Union Democracy Starts at Bottom

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

By Seth Sandronsky
The Progressive Populist
June 1, 2010

This is a small book about a big subject: union democracy. California is the site of the conflict. But its meanings for organized labor, in a painful downward spiral, are national.

Author Cal Winslow, an historian, draws in part on original reporting, in making a case against the recent actions of the Service Employees International Union leadership. This, in turn, spawned the creation of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which emerged from the demise of California’s SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West local. Winslow details the whys and wherefores of this David-and-Goliath conflict and what is at stake for workers across the US as employers run roughshod over them, a rout underway for three decades, with grievous impacts on millions of families.

For Winslow, the public stance that SEIU executives take as a progressive labor organization belies the union’s corporate governance structure. That is, its power over members, namely dues money and autonomy generally, causing contrary impacts on them. This framework was central to the SEIU growth strategy under the tutelage of Andy Stern, the former president who just retired, but not before his simmering conflict of interest with the SEIU-UHWW, a 150,000-member California affiliate, erupted into open battle three years ago.

Winslow brings life to the roots and shoots of this dispute with accounts of workers’ fighting for their rights to act and speak on behalf of themselves and the patients they serve. This is no mean feat, given the paucity of labor reporting and that nine of 10 workers in the private-sector, where the vast bulk of US workers toil, are union-free.

Winslow illustrates with verve the SEIU leadership and UHW affiliate’s different approaches to employer bargaining. The former preferred what the author terms class collaboration, which disempowered the rank-and-file. Sal Rosselli, former UHW president and current NUHW head, publicly criticized Stern in January 2007 for agreeing to a pact with the Tenet nursing-home chain in California that in part barred workers from striking for 10 years and limited their ability to publicly report resident-care concerns.

UHW’s approach empowered the rank-and-file to contest the privileges of employers such as Kaiser Permanente and Catholic Healthcare West to unilaterally control wages, benefits and working conditions. UHW shop stewards were elected by their co-workers to be involved in contract talks with employers in the private and public sectors. UHW was part of a third-party mediation structure to judge members’ claims of employers’ compliance with legal staffing levels for patients.

In January 2009, Stern, after hearings paid for by SEIU, placed UHW in trusteeship, taking over the union. SEIU suspended the union’s constitution and bylaws, snatched its financial assets and fired 100 elected union officials, including Rosselli. The NUHW formed later in the month.

SEIU responded to this challenge by bringing its vast resources to bear against NUHW, which bid to decertify SEIU as the collective bargaining agent for 10,000 homecare providers in a Fresno County election. This drive continues in other workplaces up and down California. Winslow’s on-the-ground interviews with these healthcare workers illustrate what motivates working people to stand their ground when faced with the power of appointed union leaders who replaced elected shop stewards and trusted co-workers.

It is noteworthy that Mary Kay Henry, the SEIU executive Stern appointed is poised to succeed him as president of the 2.2 million-member union, led the Oakland take-over of SEIU-UHW last year, which Winslow chronicles. She and other $200,000-per-year SEIU elites based in Washington, D.C., evicted rank-and-file members of UHW from their union hall with backup from the Oakland police force. Winslow, whose book preceded Stern’s departure, sees in Henry the continuation of SEIU leadership’s approach to union democracy.

Much is at stake for the class that lives on its labor from wages, Winslow writes. With no end in sight to 30 years of upward income distribution from the middle and bottom to the top of American society, his is an inspired tale of NUHW’s rise against the money and power of SEIU’s leadership, chronologically told and jargon-free. All those concerned about the US labor movement getting off its deathbed should read Winslow’s book.

Back to Cal Winslow’s Author Page