Slugging It Out in California

Healthcare workers have taken another giant step forward. At the same time, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) stands exposed as never before. Corporate unionism – Andy Stern’s contribution to the long decline of organized labor in the US – is up against the wall in California.

This contest is a fight with big implications. The prize is “a free choice” for workers, a right rarely enjoyed in late-imperial America, but with a California twist – it is “a free choice” in choosing a union – California healthcare workers are fighting for the right to have a union of their own, a union that they control and that works in their interests, not, in this case, the SEIU.

On Thursday afternoon ( February 26) the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) made an historic advance – it filed petitions asking that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conduct decertification (rescind legal recognition)elections at Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest non-profit health care provider. These petitions were signed by more than 50 per cent, (that is, an absolute majority) of all California’s 50,000 of Kaiser’s SEIU represented healthcare workers. The petitions represent, starkly, the desire of these California healthcare workers to leave SEIU.

This petition campaign is the culmination of one phase in what has become the war to form the NUHW – yet it is an astonishing achievement. It is all the more impressive as it represents just the core of an ongoing drive in which, so far, workers at 380 California facilities (employing 80,000 workers – the majority of members of SEIU’s once flagship local, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) – have rejected SEIU and petitioned for recognition of NUHW as their union.  And this in less than one month! 10,000 home care workers will file Monday in Fresno.

Why? “We need stability, democracy, and a union we can trust,” said Bebs Nonato, a registered nurse at Kaiser’s Los Angeles Medical Center…  they /SEIU/ pushed us around like furniture, and ignored our voices and votes. We’re building a stronger union in NUHW, with healthcare workers in control.” Now, today, the very idea of “control” – control in one’s union, control at work, “workers’ control” in society, is considered archaic, certainly in the organized labor movement ( honorable exceptions aside). At best, it is replaced by the term “democracy”, very loosely defined.  In SEIU circles, however, even “democracy” has been shelved as of historic interest only; it has become, apparently, an obstacle in the desperate quest for central command, density and dues.

Not so with California healthcare workers. These are workers who say they will fight to control their union; more, says Mell Garcia, medical assistant at Kaiser-Hayward, membership power is the way to power at work: “We’re joining NUHW because it’s the only way to protect the gains that Kaiser workers have won over the past 65 years…”

John Borsos, the fired elected administrative Vice President of SEIU-UHW, believes that this is the largest decertifcation drive ever.  It is all the more striking given that this campaign has been conducted entirely by healthcare workers themselves and the fired former elected staff of UHW.  This surely bears repeating. The signatures were collected in less than one month by working health care workers seeking recognition – aided by a handful of fired (some resigned in protest, out of loyalty, and for values, we might add), in an entirely volunteer project!

The crisis in California SEIU came to a head on January 27, 2009, when Andy Stern the International President of SEIU placed UHW in trusteeship. He replaced  the entire elected leadership of UHW  – at that time the 150,000 California local was known as a militant, democratic and progressive union, in fact SEIU’s fastest growing local. He hijacked 65,000 UHW long-term care members – workers who, as far as I can work out, may be headed for some new organizational home but remain lost in SEIU space, yet required, of course, to pay their dues. SEIU seized UHW assets and replaced its 100 member elected executive board (the great majority of whom were working members) with two appointed trustees , Eliseo Medina and Dave Regan, both ($200,000+ a year) SEIU Executive Vice Presidents. They have been joined by scores of SEIU staff members, “warriors” organized by Stern lieutenant and SEIU Vice President ($200,000+) Mary Kay Henry, a collection of carpetbaggers collected from SEIU’s bureaucratic  baronies across the country. (The popular new website  highlights the trials and tribulations of these hapless individuals.

NUHW was formed when UHW’s deposed 100 member Executive Board proposed to form a new union, backing the demands of 5,000 stewards who met the weekend before. NUHW set out to rebuild a healthcare workers union – with  no budget, no office, no paid staff. SEIU insisted everything belonged to it. Organizers were ordered to return phones, blackberries, everything and anything.

The Kaiser decertification campaign is the heart of this drive: Kaiser has 32 medical centers and 200 clinics in California. Kaiser has its origins, like UHW, in the 1930s. Today it is today the largest non-profit health plan in the US. It is the largest healthcare employer in California. It is by far the largest single bargaining unit represented by UHW, nearly 50,000 healthcare workers – dwarfing the next biggest California bargaining unit, Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) that employs 14,000. Fortune magazine reports that Kaiser’s revenues last year at $37.8 billion; it is the fifth largest private company in the US, serving 8.7 million members.

The Kaiser contract – the product of years of struggle – is considered the “gold standard” for hospital workers. UHW’s Kaiser members enjoyed the best wages and benefits in the country. Moreover, the Kaiser contract was used to leverage up other contracts, not just in hospitals but also in nursing home and for home care workers. Kaiser was the rock on which UHW, until it was wrecked (and its predecessors SEIU locals 250 and 399), was built.

The decertification petitions drive are, however, just a start, it is one thing to petition the NLRB, it is another to force the agency to act responsibly  and offer rank-and-file workers a fair hearing and fair elections – “a free choice.”

The NLRB is the agency within the United States government charged with conducting elections for labor union representation and with investigating charges of unfair labor practices. It has a five-person board and a general counsel, all appointed by the President; they oversee regional offices and staff. The agency’s origins, in the 1930s, lie in the National Labor Relations Act (the New Deal Wagner Act, 1935) that made trade unionism legal, though it has rarely lived up to its pro-labor reputation, particularly since passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1948. It does, however, offer procedures for representation, fair bargaining and appeals for workers and their unions. At best it has offered a cumbersome and time-consuming process for defending workers’ rights; at worst it has reflected the politics of the party in power and certainly this has been the case in the Reagan-Bush era.

The NLRB is contested terrain. Unions can petition for elections. Employers can oppose them. They wheel in the lawyers, the specialists and consultants, the delays, the appeals – then the war at home, on the job. While workers await the opportunity to vote, often delayed, the employers are free to intimidate, harass, often terminate the workers who sought protection in the first place. Union organizers are all too familiar with the law firms and the private agencies that specialize in this, as well as with the countless “dirty tricks” within the employers arsenals.

Today EFCA, “the Employee Free Choice Act”, now before Congress, is organized labor’s attempt to remedy these failings by amending  the NLRA – in the hope of making it easier for workers to form, join or assist labor organizations and to provide for penalties for unfair labor practices, particularly in organizing efforts. EFCA would require, for example, the NLRB to certify a bargaining representative without directing an election if a majority of the bargaining unit employees signed cards, the card check process. EFCA is of course vehemently opposed by  business because it would simplify efforts by workers to unionize and negotiate first contracts.

Andy Stern, SEIU International President, explained to USA Today that this is all abc. “Union members can opt out of unions by checking a card so they should be able to opt in that way as well.” There we have it! Let the workers decide.  Why not a free election for Kaiser workers? No one doubts the outcome. Shayne Silva, a psychiatric technician at Alta Bates Summit in Oakland, says, “We hope Andy Stern and SEIU will walk away and leave us alone.”

No such luck. Dave Regan told the LA Times he will fight NUHW “every step of the way.”  The challenges commence. Michelle Ringuette, national spokesperson for SEIU, charges the petitions are not valid. She says members don’t understand the issues. She says workers are being coerced. NUMW, she says, is guilty of “raiding” (she would know). The lawyers get to work, the NLRB announces it must investigate. At the same time Dave Regan is said to be proposing concessionary  bargaining with Kaiser, and Andy Stern has announced a new SEIU- wide committee that will bargain with Kaiser – a stacked committee where California’s members can be outvoted by representatives from Colorado and Oregon – state organizations that together represent only 4000 members.

This, of course, is just what the employers do – don’t let the workers choose!. It is the reason that unions are pressing for passage of EFCA. I was warned that this is exactly what would happen – also that SEIU would be good at it. As predicted the stall has begun – the clock runs and back home on the job, intimidation, harassment, threats.

Here are four examples, I’ve seen dozens:

*On February 1, Inez Moreno, a shop steward at 269-bed Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield, received a phone call from an SEIU organizer. Moreno was told not to circulate petitions. If she refused, the organizer would call the hospital’s Human Resources Department on Monday and have her terminated. “She said I had been stripped of my stewardship… She thinks she can call me and treat me like nothing…”

*On February 9th, Maria Garcia, a Certified Nursing Assistant and elected shop steward at 99-bed Bay Point Healthcare Center in Hayward, was fired for circulating a petition to join NUHW. Her boss phoned SEIU Trustee Eliseo Medina and told her that if Medina didn’t approve of the petition, she would be fired. Days later, he terminated Garcia, who is an immigrant from Mexico and a single mother of three children.

*On February 11th, Angelica Valerio, a Certified Nursing Assistant and member of the elected Windsor Healthcare bargaining committee, was suspended from her job and nine others received written warnings for refusing to let an SEIU staffer bargain their contract. A majority of Windsor workers had already petitioned to disaffiliate from SEIU. With 29 nursing homes, for-profit Windsor Healthcare is one of the largest nursing home chains in California.

*On February 23rd, three SEIU organizers arrived at 1,049-bed California Pacific Medical Center, Sutter Health’s flagship hospital located in San Francisco. Two of the facility’s elected rank-and-file leaders, Helen York-Jones and Porfirio Quintano, asked the SEIU organizers to leave their hospital. York-Jones is a Cashier and 40-year employee who is the facility’s Rep Chair and a former elected member of SEIU-UHW’s Executive Board. Quintano, a Housekeeper with 10 years on the job, is a steward and an elected member of the union’s bargaining committee. The two leaders told the SEIU staffers that a majority of the hospital’s workers had already submitted petitions to disaffiliate from SEIU, and they did not want SEIU organizers in their facility. The SEIU organizers reported them to the hospital’s Human Resources Department. Two days later, York-Jones and Quintano received calls from Sutter management announcing that they had been placed on unpaid investigatory leave.

So much for protected activity! But no one said it would be easy.

I must confess here that this is exactly what I was told would happen – many times over. SEIU would go, full speed ahead, into corporate mode. Never mind the cost. Never mind the damage to the union, to its elected representatives, to the movement, to the workers and their families.

I must also confess that I am not at all surprised to learn of the incidents summarized above. This is the union, after all, that last April organized a physical assault on the Labor Notes conference in Dearborn. This is the union that, last June, held its national convention in Puerto Rica behind by jack-booted San Juan riot police. This is the union of Tyronne Freeman and Rickman Jackson and Annelle Grajeda, all now removed and facing charges of corruption, all California SEIU (appointed by Stern) leaders. And this is the union that, even amidst the wreckage of UHW, continues its war on the California Nurses  Association.

It is SEIU, the union of the deal! Stern continues to work the politicians. Stern, remember, was a supporter of the illustrious former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and despite the fact that SEIU will be involved with a federal corruption investigation, Stern said he has “no reason to believe anyone did anything wrong.” He also said that while he is sorry about the way Blagojevich’s career ended, he is not sorry about past SEIU support for him.

As for the role of unions in the deepening recession – California’s official unemployment rate now tops 10 per cent – Stern stubbornly repeats that workers should be “partners” with their employers in both good times and bad. As an example of the latter, he cites California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a man he can work with – forget, please, the draconian state budget, short work weeks, fierce cuts in health , welfare and education.

The issue then is stark and simple – have workers a right to a union of their own choice? SEIU says “No!” Alas, SEIU has supporters, even in the universities and amongst the so-called experts of the country’s academic labor centers. There, a ten year debate, often with SEIU at the center, has undermined fundamental beliefs, even in the very value of democracy within the workers’ movement. Steve Fraser, a cynical apologist if ever there was one, argued from the start that democracy was a non-issue – a fetish of an insignificant left, when not a weapon of the right. Approvingly, he told us “many labor leaders secretly believe and practice what one of them openly confessed back in the 1920s: ‘As a democracy no union would last six months.’”

More than any other union, SEIU has flaunted its denigration of internal union democracy. It has belittled membership rights and election of representatives at all levels and denied workers’ participation, let alone control in bargaining. An example of SEIU member rights, perhaps extreme, is this: the SEIU Constitution says that any seven  members can block a disaffiliation vote – for example in the 150,000 member UHW! That is, as Steve Early has shown, there’s no checking out. Others unions  share this distaste for democracy, but few with the effrontery of SEIU. And few with a chorus of academics cheering them on. All this has taken its toll on the movement – as has the SEIU checkbook. But this will change. Stanley Aronowitz replied to Fraser in the 90s debate and his answer still stands: “When unions deprive the rank and file of choice, when leaders favor mobilization but not participation, they succeed only in driving a deeper nail in labor’s coffin.” Sal Rosselli, the fired elected President of UHW, now a NUHW volunteer, offers this contrast, and, we hope, a forecast for the future of the new union: “We believe there can be no limit to the empowerment of workers.”

I think SEIU’s time has run out, but the fight has just begun. Change to Win (CTW – the Stern federation that split from the AFL-CIO) is on the rocks. Stern’s arch-enemies, the California Nurses, are now part of a national nurses’ movement, the National United American Nurses. And in this conflict with NUHW, SEIU is driving off a California cliff.

Thus far, UHW, now NUHW, while highly regarded in California, has fought alone. Observers have most often restricted themselves to lamenting the SEIU-NUHW conflict as a regrettable diversion – in particular from the fight for EFCA. Or they have worried about a divided labor movement in a time of extreme economic peril. Certainly there are dangers. However, is there any evidence that today’s organized labor movement can take us forward? Does anyone really believe that the AFL-CIO can produce, for example, a new Congress of Industrial Organizations  (CIO)? With or without its flaws? CTW, pathetically in retreat, reapplying for ALC-CIO credentials? “We didn’t pick this fight,” says Paul Kumar, fired elected Vice President of UHW, “but it’s a privilege to wage it.”  Of course it’s a cliché to say that the times demand change, fundamental change, but they do. There will be no change, however, without struggle –remember Frederick Douglas “no progress without struggle, no crops without plowing. No rain without thunder and lightning.” Perhaps this week’s wild Pacific storms are setting the stage. Within the month the NUHW will meet in San Francisco for its founding convention.

United Healthcare Workers-West was the kind of union we need in California – more, it was in historian Nelson Lichtenstein’s words a “model.” The SEIU assault on UHW has indeed – as so many warned – been a tragedy. Nevertheless, someone had to stand up to Andy Stern’s SEIU. Now is the time for us to stand up with NUHW – we need a new beginning.

CAL WINSLOW is co-editor, with Aaron Brenner and Robert Brenner, of Rebel Rank and File, Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below in the Long Seventies (forthcoming, Verso.) He is author of the CounterPunch piece, “Stern’s Gang Seizes UHW Union Hall.” He is a Fellow in Environmental Politics at UC Berkeley and Director of the Mendocino Institute. He can be reached at








Cal Winslow is the author of Radical Seattle: the General Strike of 1919. He can be reached at