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The Kaiser Permanente Elections and the Fight for Democracy

Labor Day Weekend, Oakland, CA

We spent several hours with Ed Sadlowski, this Labor Day weekend.  Sadlowski is the former steelworker rebel, the man who at age 38 almost dethroned the incumbent president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW), then 1.4 million members strong, an industrial workers’ powerhouse since the thirties.

Sadlowski , a third-generation Chicago mill worker, a product of what was once the vast steel center at the heart of US industry, a working class fighter, began mill work at 25. Still in his twenties, he was elected president of the huge US Steel South Works USW local, then 11,000 strong. Then he was elected USW District 31 Director, 80,000 strong. Sadlowski became perhaps the best known leader of the upsurge that began in the sixties and ran through the seventies, more than a decade of working-class rebellion, strikes, and rank-and file movements. He is now retired; he has not left the trenches – still fighting, and this Labor Day is no exception.

He’s in California – he still lives in Chicago – on loan to the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) in their challenge to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to represent California’s healthcare workers.

“I’m here doing the lord’s work” he says with a wink. “I’m here to see that no more people are harmed by what’s going on. No more working people hurt by other working people.

“I’ve been in southern California for two weeks; I came up here this week. I’ve been working with healthcare groups here, Kaiser Permanente workers, the supporters of the new union, NUHW, just wonderful workers, trade unionists and then go from there.

“Some of these workers, I like the young workers,  some of the younger people, some of the women, they are just as tough as any steelworker or dock worker I’ve  seen in my life, You’re not going to push them around, not going to browbeat them, you’re not going to bullshit them. We’re very fortunate here”

This NUHW-SEIU conflict, increasingly bitter, is rooted in SEIU’s trusteeship of United Healthcare Workers-West – the January 2009 hostile takeover of SEIU’s once powerful, progressive 150,000 member local union, the takeover itself the result of a long standing conflict stemming from fundamental disagreements on internal democracy, worker empowerment, and militant trade unionism.

Trusteeship backfired; the local’s members immediately petitioned to decertify SEIU, perhaps the largest decertification drive ever. They set out to build a new union, really, to rebuild their union. SEIU responded with “shock and awe” – thousands of staff were sent into California; tens of millions of dollars were spent. They succeeded in stalling National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections fully eighteen months – but not forever. This summer Kaiser Permanente’s workers, the single largest division within California’s healthcare workers, petitioned again. Successfully. The NLRB set elections. The ballots will be sent out September 13 and 14. Results will be announced in October.

This election will be the biggest, most important union election in decades, indeed since the thirties. It is, thus far, ignored, certainly as far as the media are concerned. Labor Day, the story goes, was established as an alternative to May Day – the traditional workers’ day. May Day, the day, in the aftermath of the Haymarket Affair, the bloody massacre of workers in Chicago, would  become the day some a day of international working class solidarity, a celebration of struggle, a display of power.

Not here. In that, certainly the masters of capital  succeeded. May Day is barely remembered; Labor Day is chiefly an end of summer respite. This year, as in others, the press will notice, if anything at all, that the trade unions continue to shrink, now to perhaps a bit more than 7 per cent of private sector workers, and that the recession will if anything accelerate the decline – the result of layoffs and prolonged unemployment. California’s unemployment rate remains well above 12 per cent. Millions more workers face foreclosure.

Ed Sadlowski came to California to help; so, by the way, have others, scores of organizers, volunteers committed to NUHW and to what it has come to stand for – most immediately, the right of workers to a union of their choice.

“And that’s at the heart of it,” says Sadlowski. “What’s happening here in California in the healthcare industry, particularly at Kaiser, is shameful, something that you find only in the annals of the corporate world. It’s the devil’s work. It’s shameful that here you find an outfit that calls itself a trade union putting the dogs on other workers. I’ve never seen anything like this in the 50 years I’ve been in the movement. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen, as deceitful as any of the worst bosses.

“The song sung here by the SEIU chorus is ‘Stop this movement’, stop this progressive movement at all costs. SEIU has lost all scruples, all morals. They’ve come in here hungry for battle, they’re hungry to displace people, they fabricate lies, lies after lies, believe me, just look at their handbills, distortion after distortion. And the thuggery, the bullying. I’ve seen it firsthand. They even tried it on me. What a joke. I thought we got over that. We don’t need it.

“This will only harm people; the damage will last a long time. Whoever wins, you can’t stop and then expect people to forget.”

This week NUHW members, staff and volunteers, Sadlowski among them, prepare for the next invasion. SEIU has announced it will send an additional 2,000 full-time staff into California. This will include apparently, the entire organizing staff of 1199 United Healthcare Workers –East, a behemoth of local unions, the 350,000 member conglomeration built upon old New York 1199, long adored by “progressives.”  The campaign, grotesquely dubbed by new SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, “World War III”, will cost literally millions (salaries, airfares, hotel rooms, rental cars, per diems), this on top of tens of millions already spent, including on lavish remittances to an army of lawyers. Millions, the source of which is found in deductions from the paychecks of typically poorly paid working members.

“To be honest, my health has not been all that good these last couple of years. And by the way, I have to say I’m also filling in for my kid, Ed Jr., a good union man, driven out by SEIU.

“This this is the best medicine personally I can take – being with these people trade unionists, real trade unionists.

“I think people are learning that victory is possible.  I’m not being naïve here, or romantic, so I don’t think SEIU is going to roll over and die – but this is the whole David and Goliath thing, the kid with the slingshot and the stone.

“The SEIU spends tens of millions on this campaign, in the courts, they bring in the big organizers – and against just pennies, literally pennies. Oh, I know they’re very slick, they’ve got some talented people, I know many of them. But it’s not going to work.

“We were up against the same thing in the seventies, when I challenged the hierarchy – staff dominating the union, the no strike pledge, secret deals with the employers.”

The seventies saw the last significant upsurge of US labor. Rebellious miners, truckers, postal workers, teachers, public sector workers – black workers, women, farmworkers  – participated in movements for democracy, inclusion, militant resistance to the employers’ offensive. Sadlowski’s 1977 Fightback campaign for the presidency of the USW became synonymous with the rebellion in steel. Sadlowski was well-known as supporting civil rights, as an opponent of the war.

“We may have lost that fight, but we won a lot. We had the same issues, lack of democracy in our own locals, a top-down, authoritarian international leadership. You know, we changed a lot, I brag about that, we turned our union around, we really did.

“One regret – I’ve spent nights thinking about this, the civil rights issue, the war, we didn’t do enough. Why I didn’t do more, I try to rationalize, as we all do – yes we all make mistakes, still we know we should have done more. I know it’s a long time ago but I didn’t do enough.

“Many of the internal problems within the union are still there, but many of the unions have cleaned up their acts.

“I don’t want people misunderstanding what I’m saying. Is the labor movement corrupt, I don’t believe that – the corruption is when you take into account weakness in the human spirit.

“There are corrupt unions. Andy Stern never did anything to root out corruption in the SEIU – guys walked off with millions. He needs to be held accountable.

“But that’s nothing compared to the banks, you can’t say the unions are as corrupt as Wall Street. You can’t say that.

“But even if we’re just only 1 per cent corrupt, that is too much as far as labor is concerned. We should expect labor to meet stand

“Why am I saying this?

“The labor movement belongs to you and to me and every other working person in this country. It made this country; the good things that exist in this country come from labor and its actions.

“I love the labor movement. It’s been everything for me, for my family. We could change the world, change the distribution of the wealth we create, we can do this democratically – and the labor movement can play a big part in this.”

We asked Sadlowski about the key issues today: “Democracy, participatory democracy that in itself will correct many of our problems. We need participatory democracy, social democracy; democracy that we need to carry into the very households in which we live, then into the world.

“A Victory at Kaiser, I think, it will be a big marker, when they call in the chips, it will be a victory in healthcare, and this is a big industry, and rich. According to the papers, Kaiser did pretty well for itself last year – in excess of $2 billion in profits, not bad potatoes in my neighborhood.

“I think it will be done. I like being with the young people, they’re going to make their mark. It’s getting harder to bullshit them. I think it was easier when my grandpa came over from Poland. It ain’t  easy now to bullshit the kids. I got a lot of respect for these kids, yeah. They’re the real McCoy.”

Faith Simon, a supporter of NUHW, has been a nurse in Africa, the United Kingdom, and in many US hospitals. She is a Family Nurse Practitioner in rural Northern California.

Cal Winslow is author of Labor’s Civil Wars in California and a co-editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and the Revolt from Below in the Long Seventies. He can be reached at

More articles by:

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

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