NUHW and the fight for union democracy

May 27, 2010

In January 2009, Andy Stern, then the president of the Service Employee International Union (SEIU), moved to place the union's big California health care unit, United Healthcare West (UHW), into trusteeship after then-UHW President Sal Rosselli and members challenged his corporate-friendly policies. Rosselli, formerly president of SEIU Local 250--a predecessor of the UHW--and member of SEIU's executive board, was summarily ousted.

Rosselli, along with other officials, staffers and rank-and-file hospital workers, helped form the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) to create a democratic, fighting union as an alternative to SEIU. Since then, NUHW has replaced SEIU as the representative of workers at several employers through union decertification elections. These gains have come despite the overwhelming resources and intimidation tactics of SEIU, including the filing of a $25 million lawsuit against Rosselli and several others.

Rosselli spoke to Lee Sustar about what's been accomplished so far and the fight ahead.

IT'S NEARLY 18 months since NUHW was established. How would you summarize what's been accomplished so far?

WE'RE APPROACHING 5,000 workers who have voted for NUHW. There are about 14,000 who are waiting to vote, as a result of petitions filed 15 months ago. And we're getting ready to file [union election petitions] for 47,000 Kaiser workers in June. Which is obviously a big deal.

On one hand, I never imagined it would take this long for people to be able to vote. On the other hand, it's so satisfying and inspiring to me how absolutely committed folks are despite all these months.

We have, every two months, leadership meetings, one in the North and one in the South. [May 15] we had one in the North, and it was the biggest meeting yet. There were almost 300 leaders from just Northern California, who obviously come on their own time, at their own expense. They are just as enthusiastic as they were on day one, as committed as on day one.

The SEIU's activity has been beyond my imagination as we experience new levels of lies, attacks and resources spent. They will do whatever it takes to prevent workers from leaving SEIU.

Supporters of the National Union of Healthcare Workers march in protest of SEIU's harassment
Supporters of the National Union of Healthcare Workers march in protest of SEIU's harassment (Indymedia)

I'll just give you one example of what's become normal--at the University of Southern California hospital, where we have an election May 27.

USC Hospital is a very anti-union employer, one of the worst. And SEIU determined that it couldn't win the election there against NUWH. So Bob Callahan, a top national organizing director for SEIU, had a meeting with a management team, and they brought in a union-busting consultant from Ohio. And the three organizations put together a plan to get the SEIU members to vote "no union."

Included in the plan is the disciplining and/or firing of SEIU leaders who support NUHW. In fact, they suspended three of our stewards.

On May 14, we had three staff in there, in the cafeteria, as they had been doing for the past month, hanging out and talking to people. Two SEIU organizers came in with video cameras and directed hospital security to arrest the three staff members. They then had the LAPD come in and put them in jail overnight, and took all their belongings, including charts and organizing materials.

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This is becoming normal to us. SEIU's collusion with employers to prevent SEIU members from having a fair vote and leaving the union is extreme. This includes having longtime shop stewards fired from their jobs. SEIU has removed over 2,000 stewards from their elected positions since this began, but now they're getting people fired from their jobs.

DESPITE THIS onslaught, NUHW keeps racking up the wins. How?

THE WORKERS are committed to controlling their union--to doing whatever it takes to control their relationship with their employer and to reject SEIU's takeover.

SEIU is making a lot of mistakes, too, which works in our favor. They're not representing workers. That's just not on their agenda. Their agenda is all about attacking--trying to kill NUHW.

That's what the $25 million lawsuit, with its huge costs in time and dollars, was about. They didn't succeed there. It's the historic dynamic that's been repeated time and time again throughout history. People are committed to being free, to being in control of their lives.

We recently won a vote at Salinas Memorial Hospital, and I was listening to one of the chief stewards with the press. She said things that I'd forgotten--like that she's been involved in organizing the union there since the late '70s. She was on SEIU Local 250's executive board in the late '80s and was a leader in fighting the SEIU trusteeship of the local in 1988.

She wanted to retire this year, but she's not going to retire until she's sure that the union that she helped build at her hospital is a democratic union in the control of the workers.

OBVIOUSLY, THIS kind of organization didn't come about overnight. Why has this been such a threat to SEIU?

BECAUSE SEIU, led by Andy Stern and Anna Berger, and now Mary Kay Henry, believe that its vision--and its control over resources--is the best way to grow the union.

There are two big reasons why we were put in trusteeship--the top-down deals with for-profit nursing home employers and the top-down deal with Tenant Healthcare Corp., which exchanged standards and a voice for workers in California in order to get growth opportunities in other states.

In California, the gold standard for private-sector health care workers is at Kaiser, because of the organization that has been built for 20-plus years. The Kaiser "partnership"--the Kaiser contract--exists because of struggle, not because Kaiser is some benevolent employer. There were huge strikes in the late '80s and early '90s that forced Kaiser to the brink. Then, some enlightened leaders in Kaiser sat down and said, "Okay, we've got to do something different or we're going to go out of business."

That was the birth of the labor-management partnership. Then, enlightened leaders in our union understood that the only way we were going to preserve that contract relationship was to organize Kaiser's competitors and bring them up to that standard. And that's what we did through the 1990s and the early part of this century--organize 65,000 hospital workers.

Local 250 had represented three hospitals that are now part of Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) for decades. But as CHW formed in the late '80s and early '90s, those three hospitals grew to 32, with the other 29 being nonunion. These thousands of workers had multiple strikes in the '90s over leveling the playing field for nonunion workers, who were organizing the rest of the system.

They got it. They were protecting the standards at Kaiser, and they knew they had to organize the whole CHW system. They sacrificed wages and other things to win organizing rights. And in the late '90s, over a five-year period, we organized 27 other hospitals throughout the state. In just two contract cycles, CHW is now the second-best hospital contract in the country, right behind Kaiser's, with a master agreement for 15,000 workers.

So there's an example of workers getting the fundamental need to organize and sacrificing to accomplish it, while at the same time accomplishing standards for themselves. There's actual proof that both can be done.

Well, that wasn't fast enough for SEIU. I point to the SEIU convention in 2004, when Stern got authority to withdraw from the AFL-CIO. We were celebrating this 65,000-member unprecedented growth in hospitals. And he said, yeah it's great, it's unprecedented, but it's incremental. You have to organize 150,000 people a year, not 65,000 hospital workers over four years.

When they pulled SEIU out of the AFL-CIO, the commitment and pressure was for growth, growth, growth. At every level of the organization, down to local unions, the pressure was to grow at all costs.

That's what led to the nursing home deal with Tenet. Also, there was the attempt, with the three-year contracts with Sodexho, Compass and Aramark, to gain 20,000 new members over three years. Unionization would be chosen by the employer, not the workers, with a pre-negotiated template contract that did little more than give folks a raise to pay their dues.

The result is workers who make little more than minimum wage, with almost no benefits and certainly no representation or rights. And they're working right next to hospital workers in the same union, doing the same kind of work--service workers making $20 an hour, with full health coverage for their kids, a pension plan, etc.

THE OTHER element of Stern's plan was to create large local unions with the resources to combat employers. Were these mergers necessarily undemocratic and unaccountable?

WE WERE absolutely in favor of that--creating bigger unions with common employers to have greater strength and an economy of scale. In the year 2000, Local 399's and Local 250's executive boards voted unanimously to seek merger, since we had common employers in California, such as Kaiser, nursing homes, etc.

Stern said no. He said that there were too many unorganized hospital workers in Southern California and said, "Local 250, use your power, resources to organize those workers, and we'll talk again." So that's what we did, and SEIU helped, too, in a three-way partnership. Locals 250 and 399 and SEIU organized Tenet workers, Healthcare Corporation of America (HCA) workers and cleaned up the CHW stuff.

In 2004, both Local 399 and Local 250 boards voted unanimously again to merge, and Stern said okay. We spent all of 2004 having hundreds and hundreds of meetings, integrating the different cultures of the unions, wrote a constitution, voted on the constitution, voted on leaders. The votes were separate, because Local 399 had 20,000 members and Local 250 had 70,000 members. It was democratic, and the votes were both 90-something percent in favor, and we merged.

Stern's method of merging was quite the opposite. It was top-down. He decided that "these 10 public-sector unions in Northern California will merge, they will now be called 1021, I'll appoint the leaders, and the votes will be pooled." So 10 counties merged into one union, with sizes ranging from 1,000 workers to 30,000 workers. Some of the locals with 1,000 or 2,000 members weren't bought into it and weren't organized. It caused great resentment, and it resulted in a horribly dysfunctional union.

Stern appointed the leaders for three years. The federal government says you have to have an election after three years. Stern got around that--if his leaders couldn't win, then he'd do another merger, and buy another three years.

In this particular case, he was secure that his leadership team would win. They lost. It was stunning. This inexperienced rank-and-file movement won every seat with 7 percent of the entire union voting--which is another tragedy. People are so disgusted that they don't even want to participate. So that's the difference in merger ideology--how it's done.

SO A larger size doesn't have to mean the mergers are undemocratic?

CORRECT. IN fact, it's the opposite. We struggled all the time to increase democracy in a statewide union in the state of California, with its huge geography and 150,000 members. It's a constant struggle to figure out how to have more democracy and to empower people. How do you have a Kaiser nurse in LA relate to one up in Santa Rosa? It's tough.

HOW MUCH money do you estimate the SEIU has spent in trying to stop NUHW?

HUNDREDS OF millions. We don't even know how to estimate it. They hide money, and so many different locals are sending in staff and resources. They sent 1,000 people just for the Fresno home-care workers election and spent $10 million for 10,000 workers.

As you can imagine, they effectively killed our ability to do home-care decerts in Sacramento and San Francisco--through deals with bosses and just totally overwhelming us with resources. We can't do home care now because it's so resource-intensive. You have to do mail and house calls, because there's no worksite. SEIU spent millions of dollars preventing those workers from having a fair election.

In the hospital campaigns, such as the RN campaign in Salinas--the one we just won--they would have 10 staff to our one, and do 10 mailings to our one. It's just David and Goliath everywhere. They also okayed $2 million for one month of mailings to Kaiser workers, where they use extreme lies to try and prevent workers from signing the petition we're circulating now.

HOW DID the SEIU lawsuit against you and other NUWH officials fit into this picture?

IT WAS intended to kill NUHW. At the pretrial conference, they said they'd drop everything--$25 million dollars worth of claims--if we'd just put NUHW out of business. That's the only reason.

There's no corruption here, no self-dealing. This is obviously all about the movement, work carried out by selfless people. We had 150 staff resign from their well-paid jobs to volunteer for NUHW.

SEIU spent tens of millions of dollars on the lawsuit. We counted 50 lawyers involved in it. Compare that to [ousted California SEIU official] Tyrone Freeman, who stole $2 million. He's under federal investigation, but SEIU has only two junior lawyers on that. There hasn't been a legal proceeding yet because they keep postponing it. And that happened nine months before our trusteeship.

WHAT'S YOUR interpretation of the outcome of the lawsuit?

THEY FAILED. They didn't put NUHW out of business. The $25 million came down to $740,000. The jury awarded this money, because the jury believed that during the second week of January 2009, SEIU's executive board voted to move our long-term care members out of UHW, and for the next two and half weeks, we continued to oppose this because of democratic votes of our members.

We disobeyed SEIU, which had the legal right to tell us what we had to do. So we had to pay back the overhead of the union that we spent opposing that. That's what the jury's verdict was, so we're being fined. For me personally, the fine is $70,400. It was my judgment that I was carrying out the will of the members. Well, that's who I'm accountable to. I have no regrets, I'd do it again.

WHAT'S the significance of this fight for the wider labor movement?

I THINK labor's at a crossroads.

To add to the negatives, obviously public-sector budgets across the country are in crisis. In California, the governor just put forth a budget that will cut in half the home care program--and he's very serious about this. SEIU threatened 10,000 home care workers in Fresno that "the only way you're going to keep your union and your benefits and your wages is to stay inside SEIU." Because the money is being cut, the board of supervisors just announced that on July 1, these 10,000 folks are going down to $8.50 an hour.

So in fact, once dues are taken out of their check, these 10,000 SEIU members will make below minimum wage. California has 300,000 home care workers in SEIU who are like those folks. They are organized top-down--there's no movement whatsoever. So their numbers might be reduced to half, and the other half will be making minimum wage or slightly over that in some counties. That's the future of SEIU, because of the way they've been organizing.

NUWH, UNITE HERE and a few other unions are on the cutting edge, committed to a bottom-up, social unionism--a union by workers, for workers, governed by workers, versus this corporate unionism of SEIU, where all authority and decision-making and resources are concentrated among a few folks in Washington, D.C.

Frankly, it's the reason why UNITE HERE is partnering with us and we're helping each other. Because I think that we have this common belief that if we don't win, the movement's not going to survive.

Certainly, all the dreams we have of establishing a progressive majority and dealing with all the other issues besides good-paying jobs and health care--all the other issues that are important to working people--are never going to be accomplished unless there's a bottom-up movement that forces government to level the playing field, just like the civil rights movement in the '60s.

Labor put so much money into electing the Democrats and Barack Obama, and look what the result is. It was a huge opportunity, at our position of greatest strength--theoretically. And we got no labor law reform and a shitty health care plan. And now the Democrats are going to lose it all.

So that doesn't work. The only way we're going to accomplish it is by forcing elected leaders to side with working people as opposed to corporate leaders.

WHAT CAN people do, both in California and outside, to support NUHW's efforts?

OUR TWO obstacles are money and organizers. Money is a huge problem, and contributions to the Fund for Union Democracy help. It's paying all our legal expenses, not NUHW or anyone else. There are other unions that can contribute directly to NUHW. It's the only reason we're surviving right now.

We currently have about 75 full-time staff. Most of them are making extremely modest salaries and getting health coverage. A sizable number are still volunteering because they can afford it.

We need more staff. We could use twice the staff on the Kaiser campaign--and that's without doing anything else, like winning elections yesterday at Salinas and next week at USC. There are going to be 70 other elections scheduled over the coming months. We're not going to be able to do them all, because we don't have enough money or enough staff.

Friends across the country are actually organizing folks to take vacations this summer to come for two weeks or three weeks or a month to help on Kaiser. We welcome experienced people to come. And once the election's scheduled, we'll need hundreds of people to come, because it's 47,000 people over 300 sites.

The Kaiser dues to SEIU are $3.5 million a month. When we win, we'll have the resources and stability to do it all and to help other people. And it'll also mean the end of SEIU Healthcare [the union's national structure for the industry].

That's the reason why UHW is so important for SEIU to control. It's their vision to be a national health care union and organize other employers across the country. But SEIU's membership base is all in California, at Kaiser, Tenet, HCA, the Catholic hospitals and dozens of national for-profit nursing home chains. So to have any leverage with these employers, they have to control UHW.

That's why the stakes are so high. Once we win Kaiser and get them out of health care in California, they won't be able to organize health care workers across the country because they won't have that base. That's what at stake here.

Transcription by Meredith Reese

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