SEIU’s no-holds-barred struggle with NUHW ratcheted up further last week as the powerful union was criticized by the North Bay Labor Council for contesting efforts by Santa Rosa hospital workers to join NUHW. Unlike SEIU’s prior conflicts with NUHW over already organized workers, the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, part of the three-state St. Josephs Health System, involves non-union workers who have been seeking union representation for over a decade. Workers supporting NUHW filed petitions seeking a union election on April 13, but SEIU quickly blocked the election for nearly five months by filing NLRB charges. After these charges were dismissed, SEIU filed new NLRB claims to prevent the hospital workers from voting to affiliate with NUHW. It then informed both NUHW and the employer that it would not negotiate ground rules for an election that would prevent negative campaigning, even though this would prevent employer interference and the ballot would include both unions. Santa Rosa Memorial workers desiring union representation are irate over SEIU’s tactics, saying they felt SEIU “deserted” them months ago and is now “disrupting” their efforts to unionize.

Among the tragedies of the SEIU trusteeship of its UHW local last January was that it wreaked havoc with an organizing drive that began in 2003 at the California-based St. Josephs Health System. The joint SEIU-SEIU UHW campaign targeted over 9000 workers and was the nation’s largest organizing drive.

Following the trusteeship, workers at Santa Rosa tried to contact SEIU to ensure the campaign continued, but to no avail. Nancy Timberlake, a 24-year hospital employee who has been trying to get union representation at the hospital since the late 1990’s, told me, “we heard nothing for weeks. It became clear that SEIU had deserted our campaign.”

With SEIU nowhere to be found, Timberlake and other hospital workers turned to NUHW to gather the petitions necessary to hold a union election. The petitions were filed on April 13, and the prospect of NUHW obtaining around 700 members at St. Joseph’s quickly galvanized SEIU into action.

Stopping NUHW By All Means Necessary

As I have previously described, SEIU believes it has a moral right to defeat NUHW at any cost, even if, as in Santa Rosa, it means denying workers the right to union representation. SEIU-UHW trustee Eliseo Medina stated in a September 25 letter to St. Joseph’s and NUHW obtained by Beyond Chron that NUHW’s claim to be a labor organization was “wishful thinking,” and that “it does not serve the interests of the workers” to have any involvement with NUHW.

To this end, SEIU responded to the workers April 13 election petition by filing NLRB charges that blocked the election for nearly five months. After the NLRB dismissed the charges, SEIU filed a new charge. This time it claimed that longtime NUHW attorney Jonathan Siegel had a legal conflict of interest with SEIU, and that any election at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital had to be delayed until the NLRB reviewed this alleged conflict.

According to SEIU spokesperson Steve Trossman, Siegel had “confidential information” about Santa Rosa Hospital workers that would “adversely impact” SEIU’s election chances. Glenn Goldstein of NUHW counters that Siegel “never had any involvement with the Santa Rosa campaign,” and that SEIU delayed raising the Seigel issue “until the day of the hearing solely to cause further delay.”

In any case, SEIU’s latest NLRB charge delayed the scheduling of a union election until the next NLRB hearing on October 19. Meanwhile, SEIU is flooding the hospital with organizers in an attempt to undermine what currently appears to be overwhelming worker support for NUHW

Labor Council Urges SEIU Withdrawal

The 60-union strong North Bay Labor Council has long played an active supporting role in the organizing drive of workers in Santa Rosa’s only non-union hospital. And it is the Council’s assessment, as set forth in a September 25 letter to SEIU, that Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital workers want to join NUHW and want nothing to do with SEIU. The letter to SEIU-UHW trustees Dave Regan and Eliseo Medina states in pertinent part:

“It is clear that Memorial workers have chosen NUHW as their union and we respect and support their decision. We respectfully ask that SEIU-UHW respect these workers' choice and withdraw from the election al Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital so that these workers can finally have the successful election they have worked so hard and risked so much for.”

The letter, signed by Labor Council President Jack Buckhorn and Executive Director Lisa Maldanado, recites the history of SEIU’s abandonment of the hospital campaign and the workers subsequent decision to reach out to NUHW. It is a powerful statement from the conscience of the Santa Rosa labor community, and testament to the strong credibility the hospital workers have earned.

Significantly, the SEIU 1021 representative on the North Bay Labor Council agreed to the position taken in the letter.

Worker Opposition to SEIU

Having organized for years to achieve union representation, workers like Nancy Timberlake see SEIU’s recent delaying tactics as “unscrupulous,” and views the union as “trying to be as disruptive as possible.” She claims SEIU has “no hope of winning the election,” and feels the union “pulled the rug out from under the workers” after the January trusteeship.

Melissa Bosanco echoed Timberlake’s comments about SEIU’s unpopularity, noting that since nearly 200 layoffs earlier this year “workers are desperate for something positive to happen.” She said that SEIU “was not trying to organize at all” until the workers aligned with NUHW, and that she had “not seen a single SEIU organizer” until recently.

I asked SEIU spokesperson Trossman for contact information for pro-SEIU workers, but was given no names.

SEIU Undeterred

Despite the desires of Santa Rosa hospital workers and the Labor Council, SEIU is waging an all-out campaign to either win the election or prevent it from happening. Trossman insists that an election will happen soon, and SEIU has brought in organizers from around the country to bring off what would be a tremendous upset victory.

Yet Medina’s refusal to negotiate election ground rules with the employer so long as NUHW is involved sends different, and more ominous, signals.

First, it implies that SEIU has less interest in a prompt election than in further delays pursuant to the NLRB process. This would give SEIU more time to meet with Santa Rosa workers in hopes of turning the tide.

Second, it means SEIU plans on engaging in negative campaigning against NUHW, and has no problem with the employer engaging in disruptive behavior to prevent unionization. This goes against SEIU’s longstanding policy of negotiating election ground rules with employers that govern multiple worksites, and in this case, St. Josephs Health System has 9000 workers in California and facilities in Texas and New Mexico.

So by refusing to participate in setting election ground rules at Santa Rosa Hospital so long as NUHW is involved, SEIU is prioritizing stopping NUHW at this one facility over securing employer neutrality in future elections. SEIU has made this decision even though avoiding negative campaigns could boost SEIU’s efforts to unionize over 10,000 St. Josephs workers in three states.

It was only months ago that SEIU held a press conference with the US Council of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Healthcare Association and other unions organizing in Catholic hospitals to avoid negative campaigns and ensure ground rules to govern future elections. But now that NUHW is involved, SEIU is abandoning a process it previously described at the time as a major step forward for unionizing health workers.

Once again, it appears that employers could get the last laugh.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.