Thursday, January 10, 2013

Biggest Union Vote in 70 Years?

Healthcare has continued to be one of the more profitable sectors of the economy, even during the recession. In 2009, Kaiser Permanente made $6 billion in profits (see In These Times), but still demanded concessions and layoffs, something the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) readily gave up in exchange for insignificant promises to reduce corporate interference in union organizing.

Healthcare workers who were fed up with the autocracy, corruption and wimpiness of the SEIU, (and the expulsion of Sal Roselli as head of an SEIU affiliate in 2009), created an opposition union called the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). Led by Roselli, the NUHW took on the SEIU at Kaiser Permanent, California, in a decertification vote in 2010. They lost, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in July 2011 that Kaiser had colluded with SEIU and engaged in illegal campaigning and interference with NUHW organizing, thus invalidating the results of that vote.

After several failed appeal attempts by SEIU, it looks like a new decertification vote is set for early this year in what would be the largest private sector representation vote in the past 70 years.

There are several differences between 2010 and today, most notably that NUHW has formally affiliated with the California Nurses Association (CNA), one of the more “militant” unions in the state. Together, CNA and NUHW have already led two strikes against the concessions to Kaiser in the past 16 months, while CNA has engaged in numerous 1-3 day walkouts at other California hospitals. The alliance gives NUHW greater access to strike support (CNA has 85,000 members) and CNA resources to fund NUHW organizing. According to Roselli, the alliance also protects them against a forced merger with the SEIU.

The alliance between CNA and NUHW will likely inflame hostilities between CNA and SEIU, which had agreed to a truce after the 2009 ouster of Roselli. The truce was intended to facilitate organizing efforts at non-union hospitals nationwide. Yet many of the new union members were represented by SEIU, which has regularly cut lousy deals with the hospitals and sold out their members.

During the CNA-NUHW anti-concessions strikes in California, SEIU urged its members to cross the picket lines and tried (but failed) to get California legislators to weaken the state’s safe staffing laws. According to In These Times, CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro called [SEIU President] Regan a management hack, possibly the “most despicable ‘labor leader’ that we have ever encountered” because of his collaboration with hospital owners. DeMoro also said that Regan called for nurses to give up their meals and breaks and the safety of their patients to help hospitals save $400 million because of the state budget crisis” While SEIU has always been a pro-corporate business union, these actions made it even more obvious which side they are on.

While the SEIU is clearly on the side of management, the CNA and NUHW are only “militant” in comparison. Their tactic of engaging in roving one- to two-day strikes is meant to minimize public hostility, as well as the organizing and discipline necessary to sustain a protracted full-scale strike—a strategy more indicative of trepidation and conciliation than militancy. It also leaves more funds for administrative salaries since the union can avoid paying out strike benefits. In 2012, CNA paid out $2.8 million in salaries for its leaders, according to the WSWS, while spending nothing on strike benefits for its members.

CNA’s commitment to solidarity is also questionable, as it abandoned NUHW in 2009 when its turf war with SEIU first began. In a 2012 struggle against Sutter Health, CNA jeopardized the bargaining power of its members at larger sites, like Berkeley’s Alta Bates Hospital, in exchange for easier settlements at smaller sites, according to the WSWS.

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