Is NUHW Homeless in the House of Labor Again?

Labor Organizing

State-of-the-union-2015New Orleans   It’s easy to lose touch when I’ve been on the road and out of the country too much, but sadly sometimes it’s just deja vu all over again.

For years one of the hot buttons in the labor movement was the so-called tragic civil war in California within the ranks of healthcare unions in that state. There’s no way to put lipstick on a pig, and it was a mess for all involved as the Service Employees International Union trusteed a recalcitrant, but huge, local union over issues large and small, and the rump group reorganized under the banner of members-first, no concessions, and militant local unionism in way many saw as a David versus Goliath contest, either rightly or wrongly. The big prize was a 40,000 worker unit at Kaiser Healthcare which David tried to decertify and Goliath in a series of NLRB ordered elections managed finally to retain for the most part. The rump group, calling itself the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) seemingly shook itself off and organized its way to more than 10,000 members and though undoubtedly still a thorn in the side of SEIU and its local affiliate, United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), many would have hoped there was plenty of unorganized healthcare workers for all and finally peace in the valley.

The bizarreness of this story seems to rage on I now discovered. NUHW may not have loved SEIU and they were not alone in their disenchantment, so given the divided politics in the house of labor, that didn’t mean they couldn’t find other suitors, despite their posture of independence. First there was the Steelworkers, which seems odd, but that ended quickly with another million dollar plus debt from NUHW on top of the settlement still hanging from a court trial the newly formed local union had already lost to SEIU. Then they fell in the arms of the California Nurses’ Association and its national formation, which is also an affiliate of the AFL-CIO and a longtime competitor of SEIU with their vision of being a trade union of nurses in healthcare and SEIU’s vision of being an industrial union of all healthcare workers. This marriage at least made some more sense, if you believe in marriage, since at least they both had something in common in their enmity of SEIU. The CNA paid an expensive dowry though which according to NLRB records of their own testimony has been more than one-million dollars a month in a subsidy to NUHW to keep them alive and kicking.

Unfortunately, there remained trouble in paradise, and the steepness of the CNA investment may have another classic story of a prenuptial affiliation agreement gone sour. Piecing the story together from the various claims, it seems NUHW struck Kaiser with the members it retained and CNA despite its long history of Kaiser and contract bashing seems to have quietly made a deal with Kaiser and not only refused to support the NUHW strike but ordered them to not go forward with it. Some of their previous friends think a unit of 4000 nurses long unable to get a Kaiser contract may have been CNA’s real interest all along, but be that as it may, the real beef expressed by CNA seems to be that they were as unable to get NUHW to walk the line as SEIU had been over many years previously. CNA demanded that NUHW merge with a small, general unit of their national union and dissolve the affiliation agreement or just get on their walking shoes and be disaffiliated one way or another.

Weirdly in October NUHW’s website carried a plea for help to save the NUHW-CNA affiliation, and reported that they have been given the ultimatum early in 2014. Not surprisingly, NUHW liked neither alternative and is demanding that they continue under the language of their earlier affiliation agreement. NUHW reports that the whole mess goes to arbitration in January 2016. The NUHW website reported their claim that many CNA nurses support the continued close working relationships with NUHW and are happily ignorant of the latest turn of events in this mess. The plea included no action that any CNA or NUHW member could take to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Adding injury to insult, NUHW’s own Wikipedia entry says that the affiliation with CNA has already ended.

What’s the line? First there is tragedy, and then there is bathos. I’m not sure but whatever it might be, this is the last thing anyone in the labor movement needs to hear or see, so it’s no surprise that more hasn’t been written about it as another death rattle in our long decline.