The Healthcare Worker War

What is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)?  And why is it at war with the Labor Movement?

The SEIU is currently up to its neck in a bloody war with California healthcare workers led by the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) – a conflict SEIU leader Bill Ragen quite rightly compared to the US Occupation of Iraq – “easy to get into, then a slog …

Well, the slog is on. In just the latest battle on this front (see “Fresno, the New Ground Zero,” Counterpunch, May 15-17) – the home care workers June election in Fresno – SEUI spent $10 million dollars and brought nearly 1000 organizers (“warriors” in SEIU talk) into this Central Valley city. These “warriors” were overwhelmingly full-time staff from out of state and all expenses paid “lost timers” from some SEIU janitor and home care locals. Its purpose?  Certainly it was about more than winning an election. Executive Vice President, Cornell grad, Dave Regan, promised “an ‘old school ass-whipping’” – “to drive a stake through heart of the thing that is NUHW,” to “put them in the ground and bury them.” Is this an Ivy League thing? SEIU with its $300 million annual budget outspent NUHW 50-1!

This invading army was opposed by perhaps 150 insurgents, including fired former staff, nearly all volunteers, some paid with donations, and healthcare workers who came to Fresno on weekends and days off. I had the privilege of seeing these volunteers in action – long days, a hundred and five degrees, no SUV’s, no hotel rooms, no swimming pools, no promotions promised back home. These were a very brave bunch in these circumstances and considering such odds. The SEIU leaders ridiculed them. They seem to have a problem with the concept of sacrifice. Dave Regan, Eliseo Media, Mary Kay Henry, Gerry Hudson are a big chunk of SEIU’s top management, all international vice presidents; they came to Fresno on $200,000 plus a year salaries. Is a union something you buy?

The result? Not quite what the commander-in-chief Regan promised. SEIU was able just to eke out a victory (200 votes out of 6000), the results of which are not yet certified and there are still approximately 450 to 500 uncounted ballots. Moreover, there are abundant allegations of SEIU misconduct, hardly surprising considering SEIU rhetoric, its management like tactics and its bullying, take-no-prisoners style.  And, in California, this is only the beginning; there will be elections for home care workers in Sacramento and San Francisco in the fall, and these are a prelude to next year’s crucial hospital elections.  San Francisco writer, Randy Shaw compared SEIU’s Fresno campaign to “carpet bombing” and the infamous Vietnam War General Curtis Lemay’s strategy of “total War.” The point here, Shaw asserts, is that “the campaign left its opposition unvanquished and likely better positioned than SEIU to win future elections.”

Predictably, the results of this SEIU “victory” are already clear. Immediately following the election, Fresno County supervisors announced cuts for home care workers of 75 cents an hour effective July 1 – workers wages will be reduced to $9.50 an hour, precisely what SEIU promised only it could prevent. The workers, quite rightly, are stunned and angry – none more so than those who voted for SEIU on the basis of the (false) claims that a NUHW victory would cost workers their contract, their hours, their wages.  Sarah Jones, a Fresno long term health care provider, contends, “They ran their campaign based on threats, bribes, lies… they showed us an appalling disregard.” Now these workers ask, and who wouldn’t? “Where is SEIU?” – but for the most part they get no response. Flo Furman, sixteen years a home care worker, an SEIU-UHW steward and executive board member, reports, “I have no idea what they’re /SEIU?/ doing. I haven’t heard anything at all from them. I don’t even know who my rep is.” Of course there is always the SEIU call center, that is, “Membership Resource Center”: “Have you a question or a problem at work? Call 1-877….”  Whoops no Fresno number.

SEIU has moved on, leaving a hollow shell behind; they’re on to the next elections, these in Sacramento and San Francisco – where, by the way, NUHW has succeeded in winning agreements allowing for no reductions. And then it begins all over again; mailings have begun, the robo calls, radio spots.  “It’s just the way they do it,” says NUHW leader Sal Roselli, “Win an election, move on…”

But who’s paying attention? The big news is that SEIU’s bitter conflict with one time ally and partner UNITE HERE, has come to a head – in a spectacular confrontation and a ferocious war of words.  SEIU is accused of stealing thousands of UNITE HERE members (by supporting the UNITE group, “Workers’ United,, led by Bruce Raynor) plus millions in cash – and a jurisdictional war is possible, with SEIU threatening  to open a national campaign to win workers in UNITE HERE’s jurisdictions – in hotels, casinos, airports, and other settings.

SEIU, as is well known, is hugely ambitious – in an era of trade union decline, much of its support is based on this fact alone; it promises growth, by any means. SEIU is ruthless, “It will do anything to get dues,” in the words of one-time foe, Rose Ann DeMoro (California Nurses Association), who called SEIU “a management surveillance team,” before negotiating a not-very-helpful (to anyone except CNA) jurisdictional agreement and truce with Stern’s union. SEIU openly seeks to dominate US labor and the UNITE HERE escapade is by no means its first raid. But this time, perhaps, it has gone too far.  The labor movement (and much of the progressive movement) looked away when SEIU raided the Puerto Rican teachers’ union; it apparently finds no fault in SEIU’s backdoor bargains with politicians of all stripes –Pataki in New York, Schwarzenegger in California, Blagojevich in Illinois. The labor movement (and its supporters) was silent when SEIU wrecked United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), the California healthcare workers local union that was seized by Stern in January.

Now, however, organized labor has come to life and it’s about time.  Almost the entire labor movement has united in defense of UNITE HERE and in opposition to Andy Stern and his regime in SEIU.

UNITE HERE is the union of hotel, food service, apparel and textile manufacturing, laundry, warehouse and casino gaming industries formed in a 2004 merger. It is a member of the SEIU initiated and dominated Change to Win federation – the organization of unions that left the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form a rival federation. It is now the apparent victim of a typical Stern maneuver – Raynor’s faction of UNITE (leaders willing, members’ views unknown) announced they were leaving UNITE HERE to form “Workers’ United” and join SEIU, all bought and paid for by SEIU. SEIU calls this organizing by “implosion.”

In response, top US labor leaders attended UNITE HERE’s June Convention in Chicago, a convention that, more than once, transformed itself into an anti-SEIU rally; these labor leaders joined delegates in condemning SEIU and Stern in terms unthinkable just months ago.

If words could kill… Vince Giblin, president of the Operating Engineers, AFL-CIO, denounced Stern as “the Darth Vadar of the labor movement.”– referring to him as such 100 times!  Terry O’Sullivan of the Laborers Union condemned the SEIU raid on UNITE HERE as “high jacking.”  Mike Casey, President of the San Francisco Labor Council and a UNITE HERE local president, called SEIU “the company union in our industry, we are battling both SEIU and the employers…” In response to SEIU’s call for arbitration in the dispute, delegates chanted, “They say arbitrate, we say incarcerate.” UNITE HERE officials believe that the UNITE defectors, and ultimately SEIU, may be vulnerable to charges of a “criminal conspiracy to steal $23 million.” Gerry McEntee. President of AFSCME, roared: this is “piracy on the high seas of organized labor” and “what the SEIU is doing is bullshit,” then led the delegates in an extended chant, “Bullshit. bullshit…”

AFL-CIO leaders were joined by James Hoffa of the Teamsters and Joe Hansen of the United Food and Commercial Workers, both partners with SEIU in Change to Win. There were twelve international presidents in all; it was a dramatic – and rare — display of labor solidarity. At the same time, the presidents of more than 20 international unions published a letter pledging their support for UNITE HERE against SEIU’s raids.

Juan Gonzalez called this a “seminal moment “in US labor history – a host of leaders joining to condemn SEIU, one of the largest, certainly one of the richest labor organizations in the United States. SEIU has “gone off the deep end,” Gonzalez concluded:  “Change to Win is dead.”

John Wilhelm, the President of UNITE-HERE, declared that SEIU stood for “the suicide of the labor movement” and called the conflict “a fight with the boss’s lackey union.”

“The boss’s lackey union!” Surely this must give us pause. This is an extraordinary moment. It’s a vintage charge in the labor movement, but still worth considering. SEIU prides itself as progressive.

At the UNITE HERE convention, in the presence of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win leaders, there was an unqualified rejection of the SEIU corporate model, with its shameless top down paradigm, its commandism, centralism and it’s antidemocratic rules and structures; “It’s less democratic that the Teamsters,” Ken Paff of Teamsters for a Democratic Union,  told the LA Times.

In response, the convention, took steps to:*reform the union’s constitution in response to the need for more transparency and accountability; *create decision-making governing bodies of the union between Conventions – known as the Executive Committee and the General Executive Board – that will now be composed of a voting majority who will be elected locally and regionally; *constitute a new General Executive Board that will have greater power and accountability over the President and the other General Officers… and  *establish a “Bill of Rights” for union members and elected officers at local and international levels.

Wilhelm concluded, “I am proud of our Union’s new constitution.  It stands in stark contrast to the top-down, autocratic manner in which SEIU has approached our union and its own members. I believe that UNITE HERE is starting an exciting new chapter in our history, and I am proud to be part of a union that is led by its members.”

All to the good and certainly to be supported. We need a challenge to “top down” “autocratic” trade unionism… to “bosses unions.”  And we need to open a new chapter.

But thus far, it must be said that the real energy in the UNITE HERE story has concerned the issue of raiding. This is what brought out the old leaders, plus, to be fair, a growing antipathy to Andy Stern and his regime. The unions in the US are enjoined to respect each other’s turf – it is an issue with deep-roots in labor going right back to the founding of the American Federation of Labor in 1886. – and it is intimately connected to the principle of “union autonomy” – non-interference by “outsiders” (union or otherwise) in internal union affairs. This last “principle” being the technical justification for watching in silence the lynching of UFW. The Industrial Workers of the World called this all this the “American Separation of Labor,” and they had their point. A central issue in the California struggle, for example, is whether or not workers have a free choice of union? Or are they the property of a labor organization – to be organized and reorganized as its leaders see fit, in SEIU traded around like baseball players in a desperate search for the championship team? And this is none of our business because it’s “an internal matter?” More than 100,000 healthcare workers have petitioned to leave SEIU, only to be denied this right and held hostage by SEIU – in collusion with the police, the courts and the National Labor Relations Board. SEIU has pulled out the stops to see that the NLRB does not hold elections – it supports the Employee Free Choice Act, apparently, except if one happens to be an SEIU member.

The problem, then, is that there is more involved here than raiding, much more. And this is where NUHW returns to center stage. The California fight is really about what kind of a labor movement we want – and need. And it is quite legitimate to ask the SEIU leaders “which side are you on?” The conflict, as Gonzalez has reported, is about “the soul of the labor movement.”

We don’t want “bosses unions” and we don’t need business unionism, whatever its current incarnation and we fear the ongoing decline and increasing irrelevance of organized labor. We want, for the sake of the argument, what Kim Moody calls, “social movement unionism” or Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin call “social justice unionism.”  We want unions that fight for their members and all workers, on and off the job, for better wages and conditions but also for a better world.

“Instead of creating a false dichotomy between ‘organizing’ and ‘servicing, Steve Early argues in Rebel Rank and File (forthcoming, Verso) “’individual grievances” are no less important than membership growth or grappling with other “big picture” issues and challenges… Real union power can only be created through democratic workplace organization, membership mobilization, strike activity, cross-border solidarity, and strong links between labor and other social movements.”

UHW – as far as I can see – was evidence that this is possible, in our time. UHW was a well-organized, powerful, militant, progressive local union, 150,000 strong, led by its members. It didn’t invent the wheel. But it fought for its members, supported other workers in struggle, was proud of its immigrant members, opposed war, helped lead the fight against California prop 208, the anti-gay initiative. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein called it a “model” union. It was living testimony that another world is possible in the realm of workers, their organizations and their lives. What happened? Why has it been wrecked?

Early tells the story (Rebel Rank and File): In 2007 long simmering differences between SEIU and UHW emerged concerning, among other things, controversial agreements with a number of California nursing homes…that gave SEIU the right to organize in exchange for meeting ‘political benchmarks.’

In May 2007, the executive board of 140,000-member UHW accused SEIU of “negotiating employer agreements that may hinder healthcare workers from advocating effectively on behalf of the people they serve, significantly limit the scope of workers’ collective bargaining rights, and frustrate healthcare workers’ rights to participate in negotiations and vote on agreements that affect them.”

UHW board members demanded that SEIU meet three conditions. First, in any new organizing agreements, “healthcare workers’ ability to make their voices heard on matters of patient/resident/consumer care…must be furthered, not frustrated.” Second, “to advance workplace democracy,” the rank-and-file “must have a seat at the bargaining table,” be “fully informed of the terms and conditions of any proposed agreement,” and have the right to ratify or reject it. Third, any agreement that deprives health care workers of “full collective bargaining rights, including the right to engage in concerted action ” must be very limited in duration.

This challenge, as well as opposition to Stern’s back door health care deal with Schwarzenegger and the rampant corruption in southern California local 6434, went right to the heart of the SEIU perspective; it exposed the corporatism of Stern and his lieutenants, the fact that what they represent is in fact business unionism updated – cooperation, partnership, patriotism, the service model, all the old crap  spiffed up with Stern’s personal flare for corporate speak – “market shares,” “value added”  etc. Typically, tragically, SEIU responded to this challenge to its authority with savage retaliation. Its “war room” was established, its secret plan to “implode” UHW developed, its “warriors” assembled. Interestingly, the plan to break UHW was almost identical to that used this year against UNITE HERE – a campaign of direct mail, live calls, “robo calls,” emails and an “attack” website aimed at undermining UNITE HERE. As with SEIU’s “implosion” campaign against UHW, the secret plan explicitly sought to carry out a “destabilization of the ground” aimed at producing a “polarized union.”

There is a difference, however, and it is crucial, UHW was a local of SEIU, legally its property, and SEIU was able to bring the full weight of the law – property rights when it is boiled down – into the fray. And, in January, it placed UHW in trusteeship, fired its elected leadership, disbanded its stewards’ organizations, wrecked its bargaining teams (often in collaboration with the employers) and seized all its assets – simultaneously attacking individual UHW leaders in court in an endless procession of legal assaults. NUHW was formed on January 28 when UHW’s deposed 100 member Executive Board proposed to form a new union, backing the demands of 5,000 elected shop stewards who met the weekend before; since then more than 100,000 workers have petitioned to leave SEIU.

UNITE HERE has the advantage of being an already established national union – it has the chance to defend itself legally, it has the opportunity to gain support from other unions and it has received support. It deserves it in this conflict. But the question remains, which way will it go from here?

Immediately following the Convention, Wilhelm, in a telephone news conference, was asked about NUHW and whether or not the embattled new union would receive UNITE HERE support. Wilhelm declared that NUHW was in fact the “harbinger” of the new direction – and that while the details remained to be worked out, support would surely come.

I believe this support is critical, and this is not to belittle UNITE HERE’s own great, but far from insurmountable, obstacles. Today these conflicts represent the central issues of the labor movement. The California healthcare workers in UHW were paving the way for others; they still are though in astonishingly difficult circumstances. They were interrupted, but they are on the way back. They led, at great cost to themselves, the first major rejection of the SEIU corporate approach, a rejection utterly essential to any labor renewal. And they did this at a time while much of labor remained silent, cowed by SEIU hubris – and when in progressive circles, many activists and scholars were too busy cashing generous SEIU contribution checks for their various labor-related research projects, liberal publications and single issue campaigns to ask questions. This silence must be broken – it can be and the indeed the cracks in its walls are widening, thanks in no small part to the UNITE HERE fiasco.

We can help. NUHW members need to be invited into our union halls, our community centers, our colleges and universities, into our kitchens and living rooms. NUHW needs support – from organized labor, from political and community organizations, from individuals. It needs cash. Its members need to be able to tell their story.

The prerequisite of unionism, the foundation on which any real labor movement is built, is solidarity: but solidarity demands action. Now is the time to stand with NUHW. “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

“We had rights in UHW, they’ve taken them away,” says Angela Glasper, NUHW leader, fired Vice President of UHW, fired elected Chief Steward at Kaiser Antioch.  “We fought for them; we won them, that’s why we won’t stand for this.

“I don’t need another boss, one is enough. What is the use of having a union if it acts just the same of the company? SEIU, Kaiser, they’re both against the workers.

“I was born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi. I’ve had to fight for my rights all my life. I’m not going to stop now.”

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