Kaiser Aftermath: How About Some Competition to Organize Healthcare Workers?

Little Rock       Probably surprising none of the organizers involved or anyone looking at the campaign, the vote count on the rerun decertification election between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) produced the same result with a wider margin as Kaiser hospital workers in California overwhelming voted for SEIU by almost a 2 to 1 margin, 58.4% to 40.6%.   In such a landslide both sides had to have known the outcome for many weeks, and the NUHW and its new partner, the powerful California Nurses’ Association (CNA), likely did not pull the petition simply as a talking point for the future as they engage other healthcare workers and try to put a spin on the defeat.  SEIU won this round hands down, but their victory is pyrrhic, if it doesn’t now come with the grace that goes with leadership.

I wouldn’t bet on it, but it would be wonderful, if this closed one chapter for all the unions involved and opened another.   This whole division among unions in California has been a disaster for all involved, undermining the stature and reputation of all of the organizations and their leadership, dividing workers from each other therefore only benefiting employers, costing millions, and reducing the strength of all progressive forces everywhere.  It has to stop now for the sake of the labor movement and workers everywhere, especially in the healthcare industry.

SEIU and Mary Kay Henry, its international president, as one of the largest unions in the country has to lead the reconciliation.

There’s no need to pretend this would or should be a love feast, but conflict has to now be replaced by competition, and the competition has to be to organize the more than 95% of all healthcare workers in the United States who don’t have any union protection or advocacy.  The union density numbers are a little better in California, but not by a world of difference.  The same energy, dollars, and staffing used by these organizations to fight against each other should now be committed for deployment into organizing the unorganized. 

If there was real leadership in the labor movement, the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka would be calling his affiliate, the head of the national nurses’ union, and doing everything possible to see that they and the CNA moved forward in a new direction.  The list would start there, but union leaders everywhere, including in SEIU and the Change to Win federation, are all better at pushing the buttons behind the scene to connect with people who know people at every level, and in this mess one of the problems is that too many people know each other too well and know too much about each other.  When the labor movement mattered, a real Secretary of Labor would be calling the President, and then President Obama would be making calls that could not be avoided to Trumka, Henry, and Rose DeMarco and calling them to Camp David to make a deal and make it stick.  Kaiser and the Catholics and other employers would be hitting the speed dial on their phones as well. 

Let there be competition, but with ground rules and real understandings about turf and targets.  Sure NUHW will get bigger and might go from 10,000 members today to 100,000 in the future, but the nurses and SEIU stand to get exponentially larger not only in California, but everywhere, if we can finally get unions to focus on the future opportunities and not the past problems.

With the coming of Obamacare the whole world is shifting around healthcare in terms of access and expenditure, and will be shifting for workers as well, requiring unions to speak with a clearer, more united voice, and creating a huge opportunity for healthcare unions to see huge membership increases if they go “pedal to the metal” on organizing. 

It’s past time.

Kaiser Election Audio Blog

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California Nurses Go it Alone Strategy Reaps What it Sows

New Orleans   In the alphabet soup of labor, the National Federation of Nurses with 34,000 members in Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Ohio, announced that they were merging with the American Federation of Teachers, coupling the AFT’s 48,000 nurses to bring that union up to 82,000 nurses.  They said they wanted to go to a union that “grows by organizing” which is usually not the way anyone thinks of the AFT.  The Service Employees (SEIU) wisely was “no comment” about the merger with their 90,000 nurses, but the National Nurses’ Union (NNU) with 185,000 nurses, largely powered by the 100,000+ branch in California called the California Nurses’ Association (CNA), as has become its habit could not refrain from trashing out this new labor marriage.

As usual, Steven Greenhouse of the Times had no trouble helping NNU read their usual prescription of putting their foot firmly down throat before looking at the situation by gratuitously harkening back to the long settled “trades” versus “industrial” union perspective as applied to healthcare and their status as the elite group with hospitals.  And, as usual they took a shot at another union, this time the AFT, just to prove that their commitment to going solo still trumps any notion of solidarity ever.

Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United, did not hide her union’s disappointment. “We believe that nurses and patients are better served when nurses are in a union that understands nurses and just serves nurses,” Ms. Ross said. “The American Federation of Teachers, considering what has gone on with attacks on public sector unions, has a lot going on without adding the issues that we nurses face.”

So, why did the Nurses’ Federation, obviously a labor organization that was all about nurses as well not understand fully the NNU, nurses only and forever siren song?  Well, there is the matter of the growing and legendary reputation of the NNU to grow by raiding other unions, first and foremost, and even NNU had to admit that the little matter of having raided 35,000 members from the Federation in New York and effectively chopping that union in half might have stuck in the Nurses’ Federation’s craw somewhat deeply.

Ms. Ross acknowledged that there was “bad blood” between her union and the National Federation of Nurses over membership. And Ms. Crane, head of the federation of nurses, said her union preferred joining with a union that grew by organizing, rather than raiding, or trying to win away, nurses that had already joined other unions — a slap at National Nurses United.

If your modus operandi is going to be raiding nurses and spitting in the eye of other unions, then it seems odd that NNU would be surprised when they are not feeling the love from their sisters and some brothers in other unions.  Certainly they have never minded partnering with other unions to help raid while building in California, notably the Steelworkers of all folks, whose alliance with nurses seemed anything but natural.  More recently, they abandoned a “peace” agreement they had for three years with SEIU which had been triggered by blowing up a series of hospital organizing drives in Ohio initiated by SEIU, so that they could finance a partnership with an independent, break off group from SEIU to try and expand their weight within the Kaiser healthcare network in California facing a re-run decertification election on more than 40,000 workers later this year.  The price for that deal was giving the challenging union the benefit of the CAN contract access to Kaiser facilities to campaign, and without doubt in exchange they would be guaranteed all Kaiser nurses in the future.  The fact that their spat in Ohio and now in California with SEIU were both connected to the same leader should also not go unnoticed.

Meanwhile the majority of nurses are not members of unions.  The AFT has no particular strategy that would change that fact, regardless of its new partnership with the Nurses’ Federation, but neither does NNU.   Eventually NNU’s strategy of divisiveness will run its course and they will either have raided or alienated most of the nurses in other unions, and then they will face the same problem of organizing the unorganized which will then be inescapable regardless of the badmouthing and go-solo rapping, so what then?  It seems undeniable that until the NNU strategy changes, rather than being the leader in labor that they might be and should be, the union will continue to reap what it sows in bitterness, strife and division, helping employers in healthcare throughout the country and leaving the majority of nurses, despite the NNU rhetoric, without representation and power on the job.

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