A fighting health care union

May 7, 2009

Michael Hoffman reports on the founding convention of a new union formed in response to the SEIU's takeover of its big California health care local.

MORE THAN 700 health care union activists gathered in San Francisco April 25 for the founding convention of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) to formally launch their new union and consolidate ongoing organizing efforts.

A provisional constitution and a leadership team were voted into place by union members, and workers from different localities met to discuss the issues and challenges facing their drive to build a democratic union.

This new union is being founded by ex-members and officials of the United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), which was put under trusteeship by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in late January 2009 for opposing SEIU President Andrew Stern's plans to undemocratically restructure their union.

Now, NUHW is trying to organize members and workplace power by building rank and file-led campaigns to decertify SEIU as the bargaining agent for health care workers across the state of California and beyond.

According to union officials, some 120 UHW staff members responded to the trusteeship by resigning in order to help build NUHW. Within five days, 10,000 workers had submitted decertification petitions, a figure that reached 100,000 by late April, the officials said.

Home care workers rally outside SEIU offices in Fresno in March
Home care workers rally outside SEIU offices in Fresno in March (Mike Rhodes)

While the SEIU claims the NUHW decertification drives will threaten the gains made under the previously bargained contracts, union members tell a different story.

"After the merger [in January 2005], our bargaining went from lasting three months to lasting 18 months," said Tony Aidukas, a former UHW executive board member and current shop steward at Desert Regional Hospital in Southern California. "The [SEIU] International was making deals with our employer behind our backs while we were bargaining. They were going to let Tenet [the corporate owner of the hospital] sub-contract 12 percent of our workers' jobs."

The bargaining team at Desert Regional was able to reverse this bad agreement. But it wasn't long before UHW was put under trusteeship and elected officials like Aidukas were removed from their posts for disagreeing with the SEIU leadership.

THE EXPERIENCE of many NUHW members paints a grim picture of the SEIU leadership's vision for the future of the labor movement. Instead of building the power of their members in the workplace, SEIU trades concessions and political lobbying efforts for the right to organize.

What's more, SEIU has begun removing the elected UHW shop stewards who handled workers' grievances on the job. Instead, SEIU has implemented call centers, where members simply call a number to report a grievance.

Aidukas and the other workers at the NUHW founding convention have a fundamentally different view of how a union is supposed to fight for its members.

"A contract is only as strong as the workers," said Aidukas. "A contract isn't powerful unless the workers feel ownership over it and really know what's in it. This is the problem with SEIU's 'template' contracts and undemocratic bargaining." He says that to gain power in the workplace and rebuild the labor movement, "we need to reinvigorate and empower the rank and file."

The showdown that led to trusteeship was, at its heart, about union democracy. Not only was Stern trying to push through secret deals behind the backs of the workers, he also sought to drastically restructure the union without the input of rank and file members.

Now, the trusteeship of UHW has forced the question of which way labor will advance. Is it through Stern's top-down, corporate union model, where the voices of members don't matter at all? Or will progress come via rank-and-file driven unionism based on the voice and power of workers?

For many health care workers in California, the NUHW is the answer to this question. The provisional constitution and bylaws approved at the founding convention enshrines the members' control over the union and puts forward a rank-and file-driven vision for the union. It reads:

We are healthcare workers forming a strong union to build power for ourselves and to protect the people we serve. Our vision is of a society in which: workers and their families live and work in dignity. Workers have a meaningful voice in decisions that affect them; Workers have the opportunity to develop their talents and skills. The collective voice of workers is realized in a democratic union...We have achieved power and effectiveness based on the active participation of our members.

Esperanza Cardenas, a home care worker in Fresno County, reflected this vision for a different type of society when she said, "We need to be able to extend the rights that we're fighting for to the people we take care of."

In response to the NUHW decertification drives, SEIU has resorted to harassment, intimidation and even collusion with bosses to fire workers who support NUHW. "They are calling all 10,000 homecare workers in [Fresno] county, threatening their jobs," said Cardenas, who is in the midst of organizing for a looming decertification election. "I'm worried people will believe the lies they are telling them."

The struggle also involves expensive litigation. "SEIU is probably spending over $3 million trying to block our decertification petitions," said Gordon Kaupp, a member of the NUHW legal team. "It's disturbing to watch SEIU eat its own like this."

The main battle between the two unions will come in 2010, when the old SEIU-UHW contract with Kaiser Permanente expires and the window for decertification elections reopens. Kaiser, the largest health care provider in the state, has 50,000 workers that potentially could become members of NUHW.

The founding convention of NUHW marks an important challenge to Andy Stern's "bigger is better" model of undemocratic union mergers and top-down control. But the fight is just beginning.

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