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In Monumental Union Vote, California Healthcare Workers to Choose Between SEIU and Breakaway NUHW

StorySeptember 14, 2010
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In the largest private sector labor election in over half a century, 43,000 healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente hospitals in California are choosing between the Service Employees International Union and the breakaway National Union of Health Workers. We speak to labor analyst Mark Brenner. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to the largest private sector labor election in nearly seventy years. The stakes are enormous, and it could have sweeping ramifications for the future of healthcare unions. The battle is over which union will win the right to represent the interests of some 43,000 employees in the largest hospital chain in California, Kaiser Permanente. Workers will choose between the giant Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, and the much smaller breakaway National Union of Health Workers, or NUHW.

The election is happening as a result of a decision by the National Labor Relations Board, which was petitioned a year and a half ago by healthcare workers who wanted to be represented by NUHW. In January of 2009, dissident leaders left the SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers West and formed the National Union of Healthcare Workers. They now have about 6,000 members, and after eighteen months of legal delays and workplace skirmishes, the stage is set for a decisive showdown between the two unions. Voting is by mail-in ballot and begins this week. The vote count begins in early October.

For more, I’m joined here in New York by Mark Brenner, the director of Labor Notes.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

MARK BRENNER: Great to be here, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tell us, in summary, what the stakes are here between this very small breakaway group, led by Sal Rosselli, and the giant 800-pound gorilla of the labor movement, SEIU?

MARK BRENNER: Well, I mean, I think that really, for me, what this really represents is two things. Number one, who’s actually going to be in charge of the unions that 16 million people are members of still in our country? Is it going to be folks who are in DC, folks who have never actually worked a day in their life in the bargaining units that they’re representing? And second, who’s going to be in charge of our relationship with our boss? I mean, you know, the labor movement was founded by people who basically said, “I want to — you know, we want to get together. We want to actually control, have some modicum of say over our relationship with our employer.” And, you know, that’s essentially been taken away little by little from a lot of workers around the country and concentrated in, especially in SEIU’s case, in a small number of people’s hands, who, you know, are far removed from the daily struggles of workers in the job. And so, this is really about putting those two things back in the hands of the members, which, to me, couldn’t be any more important for the future of our labor movement or for actually figuring out a way to grow again, because I think members are sort of the missing ingredient in how we’re going to rebuild this labor movement of ours.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, obviously, the SEIU leadership believes that this movement to try to challenge their representation is actually weakening the labor movement, is creating divisions within it that are unnecessary at a time when labor is under such continued assault by corporations and their supporters throughout the country. Your response to that concern?

MARK BRENNER: Well, I mean, fortunately, they don’t get to make the decision about who represents the workers. The workers get to make that decision themselves. Now, of course, they’re going to spend millions of dollars to influence that decision. But I find it kind of ironic, because, you know, earlier this year, when the Democrats were whining and moaning about $10 million that the labor movement threw down the toilet, putting a primary challenger to Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, everyone defended our right to, you know, call our own shots, to be independent, to back who we wanted to back. You know, and it wasn’t the Democrats’ decision. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was famously deriding this choice. And I feel like, well, it’s the same situation here. You know, ultimately, the folks that work in those hospitals are the ones who get to decide who gets to represent them.

I also think it’s really important to back up and remember how we got here, Juan. This is not a situation of personalities or egos. I mean, this is a situation where systematically thousands and thousands of members in California, who were part of this union — you know, SEIU, United Healthcare Workers West — said, “This is how we want our union to be run. This is what we want in terms of our relationship with our employer.” And SEIU folks in DC, many who never actually worked a day in their life as a healthcare worker, said, “No, you don’t get to make that choice.” You know, the people who formed the breakaway were not like — they didn’t choose to do this. They were driven out of their own union, the union that they spent, you know, decades building, by folks in DC. And so, now they’ve done really all they’ve got left to do, which is to try to rebuild what they had going in California. And I think, actually, they’ll be better for it, because the struggle has really actually created a different spirit. It’s really forced a new generation of healthcare workers to stand up for something and actually, you know, make some hard choices about how far they’re willing to go for their union.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, the employer in this case, Kaiser Permanente, has publicly said that it is staying out of the fray, that this is a decision that the workers, their workers, have to make on their own. But yet, some people have been saying that, at least in some of the previous organizing drives that NUHW won, Kaiser Permanente immediately penalized the workers who chose not to stay with SEIU. Could you talk about that?

MARK BRENNER: I mean, this is one of the saddest things about this whole situation in California, is that SEIU has been so desperate to hold on to these workers, like they’re baseball trading cards or something that they’re fighting to kind of keep in a box, that they’ve been willing to actually collaborate with employers to get NUHW supporters fired, to get people disciplined, to get them transferred, to basically make their lives a living hell, for the choice that is their right to make. So, Kaiser’s been no different. I mean, we’ve seen amazing amount of collaboration. I mean, I talk to people every day who, you know, have supervisors following them around. They show up after doing something for their job, and their boss knows exactly where they are. Well, why do they know that? They know that because people who actually — they pay their salaries. Staffers for SEIU are telling bosses all over the hospital system, you know, where the, quote-unquote, “troublemakers” are going. We’ve had people fired. We’ve had people disciplined. I mean, it’s just amazing, and actually just quite disgusting, to see a union willing to go to so many lengths to collude with the employers to get really good trade union activists fired simply because they don’t agree with the program that’s being handed down from Washington. I think that’s got to stop, and I think every trade unionist around the country actually should be standing up and saying, “That’s a line that we’re not willing to cross.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, at the same time, though, there are questions about the tactics that have been used by NUHW to get to this point. Sal Rosselli — there was a trial in California where a jury ordered Rosselli to pay back about $1.5 million in SEIU funds that apparently he illegally diverted before he and his group split away from SEIU. So, there are questions as to some of the tactics of Rosselli, no?

MARK BRENNER: I think this is sort of the big lie that SEIU has been propagating in this case, and I wish we could just have an honest conversation about it. Basically, this is not a situation of corruption, although there’s plenty of corruption to be found inside SEIU. They’re facing a lot of scrutiny these days for how their officers and top leaders have been using member dues. This is a situation where a civil court said, “Look, for two weeks in January, the leaders of SEIU-UHW — Sal Rosselli, John Borsos and many others — were essentially doing what their members had voted that they wanted them to do, and because of the odd nature of labor law in this country, that doesn’t count. What actually counts is what the parent union, SEIU International, wanted and what the executive board of that body had voted. And for the two weeks when they were essentially disagreeing with and disobeying kind of an edict from Washington, they had to repay the money that was spent by the union that they were in charge of at that time back to the international. You know, I don’t — I mean, it would have been a choice I would have made, because it was what the members wanted. And I think, ultimately, that is the sort of irony of this whole thing, is that they are being penalized and people are having liens put on their homes and their wages garnished by SEIU — it’s a really ugly fight here, Juan — over essentially doing what was the democratic will of the members in that local. And that’s the thing that SEIU can’t contest. They can’t argue that this was an autocratic regime. They can’t argue that people weren’t elected to run this union, that members didn’t have a say. They absolutely did. They’re essentially propagating the big lie that this is a corruption problem, that Sal Rosselli was greedy, that he stole people’s money. And that is absolutely, you know, not true, and it’s not a leg that they can actually stand on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Finally, I’d like to ask you what the implications of this are for this entire reform wing of the labor movement, which gathered together a decade ago, or five years ago, under the Change to Win mantra. Now, Andy Stern, the president of SEIU, has resigned. Anna Burger has left, who was the head of Change to Win. What does it mean for what the reformers were trying to do to shake up the labor movement?

MARK BRENNER: Well, I mean, I think Change to Win is a dead man walking. It’s just a matter of, you know, how long they’re going to go before they give up the ghost in what they’re going to do next. What it really, to me, demonstrates is that, you know, you’re not going to reform this labor movement from above. You actually are going to only rebuild it from below. And the problem, as I said at the top of the show, is that people are really missing the key ingredient here, which is the members. I mean, we’re not going to strategize our way out of this with some smart kids with laptops in Washington, DC. This is actually going to have to be about reengaging and reenergizing the militancy and, you know, possibility of millions of trade union members around the country. And right now, they feel like their unions are out to lunch. They don’t see them every day when they go to work. They’re in an undeclared war with their employers, and, you know, folks are too worried about the next midterm election or, you know, what’s happening in state politics. And so, we really have to actually reconnect with what union members care about and really reinspire them to the kind of audacity and militance that really built this labor movement. And, you know, forming a new federation and sort of proclaiming you’re the John L. Lewis of the new twenty-first century labor movement, that’s been proven dead wrong. And fortunately for us, we kind of can clear the decks now — Andy Stern and Anna Burger are gone — and we can try again. And I hope that it starts from the bottom up.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in the few seconds we have left, your sense of whether Mary Kay Henry, the new leader of SEIU, will really make any departures from the Andy Stern policies of the past?

MARK BRENNER: Well, I think she was smart enough to try to actually make peace with UNITE HERE and actually go around and spend some time repairing relationships. But, you know, the fact that she’s willing to pursue this to the ultimate end here in California demonstrates to me that SEIU has completely broken away from its long tradition of struggle and civil rights.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you, Mark Brenner, director of Labor Notes, for helping us analyze this important fight.

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