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Huge Hospital Elections Set

The new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) has filed petitions representing tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente workers – decertification petitions setting the stage for the largest, most important union election in decades. Kaiser workers, 45,000, at last have won the right to vote for a union of their choice.

The elections will come – despite SEIU’s teams of lawyers, despite its still deep pockets. They will be held despite Kaiser’s blatantly pro-SEIU intervention in this conflict. And they will be held despite the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) “justice delayed” preference in operations.

This is the second time Kaiser workers have petitioned for elections. When the majority of Kaiser workers petitioned to decertify SEIU in 2009, they were disallowed, the result of legal technicalities and a management-style SEIU delaying campaign. Now it seems they will have their way.

The NLRB is obliged by law to schedule these elections at the giant corporation’s 350 California facilities – the workers will have these choices: NUHW, SEIU-UHW, “no union.” Elections should take place within ninety days.

It’s about time. “We worked for decades to make Kaiser jobs good, stable jobs that paid enough so people in our communities could support their families,” says Robert Hernandez, a materials management clerk at Kaiser Baldwin Park for almost 20 years. “Now since SEIU officials took over our union last year, Kaiser has announced layoffs, cut benefits, and started turning good jobs into contingent or flexed positions. We’re ready to put healthcare workers back in charge of our union again.”

What’s at stake here? – the future of the labor in California? The future of unionism in the US?

SEIU is the largest union in California – 650,000 members, the largest in the US, 1.9 million members. More, in the last decade, it has promoted itself as the progressive vanguard of American labor, the union of the future. NUHW is the new California healthcare workers union, established last year in the aftermath of SEIU’s trusteeship – the hostile takeover of its 150,000 member local union, UHW-West. Truth be told, it, actually, is the fastest growing healthcare union – with some 5,000 members signed on in a little more than a year.

What are the issues? SEIU’s program now seems to be reduced to “bigger is better” and it is ruthlessly prepared to do just about anything to achieve that (and keep the dues dollars coming) – in California in a desperate attempt to appease Kaiser and confuse its beleaguered members, it has just signed a “national” contract with the healthcare giant that gives back millions in pensions and opens the door for major concessions in healthcare benefits.

NUHW champions good contracts, a democratic, worker run union (as its people once did at UHW) – a union that both grows and is democratic, a union that empowers workers. Its members built pre-trusteeship UHW into the most powerful local union in California. Now these workers want their union back – at Tuesday’s filing in Los Angeles Dolores Huerta, the United Farmworkers founder and former leader and UNITE HERE Local 11 President Tom Walsh gave their support at a press conference.

“For employees to have a voice at work, they must have a voice in their union,” said Huerta. “This is about democracy. For more than a year, these workers have been denied the right to vote.”

“The members of UNITE HERE are proud to support Kaiser workers organizing to join NUHW,” said Walsh. “We are committing our support to help them win.”

Now the task is to win the vote – still against great odds. NUHW relies on a tiny, minimally paid staff, plus volunteers, and the Kaiser workers. SEIU, which has already spent tens of millions in this California civil war, seems prepared to spend millions more – money, by the way, that it collects from its hard-working, often very poorly paid, members.

We need to add a word about the larger issues here – because this is not just a California conflict. It is now no-doubt well-known, that Andy Stern has departed, Stern who for fifteen years was the leader, more, the symbol, the celebrity king, of SEIU. Why? It’s not entirely clear – but what we do know is that he’s taken a $219,000-plus a year, for life, pension – yes, paid for by the members – and already landed a spot at SIGA Technologies, “a company specializing in the development of pharmaceutical agents to combat bio-warfare pathogens.” SIGNA proudly announced that Andy Stern, “labor leader and prominent advocate for reform,” has joined their board of directors.

“Why,” asks Mike Wilzoch, a now purged twenty three year veteran of SEIU, “would Big Pharma bio-warriors be interested in the just-resigned president of the Service Employees (SEIU)? Dr. Eric Rose, SIGA’s CEO, gets right to the point: ‘His insight, experience, and leadership, particularly his understanding of how our federal government works, will complement the skill sets of our existing board members.’

“Stern’s new “activist” partners at SIGA include the likes of Michael Bayer, CEO of the national security consulting firm Dumbarton Strategies and director of the big military contractor DynCorp, notorious for its loose approach to accounting standards in its billion-dollar Iraq contracts.”

“No doubt,” suggests Wilzoch, board meetings at SIGA begin and end with moving the progressive foreign policy and social justice agenda Stern has so proudly hailed over these last decades.”

Well, that’s Andy! Yes, but are we to believe that there is no continuity here – no connection between Andy running SEIU and Andy on the SIGA board, or between SEIU’s corporate unionism and the dismal condition of the US labor movement. And should we be surprised that it’s all so seamless?

But isn’t there a new regime in Washington now, SEIU presided over by ever-so-nice Mary Kay Henry – isn’t SEIU now set to get back to business?

It depends on what’s meant by that. Here are two items of interest. SEIU, embroiled in two intra union wars, has scarcely organized a worker in two years. Nevertheless, low and behold, merger mania continues and now SEIU announces having created on July 1st “the largest and fastest growing healthcare union in the country” – having swallowed up SEIU Healthcare Florida. This is not growth, it is reshuffling the deck. This “local” union will have 350,000 members – it will be run from SEIU 1199’s New York City offices. Have a grievance? – just phone New York. Or, better yet, dial 1-800 …. the Member Resource Center, SEIU’s pathway to workplace power.

The second item, also on new President Henry’s watch. Henry, of course, was a key member of the team of SEIU Executive Vice Presidents who led their staff “warriors” into California. So “World War III” should come as no surprise – even though the targets here are militant healthcare workers, also dues paying SEIU members! And it should also come as no surprise that Stern protégé Henry, a veteran of the Sutter Hospital debacle (see Labor’s Civil War in California) and her henchman, Stern appointed Trustee, “old school” Dave Regan have found a willing ally in Kaiser Permanente.

Kaiser has already won a sweetheart deal, cut by Regan, soon to be President of SEIU-UHW, himself. But, according to Steve Early, Kaiser has taken advantage of SEIU’s desperation –allowing only members willing to sign an official loyalty oath to serve as stewards or negotiators. “So Kaiser is taking advantage of weaker, less experienced people who have replaced the hundreds of Kaiser stewards who have quit or been purged by SEIU because of their NUHW sympathies.” “It’s very different working at Kaiser now,” Kaiser social worker Randi Shaw told Early. “The culture has changed and you can feel it.”

Nevertheless, NUHW is entering this next round with a stRing of hospital victories – Santa Rosa Memorial, Kaiser Sunset nurses, Southern California professionals, Salinas Valley Memorial, University of Southern California Hospital. There is every reason to be optimistic, despite the odds. Victory is there to win – and support, including funding from CNA and UNITE HERE plus the growing numbers of volunteers, including staff on leave from other unions – clearly shows it can be one.

California still ranks high in unemployment (12+%) and leads in foreclosures but it’s far from alone. Workers around the world, thanks in no small degree to our G20 delegates who just braved Toronto (a billion spent on police protection), face official policies of austerity – cutbacks, concessions, unemployment, collapsing social services. And while the banks recover, we’re warned of a new recession, a recession within the recession. And labor? What do we hear from labor? Tragically, SEIU’s retreat into the worst of corporate unionism has not been the exception.

But, according to John Borsos, a fired elected vice president of UHW, now a leader of the new NUHW, “A powerful labor movement has never been more needed. This is a crucial moment, perhaps a turning point.

“Our elections will be the biggest representational elections in California history, the biggest in the US since the 1940s. And they will offer workers a clear choice – top-down, management friendly unions (SEIU in this case), or a union that fights for workers, a member driven, democratic union that empowers workers.

“Just look at the context, the economic climate, the cutbacks, austerity, and unemployment compensation running out. Everyone asks when is labor going to stand up, when will it act.

“We think now is the time, this is the moment – and a win at Kaiser is vital, absolutely if we’re to revitalize labor, if we’re to make labor a power – if we’re going to make the promise, the necessity of change a reality.”

SEIU’s legal harassment of NUHW staff has resulted in defense costs now in the hundreds for thousands of dollars. SEIU’s clear intention continues to be to humiliate and break these people – all good union men and women. You can help. Contribute to: Fund for Union Democracy and Reform 465 California Street Ste. 1600 San Francisco, CA 94104

CAL WINSLOW has written CounterPunch articles on the subject of the SEIU and NUHW, including “Stern’s Gang Seizes UHW Union Hall,” February 2, 2009. He is also the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, PM Press and an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies ( forthcoming, April 2010). He can be reached at cwinslow@berkeley.edu

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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@mcn.org

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