For seventy years, there was no bigger union representation vote in the private sector than the 2010 election at Kaiser Permanente (KP), which pitted the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) against its new California rival, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). In a statewide unit of 45,000 hospital workers, SEIU won 18,290 to 11,365. But the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that victory tainted by organizational misbehavior similar to the election misconduct of many anti-union employers. It ordered a re-run of unprecedented scale.

That’s why the same group of service and technical workers at Kaiser is receiving mail ballots again this week giving them a second chance to replace SEIU with NUHW. The big do-over at Kaiser promises to be a closer vote than last time. If SEIU is ousted when ballots are counted in early May, Kaiser will lose the linchpin of its 16-year old “labor- management partnership” that involves a coalition of unions from Change To Win and the AFL-CIO. A once fast-growing national union that shrunk by 43,000 members in 2012 will lose even more this year in a single election. And the damage done by SEIU’s 2009 take-over of United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), a once thriving California affiliate, will be further undone.

(http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/11743/kaiser_election_results_koed_nlrb_judge_orders_rematch_between_seiu_an/)

Now affiliated with and heavily financed by the California Nurses Association, NUHW was formed four years ago when 100 elected officers and executive board members of UHW were removed and their local put under trusteeship. (See http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/14383/cna_and_nuhw_join_forces_against_seiu_in_california/) The pretext for that controversial move was UHW’s refusal to allow forty percent of its members to be transferred to a new SEIU local for long term care workers, without the approval of those affected. Then SEIU-President Andy Stern’s real goal was to crush a burgeoning internal reform movement that was anchored by 147,000-member UHW and increasingly critical of his leadership.

After UHW President Sal Rosselli and other SEIU dissidents were purged, Stern installed his own appointees to run UHW, including Dave Regan, a member of the SEIU national executive board from Ohio. Thereafter, UHW was never required to transfer members to another local composed solely of home health aides and nursing home workers. Instead, more than 9,000 workers have defected to NUHW in a score of hospitals and nursing homes, leaving UHW with a net loss of 3,000 members during Regan’s four-year tenure as trustee and now president.

The latest round of health care worker conflict in California puts key questions facing labor as a whole in sharp relief: Can unions best protect past contract gains by cooperating with management or resisting demands for givebacks with strikes and workplace militancy? Should unions partner with employers on legislative and regulatory issues affecting their industry or develop an independent agenda reflecting worker and consumer interests? Within the framework of “labor-management cooperation,” what becomes of the union’s role enforcing the contract and representing workers who have day-to-day job problems?

Red vs. Purple in Vacaville

To see how these questions were playing out at Kaiser, I visited its shiny new “campus” in Vacaville, south of Sacramento, last week. In a scene replicated at thirty other Kaiser medical centers around the state, both unions on the ballot had information tables set up just across from each other in the hospital cafeteria. NUHW-CNA officers Sal Rosselli and John Borsos were making a lunchtime stop in Vacaville. So a steady stream of SEIU-represented service and technical unit workers, along with CNA nurses, were meeting or greeting them.

Most NUHW-CNA supporters sported their signature red T-shirts. A smaller, less buoyant crowd of purple-clad SEIU activists manned the opposite table, which was filled with literature attacking the two visitors. SEIU supporters declined to be interviewed and referred all questions to UHW Communications Director Steve Trossman, who explained, via email, that his union only responds to queries from “legitimate journalists.”

In flyers that appeared to be re-cycled from the last election, SEIU-UHW proclaimed that Rosselli, Borsos, and other former UHW leaders had been “caught misusing millions of members dues dollars.” On the back of one, SEIU-UHW listed the $1.5 million in monetary damages sought from NUHW and sixteen of its organizers in a retaliatory lawsuit filed by SEIU that was, unfortunately, upheld last month in federal court. (For more on the origins of that miscarriage of justice, see http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/6461/scoundrel_time_at_kaiser/)

Other SEIU-UHW campaign material takes aim at recent picketing of Kaiser and Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, where “NUHW-CNA has gone on strike 12 TIMES and they still have no contracts and are losing benefits.” (This flyer also quotes CNA Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro as saying at the Left Forum last year that “we’re always out on strike.”) Another SEIU-UHW mass mailer asks Kaiser workers: “Would you rather spend your time fighting or winning?” It assures NLRB election voters that SEIU-UHW takes “a balanced approach, working in partnership with Kaiser management when possible and taking them on strongly when necessary.” As a result, “we have bargained the best contract in the hospital industry without losing a day of pay on strike.”

In the NUHW-CNA corner of the cafeteria at Kaiser Vacaville, a longtime medical records keeper named Jerry Corpus had a different view of that bargaining history. Corpus, who retired last month, comes from a big extended Kaiser family: his wife is an unhappy SEIU member, his sister a CNA-represented nurse, his mother, brother, son, nephews and nieces are or have been on the Kaiser pay-roll. For more than a decade, during his own 23-year hospital career, Corpus was active, as a steward and local bargaining committee member, in the pre-trusteeship UHW (then known, in northern California, as SEIU Local 250). Why did he curtail a long-planned, post-retirement fishing trip to campaign for NUHW-CNA? “If we stay with SEIU, it will affect my whole family,” he explained.

Best Contract In The Industry

According to Corpus, it was the pre-trusteeship UHW leaders, like Rosselli and Kaiser division director Ralph Cornejo, who helped members fight, for two decades, to achieve “the best contract in the hospital industry.” Now, he believes, that agreement has been weakened by “so many takeaways” and lack of union enforcement, particularly in the area of job security. Since the trusteeship, SEIU-UHW has agreed to pension and medical plan changes reducing Kaiser’s benefit costs by $2.1 billion, during a period when it was racking up record profits of more than $8 billion. Kaiser’s elimination of 1,000 jobs has gone largely uncontested by SEIU-UHW; job security is also being undermined through sub-contracting and use of “per diem” employees who should be converted to regular status.

“If you’re a strong union, you’re for the employee, not the employer,” Corpus said. “ But it doesn’t seem like that’s happening any more. The managers now are just walking all over people. When we were Local 250, management respected the union and the union kept us informed. We had steward councils and our local leaders never made a move unless employees first had a voice in the decision.”

Corpus hardly fits the stereotype of a strike-happy union militant. He finished up at Kaiser working as a project manager in its Human Resources department. For many years, he was the lead Labor-Management Partnership (LMP) coordinator and trainer at Kaiser facilities in several counties north of San Francisco. He favored “interest based problem solving” and helped create more than 125 unit-based teams, one of the basic building blocs of the LMP. Now, Corpus, observes, if Kaiser workers have a job problem, they’re constantly reminded by supervisors and their union that “we’re in a partnership.” In his view, “management and labor now use it as a weapon against us.” In 2012, he notes, UHW couldn’t even get Kaiser to keep paying for its own labor-management cooperation program. SEIU’s 45,000 members now pay 9 cents an hour—about $200 per year, if you’re a full-timer—to support LMP activities previously financed by their employer. This $6 million annual deduction from wages comes on top of SEIU dues that are 25% higher than NUHW’s.

NUHW-CNA’s anti-partnership stance is now being showcased in a costly ad blitz informing the public that these two unions, in contrast, are “working together to make sure that Kaiser and other big hospitals don’t put their wealth ahead of your health.” The 30-second election-related TV and radio spots feature Kaiser RN’s Catherine Kennedy and Monica Russo respectively, who discuss a recent NUHW-initiated state crack down on Kaiser for its managed care deficiencies. “NUHW-CNA members just forced Kaiser to use its record profits to hire more mental health clinicians to reduce long delays in care,” the ads report. (See
http://campaign.nuhw.org/ or listen to: http://campaign.nuhw.org/hear.)

High Road Labor Relations

This whistle-blowing approach is anathema to UHW President Dave Regan and his allies in the hospital industry. Under Regan, SEIU-UHW has developed close ties with the California Hospital Association (CHA), which lobbies for Kaiser and other major health care chains. In an interview with the Sacramento Business Journal last year, CHA president Duane Dauner publicly praised Regan’s business-friendly approach, while condemning the more adversarial stance of NUHW and CNA. "They look at management and employers as the enemy,” Dauner said. "They draw a line in the sand. Anything management does, they are against. It's just 'give us more and more.'" In contrast, he noted, SEIU leaders “are working with us and we are trying to work with them on health care policy and high-road labor relations.”

Among the CHA causes championed by Regan lately is opposition to a bill before the state legislature that would require non-profit hospitals in California to provide a minimum level of “charity care” to low-income patients who lack insurance. Long pushed by CNA, this measure is backed by the California AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, Machinists, UFCW, and other major unions. Regan similarly outraged CNA and other labor organizations last year when he tried to get the state fed to go along with an industry-backed effort to weaken California’s unique nurse-patient staffing ratios law.

CNA’s Added Punch

Askew and others involved in protracted NUHW negotiations with Kaiser believe the balance of power will shift dramatically if the 45,000 service and technical workers join forces with CNA’s 17,000 Kaiser nurses and the 4,000 KP employees already part of NUHW to create the largest bargaining coalition within the hospital chain. Adding CNA to the equation has already made NUHW supporters feel stronger. During the last election, when CNA was officially neutral, 27-year Kaiser veteran Teresa Cosper recalls being “pretty much out there by myself” in Vacaville. Now, she says, “the nurses have added so much punch. To have them with us, makes a tremendous difference.” The huge infusion of CNA resources, since the affiliation announced in January, has also enabled NUHW to field more than 125 organizers, afford mass mailings and ads, plus a door-to-door canvassing operation hired from outside.

SEIU-UHW is flooding Kaiser facilities with its own army of full-time staff, but fewer SEIU locals in other parts of the country seem to be contributing to that effort than was the case in 2010. Win or lose, SEIU will still be suffering from a post-UHW trusteeship growth trajectory that’s a far cry from the boom years of 2006-8, when it was adding 100,000 workers to its ranks every year. That number was halved by 2009; in 2011, SEIU registered net membership growth of only 5,000 in the entire country; and now, according to the union’s latest U.S. Department of Labor filing, active membership in SEIU dropped from 1,885,728 to 1,842,490 in 2012. (Another 237,000 workers pay agency fees to the union but don’t belong to it.)

This reversal of fortune is not unrelated to the tens of millions of dollars that were diverted, in 2009, to internal repression of SEIU dissidents and now a never-ending series of representational conflicts that continue to be fueled by deep membership discontent with SEIU’s organizational behavior in California heath care. Whether that discontent reflects a militant minority or a new majority at Kaiser won’t be known until the vote count begins on May 1, a day long associated with red, not purple, in the ranks of labor.

Steve Early worked for 27 years as an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of America. He is the author of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket Books, 2011) and a forthcoming book from Monthly Review Press entitled, Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress.

A longer version of this piece appeared in WorkingInTheseTimes (inthesetimes.com)