Two of the biggest strikes in the last sixteen months were conducted by members of the California Nurses Association (CNA) and the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). Their target each time was Kaiser Permanente, the giant California health care chain that made $6 billion in profits since 2009 but still wants union job cuts and contract givebacks. Last August, CNA and NUHW formed an “Alliance of Kaiser Unions” dedicated to “raising standards for Kaiser caregivers and protecting Kaiser patients.” The Alliance blasted the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the SEIU-dominated Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions (CKPU) for choosing “to partner with Kaiser to increase the corporation’s profitability at the expense of their own members and patients.” On January 3, CNA and NUHW took their recent collaboration a step further, announcing NUHW’s formal affiliation. CNA and NUHW will now jointly seek decertification of SEIU’s 43,000 service and technical employees at Kaiser.

In the Fall of 2010, Kaiser workers voted 18,290 to 11,365, to retain their SEIU representation, rather than switch to NUHW. Illegal campaigning and collusion between management and the incumbent union led the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to order a new election. Last month, a three-member NLRB panel in Washington, D.C. rejected SEIU’s latest attempt to overturn that decision, setting the stage for a 2013 re-run of the largest private sector representation vote in the last seven decades.

According to NUHW President Sal Rosselli, NUHW members approved the affiliation with CNA in mail balloting conducted in December. In material distributed to rank-and-filers before the vote, NUHW asserted that the agreement provides them with “full autonomy” and protections against trusteeship or forced mergers. “The unions will remain separate, “Rosselli said, “but we will act like one union when it comes to organizing hospital workers and fighting employers like Kaiser and Sutter Health.
As one benefit of affiliation, CNA will reportedly seek the same Kaiser workplace access for NUHW organizers as its own union reps enjoy; in the past, SEIU has been able to flood Kaiser facilities with hundreds of full-time staff and lost-time organizers due to its incumbent union status. CNA is also expected to fund greatly expanded hiring of NUHW organizers.

CNA currently represents 85,000 RNs in California and helped form the larger network of state nurses’ organizations known as National Nurses United (NNU), which claims a national membership of 185,000 and has displayed some internal tensions of late. CNA also has a National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) with bargaining units in Missouri, Illinois, Texas, and Florida. NUHW’s organizational link will be with CNA directly.

A Renewed Partnership

The renewed partnership between CNA and NUHW marks the end of a nearly-four year truce between CNA and SEIU that expired on December 31. Since 2009, their peace pact helped reduce inter-union strife nationwide, while facilitating non-union hospital organizing in Texas, Florida, and other states. (Phone messages and emails seeking SEIU comment about the CNA-NUHW affiliation received no response.)

CNA’s detente with SEIU followed several years of costly conflict and was negotiated shortly after then-SEIU President Andy Stern put his union’s third largest affiliate, 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers (UHW) under trusteeship in late January, 2009. Stern removed Rosselli, as UHW’s elected president, and replaced him with Dave Regan, a more management-friendly SEIU official from Ohio.

Stern’s controversial attempt to curb internal dissent over SEIU structure, bargaining and organizing strategy triggered the formation of NUHW, which has since won bargaining rights for about 10,000 California health care workers. These include 4,000 nurses and other Kaiser professionals who switched from SEIU to NUHW three years ago and are still negotiating new contracts. CNA’s agreement covering 17,000 Kaiser nurses expires next year.

A More Reliable United Front

During the anti-concession walkouts at Kaiser last January and in September, 2011, SEIU-UHW urged its members to cross picket-lines set up by the 20,000 or more strikers represented by CNA, NUHW, or Local 39 of the Operating Engineers. Adding insult to injury, new SEIU-UHW President Dave Regan then made a failed attempt last summer to enlist California legislators and labor federation officials in an industry-backed attempt to weaken the state’s safe staffing law, which sets minimum nurse-patient ratios in hospitals.

Regan’s goal was to suspend (during RN meals and breaks) the nation’s first and only ratios law, essentially gutting a much-prized achievement of the CNA. In an internal message to CNA staffers last Fall, DeMoro called Regan a ”management hack” who “may be the most despicable ‘labor leader’ that we have ever encountered” because “he has climbed so far into bed with the hospital association and employers.”
According to DeMoro, “Regan argued on behalf of the California Hospital Association that nurses need to sacrifice their meals and breaks and the safety of their patients to help hospitals save $400 million because the state was in a budget crisis.” Meanwhile, state records showed that California hospitals collectively posted $4.4 billion in profits in 2010 alone.

The CNA leader expressed additional concern about “me-too” deals negotiated by SEIU-UHW, under Regan. At Sutter Health, for example, management agreed to rescind wage and benefit concessions already accepted by SEIU if CNA-represented nurses (or NUHW members) are able to resist such give-backs in the same hospital. According to CNA, “Regan’s actions have emboldened Sutter’s already hard line that has provoked a long contract dispute with RNs.”

To secure a more reliable “united front against Kaiser and other employers in our upcoming bargaining,” CNA began vying with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) as a potential NUHW merger partner. An internal political shift on the Machinists’ side has now led to a friendly parting of ways between the IAM and NUHW—clearing the path for a more organic CNA-NUHW connection that also permits NUHW to become AFL-CIO affiliated.

The Rerun Kaiser Election

If NUHW succeeds in replacing SEIU-UHW as Kaiser’s largest union (with CNA help), the two unions plan to coordinate their resistance to management demands at Kaiser, Sutter Health, and other hospital chains for health care cost shifting, elimination of defined benefit pensions, and various forms of out-sourcing.

To win at Kaiser, NUHW organizers say privately, they need prior personal commitments of support from nearly 18,000 workers. For now, NUHW remains several thousand short of that goal. One issue that’s definitely aiding NUHW canvassing lately is Kaiser’s attempt to eliminate 1,000 jobs, a breach of job security commitments that SEIU-UHW is doing little to resist. Even AFSCME, a longtime Labor-Management Partnership participant, that has previously followed SEIU’s lead at Kaiser, has protested this lay-off threat by announcing a boycott of partnership meetings until the issue is resolved. (See http://sternburgerwithfries.blogspot.com/2012/11/partnership-unions-cry-crocodile-tears.html

At last Thursday’s gathering of Kaiser Partnership foes, Rosselli urged a stronger response: “Instead of suspending participation in Kaiser Partnership activities, they should notify Kaiser that they are leaving the partnership and joining forces with us!”

(Steve Early was an organizer and contract negotiator for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years. He is the author of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, from Haymarket Books, which chronicles past California health care union conflicts.)