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High Noon for California Nurses

On September 4, approximately 43,000 healthcare workers at 331 Kaiser facilities in California began voting on whether or not to stay affiliated with their current union, the large (1.9 million) and influential Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which was formerly led by the redoubtable Andrew Stern, and is now headed by Mary Kay Henry.

For these Kaiser employees it’s a question of remaining with the SEIU, or switching to the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), a fledgling (6,000 members) but optimistic organization with good bloodlines, having been founded by union firebrand Sal Rosselli. The Kaiser voting concludes on October 4.

Depending on whom you talk to, Rosselli, a former SEIU officer, is either a dedicated, charismatic union reformer whose goal in life is to make sure his members get the best deal possible, or an ego-driven, power-hungry hustler suffering from a messianic complex so severe, he believes that he—and he alone—can lead the membership out of the desert and into the Promised Land.

Stern and Rosselli have a history.  Until recently, Rosselli was the president of a huge SEIU local in Northern California—SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West.  Rosselli openly rebelled against the International when Stern, in what was seen as a power play, tried to funnel 65,000 SEIU-UHW members into another local, and Stern responded by removing Rosselli from office and placing his local in trusteeship.  There’s no love lost between the two.

Neither Stern nor Rosselli’s hands are completely clean.  Last April, Rosselli was convicted in federal court of illegally diverting membership funds to underwrite his breakaway campaign; and although he continues to maintain his innocence, Rosselli and his crew were forced to repay $1.5 million to the union treasury.

And as for union loyalty and allegiance, Andy Stern himself was once a defiant mutineer.  No one has forgotten that it was Stern who master-minded the Great Defection of 2005, getting several big-time unions, including the SEIU, Teamsters, Carpenters, and United Food and Commercial Workers to break away from the AFL-CIO (under the presidency of John Sweeney, who, adding to the intrigue, was Stern’s old SEIU ally) and form their own labor coalition, the Change to Win federation.

Labor observers believe that Rosselli has the most to lose in this dispute.  If he fails to get the Kaiser people to join the NUHW—if they choose to stay put—it’s unlikely his tiny, start-up union, despite its noble and ambitious intentions, will survive.  Rather than limping along on the margins of organized labor, the NUHW would be absorbed by a larger entity.

As for the SEIU, while losing Kaiser (the largest health provider in California) would be a crushing disappointment, it wouldn’t be critical.  The only scenario that could truly damage the SEIU is one in which the Kaiser defection snowballs into the loss of the International’s entire healthcare membership sector across the country, and that’s unlikely.

Many of us who’ve followed this thing are rooting for the NUHW.  Sal Rosselli seems to be the real deal.  As disruptive and disloyal as these breakaways are, the emergence of a singularly dedicated and dynamic leader, like Rosselli, must always trump allegiance.  As union members, you’re obliged to go with the talent, not the history.

The competition between tiny labor unions and giant Internationals is analogous to the competition between neighborhood mom-and-pop enterprises and impersonal mass merchandisers.  The little guy promises to cater to individual needs, the big guy advertises a wide selection and lower prices.

As a former union rep, I’ve been on both sides of the fence.

Early on, as chief shop steward—even though I didn’t know the first thing about contract negotiations—I insisted that we were getting shafted at the bargaining table, that another union, a higher profile one, could do a better job than the “professional politicians” who were currently representing us.  Other than creating some heartburn for the leadership, nothing came of my protests.

Years later, while serving as president of the same union—and with four decent contracts and one strike under my belt—a small but vocal segment of the membership (who, alas, also didn’t know the first thing about negotiations) turned the tables on me, portraying me as incompetent, gutless and pro-company.  They wanted us to break away and join a new union, or, at the very least, install a new president.

In the span of a few short years, I had made that dreadful, inevitable journey….from “dangerously radical” to “sadly obsolete.”  Part of that journey was, admittedly, the product of disappointments, compromises, and miscommunication; but part of it—a large part—was the product of faulty perception and ignorance.

While the pleas to change union affiliation, as well as calls for my ouster, eventually died down (I was subsequently re-elected), the experience of fighting for my political life was both educational and humbling.

Whether it’s paperworkers, hotel janitors, public school teachers, or airline pilots, maintaining the long-term confidence and support of a union electorate is tricky.  It’s harder than it looks.  Of course, whoever ends up representing the Kaiser nurses already knows that.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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