In January, the National Union of Healthcare Workers was established by former leaders of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West. They had been removed from SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West executive board and steward positions after accusing the SEIU of centralizing power at its Washington headquarters and making “corrupt deals” with employers.
Since then, about 100,000 health care workers throughout California have petitioned to leave the SEIU and join the new union. The effort has been stymied, according to the National Union of Healthcare Workers, by SEIU tactics that resemble those of businesses that want to prevent unions from forming.
The SEIU has tied up the process by filing charges in court and at the National Labor Relations Board, according to the union. It also has been accused of intimidating workers who want to change union affiliation.
According to an executive of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, the situation is analogous to the bleak scenarios offered by opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would facilitate unionization.
“Some of the criticisms of the right resonate as we see [the SEIU’s actions] in play,” says Sal Rosselli, the union’s president.
An SEIU spokeswoman did not respond to two interview requests. But the SEIU does address the situation on its Web site.
In a January 27 statement, SEIU president Andy Stern said that a review conducted by former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall found that leaders of the breakaway union undermined democracy and committed financial improprieties. The SEIU took over the local California union by imposing a trusteeship.
“Today’s action is being taken to correct financial malpractice, restore democratic procedures and safeguard the collective bargaining relationships of UHW,” Stern said.
One person involved in the California health care union’s defection from SEIU found it ironic that Stern would not let the decertification process occur through card check.
“He seems to be an advocate of EFCA except for SEIU members,” said John Borsos, vice president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
A focal point of the intra-union battle is Kaiser Permanente, the $40.3 billion health care organization based in Northern California. The National Labor Relations Board dismissed a decertification petition for 48,000 Kaiser workers on April 7.
The company, which employs about 182,000, is held up as an example of healthy labor practices that have included allowing card-check elections for the formation of some bargaining units.
But Rosselli says that a once-collaborative relationship between Kaiser and its unions has become adversarial since the SEIU imposed the trusteeship.
“The labor-management partnership is unraveling,” Rosselli says.
Prior to the trouble, Rosselli says that Laurence “Lon” O’Neil, who was at the time Kaiser’s senior vice president for HR, set a cooperative tone and included employees in decision-making.
“He’s an employer representative that has a fundamental appreciation for the involvement of workers and tremendous respect for people’s opinions, which is highly unusual,” Rosselli says. “To make Kaiser Permanente the health care provider of choice, Kaiser had to be the health care employer of choice. Lon fully believed that.”
O’Neil is now president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. His spokeswoman did not make him available for comment despite repeated interview requests in May and June.
The tension at Kaiser is likely to continue. The National Union of Healthcare Workers’ petitions for decertification are still languishing after six months because of “bogus, cookie-cutter charges” filed by the SEIU, Rosselli says.
“It’s totally a logjam,” he says.
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