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How Not to Save the Labor Movement

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The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) thrives on the big splash. It is almost clocklike in the regularity with which it proclaims its latest plans to revolutionize labor relations and save the labor movement.

So here we go again. Its most recent plan rises from California’s largest healthcare union; that is, from the ashes of that union, the SEIU’s 150,000 member affiliate, now in ruins, United Healthcare Workers –West (SEIU-UHW). The latest plan? “The Audacious New Plan to Save the Labor Movement.” And the author? Our old friend Dave Regan.

These plans inevitably are greeted, as if in lockstep, with awe (as in “audacious”) by many on the progressive end of the spectrum, this time, for example, by Josh Israel in Think Progress . Israel’s this puff piece was accompanied with the usual, carefully articulated, constrained of course approval of a small chorus of academics.

“We’re talking about working together on a scale that is unprecedented for unions and employers,” says Dave Regan, the Ivy League grad now in charge of the SEIU in California’s hospital unions. Regan, an SEIU functionary, was parachuted into California, in the wake of the 2009 seizure of SEIU-UHW, a trusteeship that wrecked the then thriving, model union. “We had to destroy the union to save it.”

“We’re going to create a totally different paradigm for the way unions and employers deal with each other,” says Regan.

The “we” here is SEIU-UHW and the California Hospital Association (CHA), the organization that represents the big hospitals in Sacramento. “Working together” refers to the May 6th secret agreement that underscores the collusive relationship of the state’s largest hospital workers’ union with the industry’s CEOs.

In the agreement, the “new paradigm,” Regan has agreed to withdraw two SEIU sponsored statewide ballot initiatives designed to limit skyrocketing  hospital charges and cap what nonprofit hospitals can pay their executives. (And not such bad ideas, given the state of healthcare costs.) At the same time, Regan committed SEIU-UHW to joint lobbying with the CHA in Sacramento aimed at boosting Medicaid payments to hospitals – by $6 billion a year.

This will be, if successful, a boon for the industry, to say the least, an industry already awash in cash. One provider, Kaiser Permanente, the state’s largest chain, reported $13.9 billion in revenues for the first quarter of 2014, net income (profit) $1.1 billion. Its recently retired CEO was paid $9 million annually.

In return, the agreement enlists the hospital industry in the union’s organizing efforts; hospital executives have promised to make SEIU-UHW their union of choice. CHA will SEIU give it free access to 30,000 workers; then, if the joint campaign to increase the state’s Medicaid payments succeeds, another 30,000. (There are 400,000 hospital workers in California.) The partners have agreed upon an Advocacy Fund (lobbying) for this, the employers to contribute $80 million, SEIU-UHW $20 million. This means the right to unionize these workers without opposition from the employers.

The agreement is “more” than a “neutrality” agreement, says Regan (that is an agreement that labor and management not interfere in organizational elections, “negative campaigning”). It’s collusion, he might have said; if implemented it will be a disaster for the workers involved. They will be forced into pre-negotiated SEIU contracts that guarantee low wages and meager benefits, prohibit picketing and strikes and impose a “gag rule” on workers – a “Code of Conduct” that will eliminate the union’s watchdog role and prohibit workers from criticizing their employers in the media, the courts and even in the regulatory agencies.

“Visionary” says CHA CEO Duane Dauner, according to the joint press release. Well, not quite. More like back to the future.

Company unions were once legal in the United States. They were outlawed in the 1935 Labor Relations Act, in part because they interfered with the efforts of independent workers’ organizations (although the Act said nothing about various sub-species of the company union, in particular the overly cozy, highly lucrative relationships with which we are too familiar).

SEIU nevertheless is ever ready to reinvent the wheel, this time with Regan at the helm. In fact, Regan boasts, he will promote these deals nationally. “In an audacious maneuver,” writes Israel, admiringly, “Regan’s union successfully used the threat of a direct appeal to the voters to force industry to make some key concessions and to change the entire dynamic of the business-labor relationship. Now, he is aiming to build on that success by taking his approach national.”

Clearly, no evidence of this “success” is necessary for Israel. This is because, in the event, the fact is that the details of this “historic” agreement were all kept secret. They are the result of the classic, secret “back-room deal” for which SEIU is now justly notorious. At the press conference held to announce the agreement, Regan and Dauner simply refused at disclose any of the details.

And why? Was it a dirty deal? And just how dirty? Well, according to a news editor, the “world-weary cynicism that oozed” from Regan and Dauner was enough to send journalists running for the shower. (Ron Shinkman, Fierce Health Finance)

But, and as expected, the facts of the deal have leaked, and they tell us quite a bit about why SEIU UHW-W is the CHA’s favorite “union”. We have yet to see a signed contract, of course, and leaks are leaks.  We do have, however, numerous verbal reports plus the audio of Regan’s report to his staff. And it’s dirty.

They expose the initiatives deal, the “Advocacy Fund”, the hospitals’ opened doors SEIU staff and organizers. The “gag rule”. Indeed, it means that SEIU will have unlimited access to hospital break rooms, conference rooms, etc. It also means that the companies will in fact promote SEIU – should there be competition from other unions. As, of course, there is sure to be. Contacts will be pre-negotiated.

Can this be?  It can, certainly if history tells us anything. Here are two examples to go on, one from Ohio, and one closer to home from Washington State. The Ohio example is from 2008, Regan’s posting before his promotion to California.

In Ohio, Regan crafted a deal with the hospital chain, Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP). In union representation elections, ordinarily, workers must sign up thirty percent of co-workers on a petition as a precondition for a government sanctioned election. Regan and CHP sidestepped this; instead the company requested unionization – but with just one union on the ballot, SEIU.

Ed Brono and Peter Kellman, writing in Monthly Review described it this way:

“In late February, Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP) filed petitions for Board elections to be held in all bargaining units at nine of its Ohio hospitals.”

“The employer-initiated /petition/does not require any proof of union membership or election interest.  Although some 8,000 healthcare workers were affected by the /CHP/petition, none were involved in calling for the elections.

“However, accompanying the employer’s petitions was a consent agreement drawn up by CHP and a union / Regan’s SEIU/…  All the elections, it was agreed, will be held within a few weeks, on two selected days, March 12 and 14, a Wednesday and a Friday.  The company and union would jointly mail out an election packet and provide a hot line phone number.  No campaigning or discussion would be allowed.

“The Board, in a remarkable display of speed, accepted the consent agreement, closed the ballot, and found enough Board agents to run some 40 to 50 separate elections, all in the matter of a few days.”

That is, Catholic Healthcare Partners, the employers, pre-selected the union.

In Seattle, in 2007, according to the Seattle Times, the SEIU’s Local 775, (not Regan this time) concluded a secret deal with the Washington State’s for-profit nursing home industry.

The union promised to lobby the state legislature for nursing home funding. In return, the industry agreed to certain “neutrality” rights, that is, in certain, predetermined cases, to allow SEIU to organize “without interference.”

The deal, however, called for 10 year pre-negotiated contracts. SEIU agreed and these are still in effect.

In addition, Local 775 promised no strikes, no picketing and agreed to let the nursing-home operators — not the union or workers — decide which homes were offered up for organizing. The union also agreed not to try organizing more than the remainder of the company’s nonunion homes.

The agreement also included a “no negative rhetoric” clause in which both the union and the operators agree to not speak ill of each other. This, in practice, was the gag order. In this precedent for Regan’s latest deal – employees are not allowed to advocate for their patients, not allowed to report malpractice to the media and/or regulatory agencies.

Typically, Seattle SEIU leaders said their “labor-management partnership,” modeled after similar pacts in other states, had given them a stronger voice…” People would like to see that labor and management “were actually about working with management to solve problems?” said David Rolf, still president of SEIU Local 775. “Where is it written that the thing we need to do most is have fights?”

Josh Israel concludes his report, quoting Regan again, writing that “these victories… are the way of the future for the labor movement” and that they represent “A new model of unionism.” This is false on all counts. A more important issue – is this a form of unionism at all?

Surely, support for properly funding Medicaid is appropriate, even necessary and urgent, though this is hardly a new idea, nor should it be done with the hospital’s bottom line as the guiding principle.

The problem is in the wheeling and dealing, the now-you-see it, now-you-don’t approach that Israel admires. To call this Machiavellian is to do an injustice to the political thinker.  What about all those who campaigned for, say, the initiative to cap CEO compensation. People who believed it was the right thing to do? These supporters have had the rug pulled from under them. Sweetheart agreements with the corporations that are in fact the problem seem a poor way to build and sustain alliances.

Moreover, there’s nothing new, nothing especially “visionary”, about labor using initiatives. Mark Dudzik and Jenny Brown, writing on the subject of single-payer prospects, consider these in the June 13 issue of Labor Notes, “The Fight for Healthcare Justice Moves to the States.”

True, they write, single-payer referenda “have not fared well in the past” suffering defeats in California in 1994 and 2002. But, they suggest, things have changed. “California unions built a successful organizing model in 2012 when they campaigned for a proposition that increased taxes on the rich to fund education and against another that would have paralyzed unions’ political action. Unions pulled out all the stops, spending massively and dedicating unprecedented staff time. In Oregon in 2010, voters passed two tax-the-rich measures.”

“There has been a real learning experience,” said Martha Kuhl, secretary-treasurer of the California Nurses Association. Her union helped launch the Campaign for a Healthy California, which aims to institute single payer by popular initiative, perhaps as early as 2016.

(The Labor Campaign for Single Payer will hold its national strategy conference in Oakland August 22-24, “Organizing for Healthcare Justice in the Age of Obamacare.”)

Can 2016 be the year to breakthrough? We hope so. But where will Dave Reagan and UHW be in the event? Surely, it goes without saying.

It’s no wonder NUHW President Sal Rosselli has called SEIU a company union: “This is just the latest evidence that SEIU has abandoned the fundamental principles of trade unionism – principles that we at NUHW hold dear: democracy, transparency, patient advocacy and commitment to worker representation.”

A last point. The new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) was founded in the wreckage of the old SEIU-UHW. It is a small but growing healthcare workers’ organization; it is democratic, militant, worker run. It’s members are not afraid to fight; it’s optical workers struck Kaiser in Sacramento on May 31. Mental Health workers struck Kaiser’s Oakland Medical Center on April 3. It is perhaps best known for its refusal to give in to Kaiser’s demands for concessions (in pay, benefits and staffing), as well as its fight to protect patients at Kaiser Permanente. Its members include thousands of mental health clinicians, workers now engaged in active resistance to Kaiser’s undermining of its practitioners in mental health care. In 2011, the union published “Care Delayed, Care Denied”, researched and written by Kaiser workers, exposing Kaiser policies that forced patients to endure lengthy, illegal waits for basic care. It is a model of the union’s role as watchdog. This, in part, led to the June 24, 2013, the California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) $4 million fine against Kaiser Permanente for limiting patients’ access to mental health care. More recently, NUHW launched “The Kaiser Patient Advocate”, a resource for Kaiser mental health patients experiencing delays in care: http://kaisermentalhealth.com.

Increasingly, today’s unions are reaching out, seeking alliances with and support from other workers, community groups, ethnic organizations.  Should healthcare workers seek alliances? Should they be advocates for workers more generally, here advocates for healthy workers and their families? Of course they should. But don’t expect much from efforts restricted, SEIU style, to the boardrooms of the corporations and the back rooms of Sacramento.

We have repeatedly argued that a renewal of trade unionism in the US is an urgent necessity. That said, however, the issue is what kind of unionism. Our history includes many models, but it broadly reveals two souls in the labor movement.  All too often the movement has been led by one of these, a top-down, conservative, pro-business “soul”, whose leaders, no matter how desperate the circumstances, have cast their fate with corporate “partners.”

We also have an inheritance of the opposite kind, a history of democratic, worker run organizations, unions that are the products of working class self-activity and advocates of working class interests. The Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) was an example of these. It was just one, but it was an inspiring one, still relevant.  Its mottos were “An Injury to One is an Injury to All” and “Which Side Are You On?” Its founding principle was this: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”

Cal Winslow is the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, PM Press, 2012 (second edition, revised and expanded), and an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies (Verso, 2010). His latest book is a collection of the writings of Edward Thompson, E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left (Monthly Review Press, 2014). He is co-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 gathering, Retort. He can be reached at cwinslow@berkeley.edu

Cal Winslow is author of Labor’s Civil War in California,(PM Press) and an editor of Rebel Rank and File (Verso). His latest book is E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left (Monthly Review). He can be reached at cwinslow@berkeley.edu

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