Bet on SEIU in West Coast Family Feud

Employee Free Choice Act Health Care Labor Organizing Organizing

SEIU LogoNew Orleans In about a month the biggest union election in 2010 will be counted once all of the mail ballots are in from over 40,000 Kaiser Permanente workers who are being polled.  Unfortunately this not another milestone of successful union organizing, but hopefully the final major battle in the intense and long standing, bloody war between SEIU and what is left of its breakaway dissident local of many names, but most recently United Healthcare West, old Local 250.  Elections even in the constrained settings undemocratic workplaces are never easy to predict, because when it’s all said and done, workers vote with their feet and they’ve been running all different directions at Kaiser in the last several years of this internecine war.  Nonetheless without talking to any insiders and without being privy to any internal voter assessments or polling from either side, I’m pretty confident that it’s not too early to declare SEIU the winner now, way before the votes are counted.

Here’s why I believe they will win:

  • Delays Always Favor the Company: This decertification election has been on and off too long to allow the challenger to maintain the momentum against the incumbent.  In regular organizing that means the company wins more than 2/3rds of the time that the election is over 60 days from the filing.  In this case the “company” is SEIU, and its ability to tie up the challenger means just on the numbers, before any work was done, if normal odds prevailed their chances of winning were at 2/3rds.
  • Change the Boss: One of the standard pages in any law firm or company side labor relations manual holds that when you are caught behind, it’s best to change the boss or whomever the workers see as responsible for the problem.  SEIU’s boss has changed.  In this very personal struggle between Sal Rosselli from Oakland and SEIU’s Andy Stern from DC, too much of the dissident’s campaign always presumed it was safe to individualize the attack and target Stern as the problem.  When Rosselli saw me in the Detroit hotel hallway and told me he had heard that Mary Kay Henry had the votes to become SEIU’s president, he chortled that it was “good news for the union, but bad news for me.”  Had Anna Burger, Andy’s longtime leadership partner prevailed in the board election, the dissidents would have easily just said “same ol’ same ol’” but in Henry the workers would see a new leader from California harder to brand with the problems in Stern’s legacy, yet someone who had fought Rosselli for 20 years and had been the losing candidate as Secretary-Treasurer to Rosselli’s winning slate when he took over Local 250 after that trusteeship.  I’m not saying that Stern left SEIU because of this election, but I will say that SEIU’s organizing expert, Tom Woodruff, has been in too many hard fought company/union elections, not to have calculated the impact on this election.

  • The New Kaiser Contract Helps: The other thing that SEIU’s legal team bought the International and their folks in the bunkers of Northern California was enough time to negotiate a new contract with the employer, Kaiser Permanent, and its chain of hospitals and clinics in the state.  NLRB lawyers are maddening to union organizers and have driven many to drink and screaming as they argue from their training manuals that the contract ratification vote is a bellwether for a decertification vote, so “why do you care if there’s a decert; you ratified the contract?”  The dissidents needed to bleed the new contract, make the ratification close, or block the ratification entirely and for whatever and a number of reasons, they were unable to do this.  In fact the published reports indicate that the new contract was wildly popular with the Kaiser members and approved by 80%+, as I recall.  The tactical advantage lay heavily with the incumbent, and SEIU seized the advantage and powered it home, but this also hurt the dissident campaign, since much of Rosselli’s framing has been that SEIU’s merger-mania in California would “reduce standards.”  People like Dave Reagan (originally from SEIU Local 1199 WV/OH/KY, Woodruff’s old local) and Hal Ruddick (who worked at my SEIU Local 100 for 10 years) know how to negotiate a contract and made the most out of it.
  • Majority Signs SEIU Election Support Petition: Another classic tactic that all of us have used in elections with the company focuses on rebuilding the majority during the election campaign.  This is a huge barometer and seeks to restore the momentum that usually falls off at the point of filing for the election, which is usually the union’s strongest moment against the company.  The 30%+ showing of interest that Rosselli’s forces mustered both before and during the original chaos and rage at the SEIU trusteeship has long dissipated, and the ability of the current SEIU ground forces to produce and show a “public” majority that workers at the hospitals and centers will see sends a huge blinking message to the full Kaiser workforce that SEIU has the majority and is going to win.  Workers like it or not, vote overwhelmingly with whichever side they believe is going to win.  That’s why companies are willing to break the law, coerce, intimidate, and fire leaders to send a message of power to back off workers and convince them that struggle is futile and victory impossible.  Workers have to survive.  Individual bosses and union leaders come and go.  A majority on a petition within 2 months of the vote count should make SEIU the heavy voting favorite.
  • SEIU Ready for the Ground War on GOTV: In the last huge test in this blood battle SEIU proved it was willing to do what was necessary in the Fresno home health care challenge and eked out a narrow victory after pouring in millions and moving thousands of people into the Fresno get out the vote effort.  The dissidents and their supporters took some comfort and counted some coup, because they were able to keep the margin down with SEIU only narrowly holding the unit.  That was then, and this is now.  Time has traveled and other benchmarks have been set, but SEIU will spend millions again and every indication is that they will once again put a thousand or more people on the streets in the GOTV effort.  The dissidents are in less of position to match this effort now than they were.
  • SEIU Has Crippled the Dissidents Financially: One thing I have learned as a union organizer over the last 30 years is that when the company really wants to beat you, they can absolutely beat you:  it comes down to will.  The real story financially in the SEIU battle is their willingness to barter their future and “play for anything” stakes in this internal fight.  They isolated the dissidents financially by cutting off the critical outside sources of money and organizing talent.  Stern did this first by making peace with what used to be called the California Nurses Association, now an AFL affiliate, and essentially giving up the fight that SEIU had made for nurses jurisdiction for years, helping his cause first within Kaiser where they would have been a formidable problem and inside the workplace voice against SEIU had he not neutralized them.  The price was high and included walking away from thousands of workers that SEIU had everything but won in Ohio and elsewhere, but this is part of the “below the line” calculus on this deal.  Mary Kay Henry finished the job with Stern’s departure by making peace, also at a huge price, with John Wilhelm of  Unite HERE and his former co-president Bruce Raynor, now an SEIU VP with Workers United.  A couple of months ago when I was in northern California briefly it was clear that HERE’s interjection of money and organizers into this family feud was effective and was hurting SEIU.  This was not a deal that Stern turned out to have been able to make, but Henry made it job #1 and got it done, and done in time to impact this election.  Wilhelm didn’t have many cards but he played what he had, particularly his strength in Local 2 with Mike Casey and his ability to leverage Maria Elena Durazo in Los Angeles with the county federation, perfectly.  Oh, yeah, they lost a lawsuit, too, but who cares that was just garnish and no money has changed hands.  With these two deals, SEIU cut off the outside bankers and made the fight totally uneven in terms of resources.
  • Mail Ballots Favor GOTV Outside the Workplace: We love mail ballots.  We never lose them.  We’ll do almost anything to get one in an election.  Clearly, a unit of 40,000+ had to have a mail ballot, and with such a ballot the odds roll over to whichever side can get to the voters where they are voting and in this case that means at home, not at work.  The dissidents can’t match the home field advantage here.  What they have is at the workplaces where they still have committed workers in place.  I don’t need to talk to anybody to know that SEIU’s willingness to gear up a huge GOTV operation means that their assessments and polling indicate that the more that people vote; the more likely they are to win.  They obviously feel now that their real campaign is against apathy and not Rosselli, and that they can only lose if they get a light turnout and the diehards are both sides are left to decide.

Anyway you look at it, this is life or death for both sides, and SEIU knew it and has taken advantage of it powerfully to paint the dissidents into an impossible tactical bind, regardless of the support and sympathy they have in California and in much of what passes for a chattering class in the rickety house of labor.  I’m not saying that Stern’s sudden and still largely inexplicable resignation from SEIU was motivated by this election, since by all accounts much credibility should be given to the fact that he was “tired” as he’s said publically, and winning the health care vote at least left the rationalization of leaving well, but no one will ever convince me that all of these factors didn’t come to play in the decision and all of its aftermaths.  If he was going to leave mid-term anyway, then the spring was the perfect time so that all of this business could get done the way SEIU needed it to be done.

SEIU will retain its support among Kaiser workers and keep this unit.  I would bet they will get more than 65% support when all the votes are tallied.

I could be wrong, but I sure would be surprised if it turned out any differently than all of these signs are pointing.