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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Reading the Tea Leaves on Huge SEIU-NUHW Decert in California

New Orleans  First come the disclaimers.   I have no stomach for this 5 year saga in California that has created a huge rift in the labor movement as folks picked sides between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the National Union of Healthcare Workers’  (NUHW).  Depending on how you line up, NUHW is either a principled group of dissidents trying to reform SEIU and the whole labor movement and bring it back to its roots or a band of renegades who broke when they didn’t get everything on their Christmas list from SEIU. 

Regardless the ballots are now out to the workers of the huge 45,000 member bargaining unit at Kaiser Hospitals on the question of whether or not to decertify the existing bargaining unit, SEIU, or to certify NUHW.  Starting May 1st the ballots are due and the counting will begin, perhaps to put an end to all of this or maybe to simply open another chapter in his horrible mess.  This is a re-run election.  SEIU won the first round by a large margin, but the election was overturned by the NLRB based on findings of unfair labor practices in the way that Kaiser favored SEIU before the vote.

Stomach or no, I finally manned up and spent some time looking at how the campaign was going to see if there were reasons to handicap the election differently than I have done in the past.  Over recent years were I to have been asked, and believe me I was not asked, I would have advised NUHW to find a stronger path for its organizing future and let this Kaiser thing go, even knowing that if lightning might strike, it would be a whole different world for them.  I just saw the odds as too long and the strengths of SEIU’s incumbency as the bargaining agent, resources, and commitment to the fight as too strong to be overcome.   Regardless, I thought I should look to see if I should revise my prediction or reassess the odds and the outcome.

The folks at NUHW are no fools that’s for sure.  They did their best to even the odds and hooked up with the California Nurses’ Association part of the national nurses’ union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.  The union severed its no-raiding agreement with SEIU which could rekindle organizing wars in hospitals around the country.  Nurses pay big time union dues, so this tie-up gave NUHW a partner with deep pockets assuring that they wouldn’t get blown out of the water during the election.   Reading the reports of folks a little closer to the ground like NUHW supporter, former CWA representative, and labor journalist (and Social Policy contributing editor) Steve Early, these resources have allowed them to try and match the SEIU ground campaign of several years ago so that currently they have 125 organizers, mass mailings, and a contracted canvass crew to help with voter turnout. 

Nonetheless, reading the back-and-forth on the websites, it all looked “same ol’ same ol’” and that’s not enough to change the final outcome.  SEIU is making a big deal of the failure of NUHW units to get a contract with Kaiser and using the classic argument to workers that the “devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”  SEIU isn’t silent either on the lost court appeal of the NUHW officers on the multi-million dollar claim against them for diverting members’ dues in order to finance their schism and split.  SEIU is calling CNA and its leadership strike happy.   Theirs is a conservative, hold-the-line incumbent’s campaign.  NUHW is also still fighting the last war and arguing that SEIU is too close to management and that the labor/management partnership, now 16 years old, is hurting the workers.   On either side there didn’t seem like any real breakthrough, new issues.    If this is all there is, my guess is that it’s not enough.  My bet would still be that for NUHW to win there would need to be something more.   Something bigger.  Something much better.

Hospital workers facing the brave new world of the Affordable Care Act and the depressing recent world of the worst economy since the Great Depression are not going to be wide eyed radicals looking for a new future.  The status quo for better or worse might not look great, but will look good enough, returning SEIU as the bargaining agent with perhaps a smaller plurality than they had last time.

There can no longer be any winners in California, and at this point I would bet money that the workers are all sighing and saying under their breath, “a pox on both of their houses.”  

I could be way wrong from thousands of miles away, but as an organizer, I would be surprised if the 2nd verse of this song was any different than the first.

SEIU-NUHW Decert Audio Blog

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