The past month has seen a barrage of activity between SEIU and its former local now operation as NUHW---SEIU places UHW under trusteeship, UHW officials quit SEIU and announce formation of the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), NUHW files petitions from 25,000 workers requesting a decertification election. Now the battle has shifted to the much slower processes of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Last week, an NLRB Regional Director found sufficient cause to block processing of many of the decertification petitions filed by NUHW, including the 14,000 associated with workers at Catholic Healthcare West (CHW). This finding sets in motion a lengthy investigative and hearing process that will likely delay any elections for months, if not deny them altogether. As the battle between current and former SEIU officials plays out, SEIU is moving forward on its broader political agenda, which it insists it not impacted by its conflict with NUHW.
The shape of the SEIU-NUHW fight became clear last week as the NLRB held up many of the decertification elections sought by the new union. This followed NLRB Regional Director Joseph Norelli’s February 13 issuance of an order to show cause as to why he should not dismiss the petitions filed by NUHW for the 14,000 employees at Catholic Healthcare West, whose shift to NUHW could prove critical to the new union’s success.
NLRB Takes Center Stage
As with all other aspects of this conflict, the parties have widely divergent responses to the NLRB actions.
According to John Borsos of NUHW, the NLRB “has only heard SEIU’s side and has not weighed all the evidence.” Borsos described SEIU’s filing of challenges to the workers petitions as “frivoulous, anti-union tactics,” and said that SEIU was “acting like our worst employers.”
SEIU spokesperson Michelle Ringuette sees the NLRB actions differently. She noted, “whenever an objective third party looks at the facts in this dispute, NUHW loses.”
While this conflict is becoming increasingly esoteric, there are two key questions.
First, is it “anti-union,” and, as NUHW insists, a violation of the intent of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), for SEIU to file challenges to decertification petitions it believes were illegally obtained? While NUHW sees SEIU as utilizing the same delaying tactics employers routinely use to prevent unions, SEIU feels just as strongly that it has an obligation to protect its workers from losing benefits and wages due to relying on misinformation from NUHW organizers. SEIU argues that, unlike and employer trying to prevent workers from joining a union, its trying to keep workers in their union.
Second, and this is likely the most critical question for the NLRB, was a contract in place between Catholic Healthcare West and UHW prior to the workers signing decertification petitions? If a contract were in place, the petitions must be rejected as untimely. NUHW argues the contract had not been finalized, while the NLRB official noted that CHW-UHW issued a press release on October 20, 2008---over three months before the petitions were filed--- stating that they had reached agreement on a contract.
The contract issue is critical, as many labor activists believe that NUHW’s viability depends on its representing hospital workers in addition to longterm care workers. If SEIU can prevent CHW workers from shifting to new union, it would be a blow to NUHW.
(NUHW announced today that a majority of the 50,000 workers at all of Kaiser's California facilities have signed petitions to replace SEIU with the new union; when and if these decertification elections will occur remains unclear, as SEIU maintains the Kaiser contract is not open)
Even if the NLRB proceeds at record speed, any hearing officer decision on the legality of the decertification petitions is then subject to multiple agency appeals and eventually court challenges. The NUHW’s Borsos says the new union is fully prepared for a long battle, and SEIU feels the same.
SEIU: Full Speed Ahead
The SEIU-NUHW dispute has raised considerable concern that resources would be squandered on internal union battles at a time when unions needed to seize on the historic opportunity to enact universal health care, EFCA and immigration reform.
I have repeatedly raised this issue to SEIU officials, who have both publicly and privately insisted that the California fight will not impair their broader political agenda. When I asked UHW trustee Eliseo Medina at a press conference how he could lead SEIU’s fight for immigration reform if he was tied up in internal union politics in California, he responded that immigration reform remained his top priority, and that adding the trusteeship to his duties would only “add some gray hairs.”
Andy Stern told me last week that SEIU would have over 450 fulltime staff working in 35 states to win passage this year of both universal health care and EFCA. SEIU will focus on building community support in states with swing senators, and will even target places like Arkansas and North Dakota, where the union has little presence.
Since the trusteeship was imposed on January 27, SEIU ran a field operation in Maine and Pennsylvania in support of the stimulus package, and delivered thousands of letters and signatures on online petitions in support of Hilda Solis’ confirmation as Labor Secretary. Its media operation in support of Obama Administration/labor initiatives is up and running as never before.
Clearly, SEIU cannot be sending staff to California to support the trusteeship and fight against decertification petitions without it impacting the organization’s other commitments. But it’s clear that Stern will not cutback on the union’s national legislative agenda, which is what many progressives feared.
The End of Change To Win?
Since Obama’s election, SEIU has been pursuing its national agenda through its own press releases etc, rather than through the federation of unions comprising Change To Win. Change to Win Chair Anna Burger (who is also SEIU’s Secretary-Treasurer) issues press statements through SEIU’s media team, and, at least in the messages I have received, officials from other unions are not quoted (in fact, UNITEHERE and SEIU sent out separate appeals on Solis’ behalf, despite both being part of Change to Win).
With UNITEHERE facing its own internal strife, it increasingly appears that the Change To Win federation may not last. President Obama has publicly called for new unity among labor, and it looks like the most pro-union president in four decades may get his wish.
Reunification talks between the AFL-CIO and Change To Win will likely be deferred while labor mobilizes on behalf of its national agenda. But for those troubled by major internal rifts in organized labor at a time of historic opportunities, a new unified labor federation may soon emerge.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)