Kaiser Win for SEIU, No Rerun Coming

Ideas and Issues
Nytimes article picture of SEIU workers celebrating with workers coming into work.
Nytimes article picture of SEIU workers celebrating with workers coming into work.

Mumbai    The results of the Kaiser decertification election or what Steve Greenhouse with the NY Times calls the largest single-company private sector election since Ford Motor more than 60 years ago, were an old  foot stomping, ass whipping blowout for SEIU.  The scorecard was conclusive:   18290 or 61%  to 11364 out of 43000 eligible voters.   The results were predictable for lots of reasons, and in fact I had called this on September 2nd’s blog.

So, will there be a rerun election as Sal Rosselli and his remaining band of dissidents has called for?  Will the California labor wars finally be over now for SEIU?  Should  they be?  My answer to all of these questions will be NO.

First, let’s talk about the prospects for a rerun election.  A friend of mine who has organized in the Los Angeles area for decades mentioned to me a couple of years ago that the current generation of organizers doesn’t understand “NLRB organizing,” because for years – and for good reasons! – the emphasis and success when it has come has been in non-Board work.  Well, the first thing to remember about the NLRB is that it may be ostensibly about worker rights, definitely it is not about union rights, and by virtue of policy and mission it is all about collective bargaining.  To the degree there are well meaning bureaucrats embedded in the bowels of the NLRB still, they really, really believe in the value of collective bargaining to achieve labor peace and to protect and advance the interests of workers and their employers.

Here you have a situation where the following is true:

  • Kaiser health care has been union for decades and has been in fact an innovator in pro-union policies and programs.
  • Kaiser declared it was neutral in this internal dispute.
  • Kaiser’s labor relations people and legal people deal with all branches of the NLRB across the state of California all the time.  They know the folks, and they know the game.
  • Kaiser and SEIU bargained a contract that was approved overwhelmingly by the workers only short months ago and now Kaiser workers have decidedly decided to stay with SEIU.
  • There are less opportunities for company unfair labor practices in a mail ballot election than with manual elections, because the company can’t drive the turnout, which is why unions in normal situations love mail ballots.  In a manual election company release would have driven the vote over 95% rather than the 75% in this contest, but this was too big for the NLRB to supervise that way, so lower vote and less chance for company interference.
  • The breakaway folks will file objections, why not, they have nothing to lose.  It doesn’t cost money and delays the announcement of defeat for a couple of weeks, and in Rosselli’s case it give him someone else to blame for the defeat: Kaiser and the NLRB.  But it won’t matter even if there were some violations of the Act, the Board will see it as de minimus – to trivial to matter.  The vote count will be enough for them, but all of these piece together will be enough for the NLRB not to worry much about calling the game over and letting the dissidents file appeals as the clock runs out.

In this case the NLRB will only be doing the dissidents a favor by not ordering a rerun.  Rosselli can gripe, but it wont’ matter, so it’s the perfect situation for the dissidents.  He says they have some elections up coming with SEIU.  He needs to keep waving the flag until they take it out of his hand, and that’s never going to happen.

The worst thing that could happen to Rosselli would be an NLRB rerun election.  If he were lucky (unlucky?) the NLRB would order one maybe 12 months from now, maybe more, depending on the number of appeals to get there.  Every month that goes by is letting SEIU deepen its strength in the workplaces of Kaiser.  Another 6, 12, 18 months, and they will be even more impregnable.  A mail ballot election like this totally favors whichever side can do the GOTV and turnout its supporters.  Looking at the numbers, almost as many voted with their feet to not vote at all as voted with the decertifiers.  Any rerun would also be a mail ballot.  This was the high water mark for the dissidents, and they are a long way from dry land and sinking further.

Rosselli knows this, too.  He whined to Greenhouse that they had filed with a majority 18 months ago to try and get this election (the long delay is one of the reasons they lost), but now they got beaten almost 2 to 1.  That’s the way it works with the NLRB.  I once filed (25 years ago) at a shipyard on a unit of about 400 with 80%, and lost 2 to 1 by the time of the election.  The dissidents have now proven that their best number is 11,000 workers, which is very respectable, but it won’t increase, it’ll decrease over time.  Rosselli can keep firing spitballs, but the workers on the floors for the most part will say, “ok, let’s live and let live” and go on and focus on the job and the boss.  It’s toast.

There won’t be an election.  If the NLRB called one, the dissidents would have to block and then pull the petition.   If not the loss will be even larger the next time.  Kaiser is a classic case of “all over but the shouting.”

So, will there be labor peace?

No.  It’s in no one’s interest.  The cause of the dissidents attracted a lot of support.  Many of the Rosselli themes resonate and no matter how long suffering SEIU may have been in private, it played its public hand in a crude and bullying fashion sufficient to alienate much of the California labor movement, which contrary to most places, still has a labor movement, and a lot of the liberal-left, which is bigger in the Bay Area than anywhere else in the country.  Rosselli will continue to be a homeboy who has spent 30 years and more in the state and been there for a lot of people and in a lot of fights when it mattered, while SEIU will be the colonial occupier from DC.

SEIU may be starting to understand this at least a little.  Local Kaiser workers emerged during the election as the spokespeople for the campaign and as the observers in the election, which is smart and the way it should be.  The organizers who had to win the election undoubtedly forced their voices to be heard.  Now they will need to be heard again, rather than the union bureaucrats.  To take the local out of trusteeship, they need to allow local leaders to emerge and win, rather than anoint the viceroys from the international.  New leaders would be able to define a new era for the future:  Californians for a California local union.  They would be able to bring real labor peace and even reach out to Rosselli and say, hey, it’s time.

This is where the internal politics of SEIU and the external needs for the labor movement in California may diverge in unsatisfactory ways.  A lot of very good organizers and leaders, many of whom have been uprooted as part of this, will believe that they should get the nod or have been promised pieces of this pie.  Dave Regan, the executive VP, who has managed this mess on the ground for SEIU, and is a future President of SEIU in waiting, should weight in for more “local” content.  Mary Kay Henry, the current President, has been through these wars before.  She knows the local has to go local, and is not bound by the old deals, nods, and promises, so for the sake of the whole labor movement, especially the California labor movement, hopefully she will let local leaders emerge to the top of this huge local and give it a new chance.

Rosselli isn’t going away, nor should he.  There’s room for his local in organizing California healthcare workers.  The density is higher there, but way less than it needs to be.   He’s got 5 or 6000 members so that’s a million or more in dues per year without having to pay per capita to anyone.  He’s smart and disciplined and driven.  He can build something bigger.

Greenhouse had a funny quote in his story the other day:  “Dave Regan, the S.E.I.U. official who leads the local placed into trusteeship, said that with this defeat, the rival union would be short on resources and should close down. “It’s time to admit you have failed,” he said. “They need to look in the mirror and say, ‘It’s time for us to stop this thing.’ They have no future as a health care union in California or elsewhere.” He added that his union was reaching out to those who had voted against it.”

In the excitement of the victory, it’s probably natural to wish away the opposition, but it’s not necessary and it’s not a winning strategy.  Even in the geography of the giant 1199 on the East Coast, CWA has several strong locals of hospital workers in upstate New York that do a fine job.  AFT has an affiliate of nurses and others around Philly and New Jersey which has a reputation for excellent leadership and organizing.  SEIU has always known jurisdiction was determined by whomever did the best organizing, yet even after the multi-year Change-To-Win disastrous attempt to assert jurisdictional hegemony unsuccessfully, it seems SEIU is still not on message in California, and it needs to be.

The way to deal with Rosselli and his small upstart union is to learn to live with it and prove the superiority not in the statements but in organizing and representation in the workplaces.  Sal will still get something out of this fight, even if it’s not what he wanted.  He and his operation on the ground will  end up making SEIU a better union in California, and given the fact that SEIU is by far the largest union in California and has so much of its membership nationally there, that’s actually pretty important.    At the end of the day, Sal will have to settle for reform from the outside and SEIU will have to learn the lessons being taught over recent years.

Eventually we’ll all be the better for it.