Labor’s Civil War on Labor Notes

Labor’s Civil War in California: The NUHW Healthcare Workers’ Rebellion

As NUHW Files For Huge Hospital Election, A Member Reflects on Labor’s Civil War in California

by David Mallon

[Editor’s note: The National Union of Healthcare Workers is filing for an election today in a 43,000-person bargaining unit at the statewide Kaiser Permanente health care system in California, to decertify the Service Employees union (SEIU). Members will vote between SEIU, NUHW, and “no union.”

Kaiser is the largest bargaining unit in SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), the local trusteed by the International union in January 2009. That action triggered the founding of NUHW and ongoing battles between the two unions, including a lawsuit, since then. It is the Kaiser unit, though, that will decide whether NUHW is able to survive, both because of its size and because of its traditions of member involvement.

NUHW interim president Sal Rosselli says the balloting, at hospitals and other health care facilities throughout California, will be the biggest private sector union election in 69 years. The election could happen as soon as 60 days from now. The National Labor Relations Board has also given the go-ahead to most other pending elections NUHW had petitioned for, which SEIU had contested and blocked by filing various legal objections.

A recently published book, Labor’s Civil War in California by Cal Winslow, tells the story of the fight between SEIU and NUHW. It’s reviewed here by an NUHW member.]

On a warm evening this spring I was walking with some colleagues along San Francisco’s Mission Street and happened upon three young yuppie revelers. They asked us if we knew where a strip joint was. We didn’t. The preppiest, clearly an MBA up-and-comer, though dressed only in shorts, a T-shirt, and flipflops—eyeballed the logo on my jacket. “What is NUHW?” he asked. I told him it was my union, and before I could get another word out, my friends and I were entertained with a tirade on the corruption of unions, how they were the bane of free enterprise and should be banned.

We moved on, realizing our boy was far too drunk to be corrigible, and we weren’t looking for a fight. Besides, after what the group of us had been through during the last three years, maybe MBA Boy had a point: unions can be occasions of corruption. This is what Cal Winslow’s remarkable living history, Labor’s Civil War in California, so ably documents. In bold strokes Winslow lays bare the subtle and not so subtle abuses of power the Service Employees union (SEIU) has engaged in of late. It is a portrait in corruption, and one not yet finished.

In many ways Winslow’s book is a painful read. He begins just about where my own experience starts: in 2007, with now-resigned International President Andy Stern leading SEIU’s “all-out assault” on its powerful, 150,000-member California health care workers local, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW). “The attack,” Winslow writes, “was designed to break the union.”

This was no personality clash between powerful men. The differences between SEIU and UHW run far deeper than union leaders’ egos. It is a fundamental disconnect between competing worldviews. For SEIU, union saturation is the idol to be worshipped. But as membership grew so did the distance from democratic management of the union. The more remote the leadership from the rank and file, the easier it was to come quietly, out of the public eye, to agreements in corporate fashion.

NUHW has an opposite worldview, championing good contracts and involved members, believing health care workers will be drawn to the value and virtue of the union. Workers will recognize the quality of the representation they receive from their peers, democratically elected as stewards and executives of the union.
I’d had a foretaste of the SEIU approach. My bargaining unit within the Kaiser Permanente health system, the Kaiser Psych-Social Chapter, made up entirely of licensed and certified mental health professionals, had for 35 years been part of Local 535.We had bargained many successful contracts on our own, without any help from the International. But in the summer of 2006 SEIU conducted jurisdictional hearings at Stern’s behest and concluded that Local 535 should be dissolved and the various bargaining units farmed out to other locals. It was a preview of future power grabs. Stern’s arrogance was highlighted when my chapter sent him petitions asking that Local 535 not be dissolved and that we remain in that union. He ignored us utterly. There was not even an acknowledgement that we had protested. Local events like this were the grains of corruption that the International processed into bread for the locals to eat.
Winslow lays out in staccato fashion the multitude of plots hatched against UHW in 2007 and 2008: the “implosion” scheme, the deconstruction scheme, the vivisection scheme; the pooled voting scheme, and the “swamp and drown” with litigation scheme, culminating in the “let’s make it look like democracy” scheme that was the 2008 International convention in Puerto Rico.

When the various plots failed, the executive board rammed through at the convention a sneaky bit of legislation buried like pork in a tax bill. This resolution stripped UHW of 65,000 of its long-term care workers. The intent, of course, was to cripple UHW and pave the way for trusteeship.

This was the same gathering that declined to endorse language that would include “rank-and-file” members on bargaining teams. Executive Vice President Dave Regan ridiculed the notion from the dais, saying that guarantees of member involvement were to be found elsewhere in the constitution and bylaws and redundancy was unnecessary. Redundancy in a democratic system is its saving grace, not an encumbrance. Redundancy is the antidote against corruption.

Labor’s Civil War in California could be an essential element in the redundancy protections of democratic unionism. It should be read by every union member. It should be carried in their hip pocket, to be pulled out and referenced every time there is the slightest whiff of corruption rising from the employer or the union hierarchy. If we have learned anything over the past three years, it is that unions can get too big, when they are corrupted by the bosses, to maintain or revive integrity. And Winslow, page after page, documents SEIU’s corporate, top-down, autocratic unionism, resulting in grave injury to the workers who make possible the boss’s commodity: health care.

I was caught up in this, no doubt. The International, on the day of Obama’s inauguration, put in motion the final mechanism that would lead to UHW’s trusteeship. Regan asked me to resign; I refused and was removed as a steward and contract specialist a week later. Within a few months, hundreds of democratically elected stewards were fired by SEIU, having refused its loyalty oaths. Ultimately thousands of the most talented union members became disenfranchised, unable to participate in any aspect of the union’s relationship with the employer, because they strongly want a union in which they can vote for who runs it.

Stern has now retired to “green”-er pastures: just as health care corporations reap extraordinary profits and the health care grandees give themselves huge bonuses, Stern has given himself a tidy little retirement of $219,000-plus a year for life and has insinuated himself onto the board of directors of a NASDAQ corporation.

But our drama is yet unfolding, and many of us in California health care continue to be players. Winslow’s short book, concise and rich at the same time, does us a great service. He takes a page from the work of another great pamphleteer:
“I bring reason to your ears, and, in language as plain as ABC, hold up truth to your eyes.” Thomas Paine, December 23, 1776.

David Mallon is now secretary of NUHW’s Kaiser Psychsocial Chapter. In January his unit voted 717-192 to leave SEIU and join NUHW.

Back to Cal Winslow’s Author Page