Behind the SEIU-CNA conflict

Elizabeth Lalasz looks at a union dispute over a nurses' organizing drive in Ohio.

THE SERVICE Employees International Union (SEIU) abruptly canceled a union vote March 11 in its campaign to organize 8,300 registered nurses (RNs) at nine Ohio hospitals run by Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP).

SEIU retreated after members of the National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC), an offshoot of the California Nurses Association (CNA), objected to SEIU's deal with employers to hold the election without the involvement of rank-and-file nurses.

At issue is the fact that CHP, with the cooperation of SEIU, filed for elections without demonstrating support from the nurses themselves--and with the full backing of a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filled with anti-union Bush appointees.

SEIU and CHP used what is known as an "RM petition," filed by an employer whenever one or more unions claim to represent its workers, or when an employer believes that a union doesn't represent a majority of employees.

Thanks to the RM petition, SEIU didn't have to gather membership cards to register support, which is normally required in NLRB elections. Instead, an agreement between SEIU and CHP management would have allowed a fast-track election, in which neither side would campaign (though there were reports of the employer telling nurses to vote for the SEIU.)

But the NNOC intervened. Activists leafleted the CHP nurses to raise questions about the election, which was a key factor in SEIU's decision to cancel the vote.

If the election had been successful, it would have set a precedent for other unions and employers to use the same strategy throughout the U.S. "This sham process...to file...without a single card or a showing of interest in a secretive environment--could be used against any of us any time an employer wants a company union, rather than a legitimate union who speaks out for workers," NNOC leaders said in a statement.

CHP was already anticipating the benefits of such an approach. "We believe in the process we developed, and we hope to use it in the future," management told the Associated Press. Meanwhile, "the Ohio Hospital Association called the...agreement between CHP and the SEIU refreshing," according to the Springfield Times-Sun.

Pro-SEIU nurses, in an open letter to CNA/NNOC Executive Director Rose Anne DeMoro, disputed the charge that the SEIU agreement with CHP was a sweetheart deal.

"You say you stand for democracy," the nurses wrote. "But then you come in with a goal of destroying our campaign without ever asking us what we think about SEIU and our agreement for fair election ground rules--ground rules we now understand you have made use of many times in California.

"You say you stand for justice. But then you deny us our opportunity for a fair vote free of misleading propaganda and scare tactics."

The battle between SEIU and NNOC is likely to get more intense. Organizing nurses is very desirable for unions, given the large nursing shortage and an aging population. The success rates for SEIU, CNA/NNOC and various state nurses associations are 79, 80 and 83 percent, respectively--and they'll continue to compete for members.

Nurses and all workers should have the right to decide what union to affiliate with--and how to best organize themselves to win representation.