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An Interview With Mell Garcia

Nail-Biting Time at Kaiser

by CAL WINSLOW

We’re now in nail-biting time for workers at California’s huge HMO, Kaiser Permanente. Some 45,000 service and technical employees there received ballots from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) at the beginning of April; the ballots must be returned by May 1, when counting will begin. They will choose who is to represent them: the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

I went down to Hayward last week to talk to Mell Garcia. Garcia is a Medical Assistant at Kaiser Permanente’s Hayward, California facility. We had a lunchtime (non-medical) appointment.

The receptionist told me Mell would be passing by soon; “She‘ll be headed for the cafeteria, she comes this way every Tuesday.

“Is it about the union?” Yes. “Well, Mell’s the one.”

She was intercepted before she got to me. A young worker with a problem concerning holiday pay stopped her. I overheard a pretty detailed discussion, the results of which seemed satisfactory to the worker. But Mell said she’d double check and get back to her.

Mell Garcia’s been a union member at Hayward since the 1980’s; she became a union member right out of college, Chabot Community College in Hayward where she got her credentials.

She also became a union activist. “I first got involved in the ’86 strike.” The strike was in opposition to Kaiser’s implementation of a regional two-tier wage plan. “I volunteered for picket duty. The rep noticed me and pushed me forward. I started speaking, organizing; I’d never done that before. It helped me, personally, a lot. I became a steward. The strike lasted seven and a half weeks, but we lost. It just wasn’t fair, I thought. Someone doing the same job in, say, Fresno, getting paid less.”

Today, Mell Garcia is the “go-to” person at Kaiser Hayward. She should be.

“I’ve been union ever since.” Why? “I’m not sure. I supported the United Farm Workers. I’ve always felt for the oppressed. Workers don’t leave their values behind when they’re on the job; we’re here to help people. I’ve always thought about the world that way.

“I’ve been at Kaiser ever since – my only break was a stint in Colorado, but there I still worked for Kaiser).

Mell’s a proud Latina in a Latino town, a working class, diverse East bay city with higher than (California) average unemployment and lots of foreclosures.  Her parents came to Hayward from King’s county, her father a union barber from New Mexico, her mother a union beautician from LA, her parents were from Durango.  She’s totally home town Hayward, however.  “I went to grade school here, high school, college, all in Hayward. One more thing, I’m a diehard Raider’s fan.”

There’s only one thing that, she confesses, can compete with the union, “I’m a diehard Raiders fan. I’ve been a season ticket holder for years. Nothing compares with the excitement, the thrills– except the union. I feel the same way about this election.

Mell came back to be a steward at Hayward, then chief steward, then, when  I first met her, a member of SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) Executive Board (since ’97), a working member of the Board , elected by the workers of her region – region 10.

“We built a great group here at Hayward. We really banded together. We made the union work, hard.”

So what’s wrong here, what’s wrong with this picture?

Well, for a start, today there’s officially very little Mell can do on the holiday pay issue.  “I can’t represent her. I can’t take time off for her. I can’t be with her in the grievances sessions.”

And why not? Mell Garcia’s not the shop steward. She was removed from her position on the UHW Executive Board, then fired as a shop steward (along with thousands of others, stewards and staff) when SEIU central placed its 150,000 member California local in trusteeship in 2009.

She can’t run again; there’s a loyalty oath at UHW Kaiser. It was imposed by SEIU in 2009 and has been in place ever since. Mell was a founder of NUHW in 2009, one of 5000 elected stewards who founded the union. She was on her way to the NUHW table duty when we met.

We’re now in the middle of Get-Out-The-Vote time, “GOTV”, phone calls, house calls, walking the floors, “tabling” the cafeterias.

The stakes in this are high, the playing field is not level, far from it. This election is the latest phase in the bitter conflict that originates in 2008. It is a repeat election; the first one was thrown out in 2010, when an NLRB judge found SEIU-Kaiser collusion, an unholy alliance that deprived Kaiser workers of a fair vote. How?  Kaiser laid out the red carpet for SEIU, barred the door (as best it could) for NUHW. SEIU in turn spent millions – the most expensive union election ever, calculated Randy Shaw in BeyondChron. Then, intimidation and lies, a smear campaign built on fear.

What are the issues here; why are they so important – to these workers, to the labor movement and to the rest of us?

The SEIU says, in effect, we’re the winners; we won the election last time. We’re the big guys, we’ve got the power. SEIU then takes credit for the good contracts at Kaiser, the best in the country. Why, they ask, switch?

The NUHW says wait a minute. Those contracts are the product of years of struggle; years when we (NUHW members and staff) were leading the union (years when Mell Garcia and many others like her were on the Executive Board).

More, NUHW contends that SEIU is setting records in giveaways – concessions – gifts to California’s booming healthcare industry. At Kaiser alone SEIU has agreed to pension and medical plan changes estimated to save Kaiser $2 billion. Kaiser has eliminated 1000 jobs.  The story is the same throughout the industry.

At the Sutter Health’s flagship facility, the California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC), San Francisco’s largest hospital, California’s second largest, NUHW, just recently replaced SEIU. There it had toreverse cuts to workers’ seniority rights, layoff protections and reclassification language – all granted by UHW’s imported regime, now led by Dave Regan, the carpet bagging new SEIU-UHW president, with close ties to the California Hospital Association (the Chamber of Commerce of the hospital industry).

NUHW did this, it took back what SEIU gave away,  and, according to the blog Sternburgerwithfries,  also won wage increases and reestablished workers’ rights in the bargaining. At the same time, NUHW has restored restoring CMPA workers longtime alliance with “community allies in their fight to preserve medical services for low-income residents.” For now, that’s another story.

Mell Garcia puts the issues of wages and benefits right at the top of this list of what workers’ want: “That’s the way it is, they’re almost always number one or two. And that’s right.”

But in my conversation with Mell, I hear a deeper story, one that happens to be quite in line with reports from throughout the state.

“We don’t get representation. And we need it.  The workers need stewards and they need to know who they are, they need to recognize them, they need to trust them. Call centers won’t do it. Workers need stewards who will stand by them, who will be there with them, be on their side, with management. That’s how trust is built. The steward should be an example to the workers.

“Now we can’t find a steward. It’s heartbreaking. I can’t do it. Management won’t let me.” But I do my best. It’s what I’m like. It’s why I get here early, every day I walk the floors. I make connections at lunch time, at five o’clock I walk the floors again.”

Some years back, Andy Stern, the then celebrity president of the SEIU raised British trade union eyebrows a bit by commenting that he didn’t like shop stewards – it was an off the cuff comment, perhaps, a startling one for his far from radical British hosts. But it was quite in line with SEIU’s directions – the consolidation of a highly centralized, top-down corporate style union, a union quite at home in the backrooms of politicians and CEO’s of corporate America. A union that proposed to replace shop stewards with call centers. Dial 1-800 …

It should not be surprising then that the worker concerned with her holiday pay still came to Mell Garcia for advice. Was there an SEIU steward? And, if so. Where was she? The answer reveals a lot about what is at stake in this election.

We read these days, in dreary detail, about what is wrong with the labor movement, quite a bit as well about what to do to fix it. Writing in Labor Notes, Joe Burns advocates “a strategy centered on work place activism and strike… it’s a very traditional strategy, reaching back to time when a union meant people coming together.”

Fair enough. It’s interesting that SEIU has attacked the NUHW and its ally/partner the California Nurses Association (CNA) as “strike happy”. Well, the fact is that NUHW and the CNA do lead the league in strikes in the past two years, short strikes mostly, but two of them 20,000 strong.

But these strikes have been part of a more fundamental strategy of building workplace power. There is a sense in which strikes themselves are a sign a divided workforce; that is, were the workers really united, there would be no need for strikes.  And hence the importance of organizing, building power at the base, empowering the agents of change, and here the essential role of the rank-and-file nurses in this contest – and the pressing task of replacing UHW and rebuilding a union for Kaiser technical and service workers – from the bottom up.

Shop stewards are central in this – and a democratic system of elected, recallable work place leaders that can serve both as the first line of defense for workers as well as the shock troops in any advance.

“I was a steward because workers want protection and because they have rights, rights that they want respected. And that’s what the contract is about.

“I know what a union is and what it’s supposed to be like and how it’s to be run.  It’s not something for one person or two people and it’s not to be run from the top down but from the bottom up by every single worker in every worksite.

“It’s not for retaliation and not for cronyism.”

Yet reports from throughout the state reveal just this. More often than not, UHW stewards  are cronies, creatures of out-of- state SEIU staff, at “best” all too often bullies, “policemen on the beat”, as we used to say of the United Auto Workers vaunted 1960s machine, reminiscent of the selected stewards of the Teamsters union in the heyday of gangster unionism. At “worst”, no stewards at all.

Today in California hospitals the class struggle, to say the least, persists.

“I love my job, maybe not every day. It can be hectic, but it’s always challenging. And I love my patients. Anyway, most of them here are just like us, workers themselves. I want to do my best by them.

“The hard part is they are pushing us so much, the workload is increasing so rapidly. I’m required to see more patients in less time, hit the computer, fill in the blanks, get the room ready, and prepare for the doctor.

“Work harder, do better. We’re in competition – for example on member/patient satisfaction – with the other centers, departments. There are regional goals. EVS (cleaners) are on the front lines, always more space to cover, always in the spotlight.”

And where isn’t this true? What’s at stake here at Kaiser are foundational issues with ramifications for all of labor and, again, for all us. Workers still have the world to win. The prize, in the immediate sense, is one union, 70,000 strong, united at Kaiser, the heart of this industry. Just the beginning, yes.  In the long run, it’s the example, right now, here, it can be done!

Mell Garcia: “It’s all here for me. It’s so important, for everyone. Will unions survive? We have to!”

Mell Garcia is a Medical Assistant at Kaiser Permanente, Hayward California. She is a former elected Steward, elected Chief Shop Steward and elected Executive Board Member of United Healthcare Workers (SEIU). She was a founding member of NUHW.

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