What Kind of Unions Will We Have?

In April, 43,000 Kaiser Permanente workers in California will vote, again, to decide which union will represent them, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), the latter now allied with the California Nurses Association (CNA-NNU).

The issues in this contest are many. What is at stake is important. Very important. Let me say this right off – it is likely that this event, this election, will be as important as any for labor, in the coming year, indeed in the foreseeable future. What is at stake is in part about numbers, big numbers here and who gets them, also the shrinking numbers in US labor, as grim reports routinely remind us. But it is not just about “density” (the number of union members in a population or industry) that vastly exaggerated concept; we’ll return to this.

What is at stake here goes much farther than that. Rather, it is about what kind of unions we will have, what kind of unions workers will have, and it is the answer to this that will likely tell us what kind of future labor will have.

On Monday, February 11, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), cleared the way for this election, a rerun of the fall 2010 election, won convincingly by SEIU, the results of which they, the NLRB, in July 2011 threw out.

The 2010 election involved the largest number of workers in a certification dispute since the early 1940s, that one at Ford in the heyday of the US trade union movement. This one will be, if anything larger, 45,000 it’s reported.

The players are big, Kaiser Permanente, the biggest Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) in the country, 9 million members, 167,000 employees nationwide, 40 hospitals, 1.6 billion in net income (“profits”)  in 2011 – and the bulk of all this here in California, where it’s Oakland based CEO, George Halverson “earns” $9 million in salary annually and benefits beyond belief.

SEIU remains the nation’s second largest union, with nearly 2 million members, 600,000 of whom work in California. Its healthcare affiliate, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) represents for now 45,000 Kaiser service and tech workers; its leaders and staff inherited their positions, beneficiaries of the 2009 trusteeship imposed by the SEIU international. Dave Regan, its Cornell University grad president, receives $300,000 a year (plus benefits), this in an industry where tens of thousands (in California hospitals) work for less than $20,000 annually.

Against them, the NUHW, founded by members expelled in 2009 from UHW, now 10,000 members strong, and the CNA, with  85,000, 17,000 of them working for Kaiser in northern California.

Inequality, then.

And if that isn’t enough, Kaiser and SEIU have combined against latter, working together here; they are a team, a labor-management partnership in the deepest sense of this concept.  When Judge Lana Parke, the Washington, DC based administrative judge, threw out the first Kaiser election, she did so, because, she found, “that certain conduct of SEIU-UHW in the circumstances of unfair labor practices committed by Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Southern California Kaiser Permanente Medical Group  among three professional collective-bargaining units of Kaiser employees in Southern California interfered with the employee’s exercise of a free and reasoned choice among /Kaiser/employees…”

That is, she argued, SEIU used Kaiser’s “illegal” denial of raises to NUHW members in southern California, the case in point, to frighten and intimidate Kaiser’s workers into supporting SEIU and SEIU rode this to victory in the election. Moreover, she wrote, “the Board does not lightly set aside representational elections…”  concluding that “a new election will be held in accordance with the terms of this notice of election. All eligible voters should understand that the National labor Relations Board Act, as amended, gives them the right to cast their ballots as they see fit and protects them in the exercise of this right, free from interference by any other parties.”

If only this could be true (and remember it took the NLRB more than a year to schedule the first election, almost as much time to set the second. The wheels of “justice” at NLRB turn slowly). Nevertheless the elections are scheduled now, ballots are to be sent out on April 5, voting is to be completed by April 29, with counting to begin May 1.

What are the issues? Much of this will be fought out over current contracts and contracts to come – the CNA northern California nurses contract with Kaiser expires next year, 2014. NUHW contends that SEIU has given away concessions at every turn, not just at Kaiser but in hospitals throughout the state, and notably in negotiations with the giant chains, including Sutter Health, Dignity, and Daughters of Charity. CNA concurs.

At Kaiser, these concessions already include: cutbacks in medical benefits, including an invasive “Wellness Program,” also in retirement benefits plus retiree medical benefits, also dental coverage. Protections from subcontracting have been given away as well as seniority rights and job security – Kaiser has eliminated 1000 jobs under SEIU’s current contract.

And still Kaiser wants more – this is clear for all to see in the demands that Kaiser has placed on the table with NUHW’s 4000 Kaiser members, demands they have steadfastly and bravely rejected. It is interesting here to note that at the same time, now, Sutter Health has more than 100 concessionary demands on the bargaining table with its nurses. These and Kaiser’s demands are, of course, exactly what nurses there can expect next year. Across the industry things are, if anything worse. Among the most provocative ingredients in these negotiations is SEIU’s tactic of coupling  concessions with “winning” “me too” clauses. These clauses involve management’s agreement to match for SEIU members any gains made in bargaining by other unions – in practice they work as an incentive for management to maintain a hard line.

Deborah Burger, a CNA co-president and Kaiser RN at Santa Rosa, argues “look what SEIU has already agreed to, there have just been too many takeaways, what’s at stake for us is the precedent for everyone who works in the industry. It’s staggering. It makes our fight all that much harder. It already is at Sutter and everywhere else.

“Our contract with Kaiser comes up in 2014. We knew it was going to be a fight, just look at the proposals Kaiser has put on the table for NUHW.  If SEIU had held the line and fought, we’d be out there with them. But, no, so NUHW’s fight is our fight. It’s better for us to fight now, to help NUHW, to stop management now, to put a stop to these precedents.

“So we’re out there every day, the nurses are walking the floors, every unit, every shift; we’re talking about the importance of this election. Kaiser has had it easy with SEIU; they’ve been let off the hook. It won’t be so easy this time.”

In 2010, NUHW fought alone. They relied on the self-help of the members, a depleted staff, little money and volunteers. SEIU ran what Randy Shaw called “the classic union-busters strategy of relying on massive spending (between $20-40 million) to spread falsehoods about NUHW in robo-calls, email blasts, slick mailers and worksite visits …. /it was/the most expensive union election campaign in history.” He estimated that as many as 2600 full-time staff was sent to California for the election. NUHW leaders were “swift boated” (they stole your money), members were threatened (you won’t get your raise) and bullied (number one bully Regan is said to have told stewards, “If you’re not throwing chairs you’re not doing your job). The result was not a happy one by any means but still, in hindsight, winning 11,364 (against 18,290) votes for a militant, democratic worker led union was not so bad, not these days. Not against these odds.

The battle then is on. Rumors are that hundreds of SEIU full-timers are already here. The lying has begun. The bullying has begun; really it never stopped. According Oakland labor lawyer Jonathan Siegel NUHW supporters are “bullied by SEIU, threatened by Kaiser, threatened with trespass and arrest, kept out of facilities. At the same time, it’s an open door for SEIU.”

Bullying? What exactly is meant by this? Here’s the case of Gloria Watkins. It’s all too typical. On July 20, 2012, NUHW representative Gloria Watkins was surrounded by over two dozen SEIU-UHW stewards in the hallway of Kaiser Permanente’s Vallejo Medical Center, and was then verbally and physically attacked by this angry mob.

The SEIU stewards, while on Kaiser’s paid time, encircled Ms. Watkins, clapping and chanting in a hostile manner, deliberately causing her to fear for her safety. After Ms. Watkins sat down on a bench, one of the stewards sat beside her and repeatedly struck her in the torso with her elbow for about five minutes straight, while continuing the volley of verbal harassment. Kaiser security officers and managers witnessed the incident and did nothing to stop it, the lawsuit alleges. The setting? Remember, a healthcare facility. Who needs this?

Bad enough?  For NUHW veterans it is just that much worse. They’ve watched their once proud union wrecked. UHW before trusteeship was a growing union, the fastest growing in California, it was progressive, democratic, militant; it stood by other unions in struggle. It was clean – it is said to have blown the whistle on Tyrone Freeman, the former head of SEIU’s southern California, 190,000 member, local 6434. Freeman was once a rising star in SEIU; he was handpicked for his position by Andy Stern, the former SEIU president. He’s now just been convicted on 14 counts of embezzling perhaps as much as $1 million from his one-time members, mostly $9 an hour, bottom-of-the-ladder healthcare workers.  He awaits sentencing, facing as much as 180- years in prison (LA Times January 28, 2013). A note, this was all done on Eliseo Medina’s watch; Medina was then an SEIU vice president in southern California. He’s now the union’s secretary-treasurer!

Mell Garcia is a medical assistant as Kaiser Hayward; she’s worked there 30 years. She was an elected steward and an elected executive board member of UHW under the pre-trusteeship regime.  “These years /with SEIU/ have been depressing, frustrating, and sometimes hopeless. I used to be a steward.  So people still come to me, they need help, and they have nowhere else to go now. They come to me but I can’t help them. So Kaiser has a free hand; they do whatever they want.

“Yes, there’ve been changes, but all for the worse. Just take one example, the environmental staff /cleaners, housekeeping/. They’re having their work areas doubled, even tripled. SEIU says nothing. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

“So what’s this about for me? I want my union back. I want a contract that is upheld, every day. I want to come to work and feel strong, to have some power, to be secure about my job, my future, that’s what a union is about for me.” This, of course, won’t show up in discussions of “density.”

Alas, the odds still favor SEIU-Kaiser. But there are factors that in this round favor NUHW. First, of course, there is the alliance with the CNA and with it the National Nurses United (NNU), the largest nurses union in the country. This is inestimable. Kaiser workers united in one union, working together.

The alliance, announced in Oakland on January 3, this year, was, Sal Rosselli, president of NUHW, told the press, “an affiliation whose time has come.”  The chair of CNA’s Kaiser bargaining team, Zenei Cortez, RN (also a CNA co-president) explained, “Uniting together, CNA and NUHW are taking a huge step forward in achieving our joint goals.”

Numbers count. So does money. The nurses, however, bring more, beginning with the respect with which they are held in the hospitals. One CNA banner reads, “Save a life, you’re a hero. Save 100, you’re a nurse!” Then, add to this, these nurses are fighters; they have a history of fighting. The CNA, born in a 1990’s rebellion, is one of the few examples of such a union in the US today – above all it is known for its stunning victories in the fight for staffing in California hospitals, magnificent victories, and victories for workers and patients alike, for us all. It’s a progressive union– it stands for single payer healthcare, for fair taxation (the Robin Hood tax), for killing the Keystone pipeline. (Am I saying CNA is perfect? Why would I? same goes for NUHW, but certainly that’s not the issue we face and we’re likely to wait a long time for something much better.) The CNA, it might be added, has entered this fray with its plate full already. In a knock- down fight with Sutter, nurses at eight Sutter facilities have struck since contract negotiations began; there were four one-day strikes held on Christmas Eve, these protesting major cuts to patient care and nurses’ standards. At this point, Sutter remains apparently undeterred, it’s entire array of concessionary demands on the bargaining table, including, according to Joann Jung, Director of the CNAs Sutter division, “severe cuts in healthcare benefits for nurses and their families.” At Alta Bates Summit, 2000 nurses continue to fight management’s demands, even as SEIU-UHW has already accepted deep cuts. “The ‘me too’ clause there,” reports Jung, “puts an enormous burden on the nurses. It’s altogether unfair.” Sutter, by the way, is another fabulously wealthy, “non-profit.”  It has long been plagued by the this, criticisms compounded by the fact that Sutter has San Francisco’s lowest rate of providing charity care to low-income patients, hardly consistent, it seems, with its non-profit status and medical mission.

There’s more. In the spirit of the nationwide attack on public workers and pampered, overpaid teachers in particular, in June this past summer, SEIU’s Dave Regan appeared in Sacramento with the Duane Dauner, President/CEO of the California Hospital Association, to support an attempt to roll back California’s hospital staffing ratios, including nurse to patient rations, these ratios the products of decades of struggle. Why? Regan suggested that money saved could be spent to uplift those less-well paid than, say, nurses! Sure! The California Hospital Association is the healthcare equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce. It represents the industry that profited $4.4 billion in 2010. Regan, ever generous, offered this in support –the rollback of the bill could save hospitals as much as $400 million in the first year alone. “Jaw dropping,” responded the healthcare blog, Stern Berger with Fries.”

More to the point, in 2011, CNA nurses twice joined NUHW on Kaiser picket lines, each time, 20,000 strong, the largest hospital strikes in US history. So we have a lot going for us, a lot more than last time. The nurses for a start, but also a large and growing core of tough, experienced NUHW members. There is also the fact that past confusions about SEIU-UHW – just who and what it is – have, at least for many, been cleared up. The case can be made that SEIU is Kaiser’s union. And the concessions, the absence of representation, the retreat of the union on all fronts is there to see.

I hope I don’t exaggerate the importance of the outcome of this conflict. I don’t think I do so. At the same time, I hope, as I think we all do, that there will in fact be major events to come, say, another Madison, another Chicago teachers strike, the sooner the better. But that takes nothing away from this argument, nothing away from the significance of the April election.

Any why not? Much has been made of the recent report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the report (“Union Members, 2012” January 23, 2013) that found that labor’s numerical decline continues apace; membership is now down to 11.3% over all, and just 6.6% in the private sector, the lowest, we are told since the turn of the past century, the 1900s that is.

This is dreary to be sure. Yet there is perhaps a silver lining. California, the state with the highest number of union members, 2.4 million, appears to have gained union members, another 100,000 (though it’s not at all clear just where and how, but we’ll leave that for now). The point would seem to be, importantly, that unions can grow, though how is not yet so clear. There are certainly factors that bode well for us – no Scott Walker here, the state is dominated by democrats, overwhelmingly. Obama won by three million votes, for what that’s worth. A right-to-work campaign then seems unlikely. We have some pretty strong unions – the ILWU just shut down two of California’s three major ports, including the huge port at Los Angeles. The two big teachers unions seem full of potential. There are others.

We have after all 2.4 million members, in the nation’s most highly diverse state. We have an increasingly large, restive and frustrated immigrant population. And we have the bitter, ongoing experience of the foreclosure crisis. There is as well the legacy of the great crash and the great recession that persists. Unemployment remains near 10% – while Silicon Valley enjoys yet another gold rush and San Francisco gleams. How can unions not grow in conditions such as these?

I’ll suggest one reason. They don’t grow because of unions like SEIU – and sadly there are many of these. Some time back, we asked the question in these pages, “What is the SEIU?” There have been various answers (not specifically to us). Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of CNA once called SEIU a “management surveillance team,” an organization that “will do anything to get dues.”  HERE’s Mike Casey referred to SEIU as “the company union in our industry.” Somewhat more expressively, Vince Giblin of the Operating Engineers (and he should know) called SEIU’s illustrious then president Stern “the Darth Vader of the labor movement.” We’ve waited in vain until now for opinions to the contrary. It does appear, however, that there is much evidence to support the view that SEIU is something less than a union. Mell Garcia says simply, “It’s a bosses union. If the bosses could make a union they’d make SEIU.”

At the same time, well-known labor scholars Nelson Lichtenstein and Bill Fletcher have called suggested that NUHW is a “model union.” Also, “the fight between NUHW and SEIU is not a question of an old-fashioned ‘raid’. /It is/instead a process which seeks to reestablish an ongoing, democratic and highly successful union whose health and outlook is essential to any revitalization of trade unionism, on both a state and national basis.” So why the silence in the labor movement. And why more of the same from labor’s academic and activist friends, a wider silence this time perhaps than last time. Why is this conflict largely ignored? The only reference to it in a recent Nation magazine roundtable on the state of labor was a lament that it was happening at all.

The movement today, it seems to me, is desperate, desperate for something good to happen, especially something big. And among other things, it wants big numbers, big numbers as an answer to dwindling statistics. The SEIU promised above all density. And it’s still riding on that. But not much. So the call to organize persists. And rightly so. Walmart. Fast Food. The port truckers. Grand Stephen Lerner schemes. Smart organizers are needed. Miracle cures, power structure  analysis. Revolutionary new tactics. Indeed we do need these.  But  into what kind of unions?

There is also the long haul and this is at least in part what the California conflict is about. So we return to this question of what kind of unions we need. And what kind of members? This is not, again, just a question about numbers then. It’s about people. I sometimes think this conflict in California is a little like the rank-and-file rebellions of the 1970s, the fights to transform the unions, to change them into something better.” There was then one slogan that still resonates, “Organize the organized.” Ken Paff, the organizer for Teamster for a Democratic Union, (TDU) reminded me that “trucking is in the service sector, it’s non-exportable, and there are more trucks moving than ever before. So there’s still much to do in “core sectors of industry” but that needs “commitment from international – and money The Kaiser workers, organized, inevitably represent this potential. There are literally millions of unorganized healthcare workers today. I think we don’t pay enough attention to this. And in this case, the Kaiser fight is in many ways organizing, or reorganizing the organized, that is the Kaiser workers trapped in SEIU. It’s a fight within the unions – but it’s an important fight, there’s no escaping it.  Is this so bad? The Nation correspondent writes that “the worst news this winter is not about numbers, or bad legislation, but rather that some of our most effective union organizers are going to be fighting over already-organized workers in two or more major inter-union battles.”  I don’t think this is true. We needed the CIO in the 1930s; it precipitated giant steps for labor. A win for CNA-NUHW will be such a step, and today. Walmart workers, port truckers, the vast numbers of the unorganized can only be beneficiaries.

CNA’s Deborah Burger responds, “I can see unions growing, but only if they are relevant, and just as long as they really belong to the workers. But what’s the point of a union if all it does is argue management’s case; what’s the point if it’s just someone else on the other side of the bargaining table?

“They press have made a big deal of Tyrone Freeman’s conviction and that’s right. But there are other crimes, bigger crimes. What about SEIU’s crimes. It’s criminal, these concessions, it’s taking money from hardworking, low-wage people, putting it into the pockets of the George Halverson’s, and using it to subsidize this industry, in this case they’re financing Kaiser and it’s expansion, it’s now global ambitions.  They’re putting our money into the pockets of others. How much will this cost a worker, how much over a lifetime? How much will it cost us all? A lot more than Freeman got.”

And Sal Rosselli: “Can unions grow? We’re doing it every day. We’ve gained a thousand members in the past two years, and we’re on the defensive in this fight with SEUI, we’ve got them between us and the employers. The truth is that healthcare workers today need a union more than ever, hospital profits are unprecedented, yet they’re on the attack for more.

“Workers want unions because they want power, power against the employer, power at work, power in society. They want that but most unions don’t offer it. We and CNA are still exceptions. But we can do it.”

In an interesting article, Chris Maisano, writing in Jacobin, suggests this:

“The external challenges confronting union today are massive, and their importance should not be minimized. But they shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid asking hard questions about labor’s inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to mobilize its most precious resource – its current members. If only 5% of US unionists /out of 14 million members today/were turned into trained, disciplined activists with a class orientation and a long term strategic vision, there would be about 750,000 of them. How different would this country look if we had that?”

Very different indeed. It still depends, however, on what kind of union, but this is what the California election is all about.

Cal Winslow is the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, PM Press, 2012 (second edition, revised and expanded), an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies (Verso, 2010), and an editor of West of Eden, Communes and Utopia in Northern California (PM Press, 2012). He is a Fellow at UC Berkeley, Director of the Mendocino Institute and associated with the Bay Area collective, Retort. He can be reached at cwinslow@berkeley.edu


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