, had every right to explain to the local union’s members what rights they had in the weeks between to decision to transfer the 65,000 and, three weeks later, the imposition of the trusteeship when they were all summarily fired.

They were exercising protected speech, free speech, Siegel argued, when they organized meetings to inform UHW members of these rights and choices – including their right to dissent, to decertify, even the right to form a new union. SEIU lawyers had responded that the UHW leaders had no such rights and the case was essentially reduced to  charge that the UHW leaders were working against SEIU while still on the payroll.

Siegel also argued that there were larger issues, issues just as important in the long run. What were the responsibilities of local union officers, not just to national leaders but to their members, again, the workers who elected them, set policy, etc., in particular when these members were in disagreement with national policies?

SEIU lawyer, Leon Dayan, repeated that there was a long-term conspiracy, something the jury had not found in 2010, and argued that the duties of the UHW officers and staff to the national and the local were one and the same – hence asserting that the elected local union officers and leaders were essentially no more than an administrative arm of the national union.

Speaking after the hearing, Siegel said the outcome was important for two reasons, first “to remove these entirely unfair judgments, still hanging over the heads of the sixteen defendants.” In this he said he was optimistic.

Second, on the larger issues, he said he was worried that the case raised issues that could prove “very dangerous for union activists. It took a law – Landrum Griffin Act, 1959 – in part designed to protect rank-and-file workers, and turned it on its head, using it as a vehicle for payback against dissenting local union officers and members.”

Back to the streets. At the same time these workers were in court – fighting for the right to have a union, one of their own choosing – nurses at Sutter Health were on strike at ten northern California hospitals. Their walkout, the fourth strike at Sutter since September, came as union officials and Sutter management continued to clash over sick leave, retirement benefits, health care payments, patient care conditions and other issues.

“Nurses at Sutter facilities are facing an unprecedented attack on their practice the scope of which we have not seen in over 20 years,” said Zenei Cortez, co-president of CNA/NNU. “Nurses everywhere are unifying to resist Sutter’s policies of unprecedented cuts in vital patient services for our communities and deterioration of patient care standards in our hospitals.”

The strike affected 4,400 RNs , as well as hundreds of respiratory, X-ray and other technicians at three Alta Bates Summit Medical Center facilities in Berkeley and Oakland, Mills-Peninsula Health Services hospitals in Burlingame and San Mateo, Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, San Leandro Hospital, Sutter Delta in Antioch, Sutter Solano in Vallejo, Novato Community Hospital.

“We don’t believe that Sutter needs to be demanding these onerous and unwarranted cuts from nurses because they are an extremely profitable operation that operates as what I call J.P. Morgan West,” said a California Nurses Association spokesperson. Sutter Health has made over $4.2 billion in profits since 2005, according to CNA. “They’re making decisions on what provides the best return for their shareholders, not for patient care,” he said.

Following the San Francisco hearing, a delegation of NUHW members, clad in red tee-shirts, headed for a noon rally across the Bay at Alta-Bates Summit. June, of course, has not been a good month for labor in the US, particularly in Wisconsin where the electoral turn into a (predictable) catastrophe. It’s far from all over, however. The fight-back continues, including here, in California’s booming healthcare industry.

Cal Winslow is the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, PM Press, 2012 (second edition, revised and expanded), an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies (Verso, 2010), and an editor of West of Eden, Communes and Utopia in Northern California (PM Press, 2012). He is a Fellow at UC Berkeley, Director of the Mendocino Institute and associated with the Bay Area collective, Retort. He can be reached at cwinslow@berkeley.edu