Turning up the heat on Kaiser

March 8, 2012

Since it was formed in 2009, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) has gained a foothold at the huge Kaiser Permanente health care system through rank-and-file involvement and a series of strikes. The union was founded by former members of the Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) United Healthcare-West (UHW) after the SEIU International seized control of UHW because of its dissent from the International's policy of making concessions.

NUHW's attempt in 2010 to replace SEIU as the Kaiser union for 43,000 workers was defeated through collaboration between the company and the SEIU. According to a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge, SEIU "interfered with unit employee's free and uncoerced choice in the election." The election must be rerun, the judge ordered--but NUHW is still pressing the NLRB to create an equal playing field for the next vote. Meanwhile, SEIU health care leader Dave Regan is calling on Kaiser workers to accept concessions, even though the company has been setting revenue records.

To gather the resources necessary to compete with the 2-million-member SEIU, the NUHW has partnered with the International Association of Machinists (IAM). NUHW President Sal Rosselli spoke to Lee Sustar about the reasons for that agreement--and the stakes in the struggle at Kaiser.

WHAT'S THE significance of the partnership with the IAM?

IN THE short term, it does provide very significant resources, in terms of staff capacity and other issues, research abilities, office space and some funds that allow us to hire additional staff. This can help win a contract campaign for NUHW members against Kaiser Permanente and other employers, and get ready for and conduct the upcoming election later this year--the rerun of the election for the 45,000 Kaiser workers.

In the long term, if things work out--and we certainly feel very optimistic and positive about it--we will realize our decades-long vision of being the national union of health care workers. That means uniting health care workers across the United States to change their lives and provide quality care.

YOU'RE ALREADY in the thick of it--you've got a foothold at Kaiser with a number of important bargaining units, and you've used the strike weapon and campaigned against concessions. Can you explain how you've done that?

Sal Rosselli speaking to a press conference for home health care workers in Fresno
Sal Rosselli speaking to a press conference for home health care workers in Fresno (Mike Rhodes | Indybay.org)

IT'S NOT complicated. It's not magic. It's simply uniting workers to fight their employer--uniting workers around a program that's important to them.

Our psychologists, social workers and registered nurses are actively united to: one, retain the package that they currently have; and two, get key staffing language for different units that increases and provides adequate access and adequate quality of care for the patients they serve.

This also means getting a fair wage increase at a time when Kaiser Permanente has unprecedented profits--$4 billion in the last two years. That's enormous growth, and management is demanding concessions. The Kaiser CEO [George Halvorson] made $9 million in 2010.

Folks are having these successful strikes because they're united in saying to Kaiser, "No way." We're going to contest these issues, and we're going to have to take care of our patients.

SEIU's DAVE Regan gave a speech that was interpreted as preparing the ground for concessions. How is SEIU trying to justify that given Kaiser's record profits?

THEY DON'T talk about Kaiser's profits. Dave Regan and John August, the head of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, gave a speech recently that we actually heard on a blog site called Stern Burger with Fries. The speech, given to delegates from the coalition, begins setting them up for takeaways.

Regan and August make no mention of Kaiser's profitability. They talk about how Kaiser workers have the best wages in the health care industry, but they don't talk about the excessive compensation package for the CEO.

It's outrageous. They have this contract that's about to go into bargaining and that expires in September of this year. But they put out a bargaining schedule that begins on March 6, and they've announced that bargaining will end on May 10. They'll put together a dog-and-pony show to try to organize workers into making concessions.

IS NUHW in this coalition?

NO, NUHW is not in the coalition of unions. The California Nurses Association and the Stationary Engineers of California are not part of this coalition. They are joining with NUHW to pull the curtain back and expose this sham, and to try to unite workers--including workers in SEIU and other unions in the coalition--to stand up to Kaiser, as opposed to being in bed with the company.

YOU'VE ALWAYS maintained that without Kaiser, SEIU's claim to be a health care union unravels, and you alluded to a decades-long goal of building a national health care union. What is the overview of the industry as you see it today in terms of the prospects for unionization?

YOU JUST reminded me of something in Dave Regan's and John August's speeches. They're saying that most health care workers in this country don't have a defined-benefit pension plan. In fact, 50 percent of health care workers in this country don't have health care for their families.

That's all true, but it's also true that 90 percent of the hospital workers in this country don't have a union. So when we led SEIU-UHW--when we led the health care workers movement in California--we united 150,000 health workers, about 45,000 of them in Kaiser and the rest in Kaiser's competitors.

Sixteen years ago, our leaders came to the conclusion that while the Kaiser contract is extraordinary, and probably has the best wages and benefits for private hospital workers, it still needs great improvements. Kaiser workers today have a defined benefit pension plan, but it's modest. It's not enough. It needs improving, and Kaiser can afford to improve it. In fact, a demonstration of it being modest is the fact that executives and bosses in Kaiser have supplementary pension plans.

In any event, about 15 years ago, it was easy for us to conclude that we needed to raise this Kaiser ceiling, which workers certainly deserve. But to achieve that, you had to raise the floor--Kaiser's competition. In those 15 years, we organized 30 hospitals in Catholic Healthcare West. In dozens of hospitals, such as at Sutter, we brought wages and benefits and standards for workers at Kaiser's competition up to those of Kaiser, so that we could then raise the Kaiser ceiling.

Among the employers in California that we organized, many are national employers--like the Catholic hospitals and HCA. This gave us an opportunity to go into many other states across the country where very few of their workers are organized.

This was the program and the vision that we had when SEIU did the hostile takeover of our local. In the last few years, SEIU has bargained contracts with every one of Kaiser's competitors. In every single contract, there were pension takeaways and other concessions. They lowered the bar. And now Kaiser's coming to the bargaining table with SEIU and saying, "Okay, it's our turn now."

So once we win the big Kaiser election, it will be easy for other workers to follow. We can get back to the program I described of continuing to raise the floor at Kaiser's competitors and organize health care workers among Kaiser's competition. We can continue to raise the ceiling, and workers can get the benefits they deserve and access the quality of care that they pay for.

THE NUHW has been trying to organize constantly--not only at Kaiser, but elsewhere. SEIU seems to have shifted all its resources into outfits like Good Jobs LA and Stand Up Chicago, rather than organizing.

SEIU--AND frankly, some other unions--are organizing employers as opposed to organizing workers.

Here's a relatively new thing I saw out in California, where the SEIU is led by Dave Regan. They're not putting any dollars into organizing, period. They just allocated $5.5 million to qualify two initiatives for the California ballot this November. One sets a floor on the amount of charity care that nonprofit hospitals have to give back to the community. The other sets a maximum on what nonprofit hospitals can charge consumers.

This program is a mega-scam. It's a deal with the SEIU's partners in Kaiser Permanente and the Catholic Hospitals. These two initiatives are going to go on the November ballot, and SEIU is spending millions and millions of dollars to specifically exempt Kaiser and the Catholic hospitals from the law--and they're about a third of the California market.

It's the perfect example of them forming a top-down partnership by organizing employers. They're spending millions of dollars of their members' money to improve the status of these two employers versus the rest of their competition in California, in exchange for them being on the side of SEIU. In exchange, employers like Kaiser do all kinds of illegal stuff for SEIU--like we've seen in the past--to prevent the workers having a fair union election.

CAN YOU tell us something about the kind of worksite organization that has gone into the NUHW's strikes?

IT'S FUNDAMENTAL stuff. We strive to train workers in a particular department or shift that will represent between 10 and 40 workers. We have a great training program, so we make sure that leader has the tools, the understanding of the contract and the skills to represent their constituents and organize them.

Then we make sure that worker has the support--but not the interference--of a paid staff person. The worker goes into the union with a grievance or a problem or a question, and they're directed to their shop steward--again, making sure that worker has a shop steward trained to take care of their issue.

Our best example of what the union's organization should look like in a shop or a hospital is Kaiser Fresno, a medical center with a thousand members. We have 70-something shop stewards and chief stewards who walk through Kaiser Fresno. Workers love the union, and they love their employer because it has good wages, good benefits and it's a great place to work.

Kaiser Fresno management doesn't make decisions without involving stewards. And for a period of time, we didn't have a paid staff person assigned to Kaiser Fresno because, first, it wasn't necessary, and second, if a paid union staffer is sitting there, that's who the boss will want to talk to, as opposed to talking to the elected stewards.

It's not complicated--not rocket science. It's about focus, about recruiting good leaders, making sure they're trained and they have the tools to provide to workers, and empowering them to make decisions. This is not only about what happens on the shop floor. It's the same when it comes to politics, issues or candidates, and how the unions spend its dollars. Those decisions are made by workers at a local level.

HOW IS that going to translate into the Kaiser union election revote?

RIGHT NOW, SEIU and the Kaiser Coalition of Unions are going into bargaining where they're saying they're going to settle in two-and-a-half months. We know that they've already agreed to takeaways in retiree health, pension and health care.

So the contract campaign is now going to blend with the organizing campaign for the next elections. Today, it's the Stationary Engineers and, I hope, other unions who will organize, stand up and say, "Restore our benefits, Kaiser, you can afford it."

Our hope is that we can force Kaiser to back down on their takeaways, and we collectively get the credit for it in the upcoming election. Or we will be just educating folks about what SEIU is doing to them--and telling them the truth.

That's kind of the quick summary of our strategy for this next election. If the election were held today, once again, workers would not have a fair election because of intimidation.

At every one of these worksites, the SEIU is still using Kaiser to campaign against NUHW. Kaiser is still giving SEIU preferential access to conference rooms and more, so we're trying to get the NLRB to level the playing field. In the short term, the partnership with the IAM will give us more resources to help organize for this election.

WHAT CAN people inside and outside of California do to support your efforts?

WE CAN always use resources, and there is a Fund for Union Democracy website to which contributions are appreciated. Once the Kaiser vote is actually scheduled, we're going to be doing a call for several hundred volunteers to help us get out the vote. But we prefer folks who have experience in organizing workers for obvious reasons.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke

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