A second chance at Kaiser

April 2, 2013

The National Labor Relations Board has ordered a rerun of a union representation election at the California hospital giant Kaiser Permanente--pitting the powerful Service Employees International Union and its United Healthcare West (SEIU UHW) unit against the upstart National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). NUHW is led by former officials and members of UHW who were driven out of the SEIU when they challenged International President Andy Stern's increasing collaboration with management.

The NUHW bid to take over union representation of 45,000 Kaiser workers in California is a fateful battle for organized labor--pitting the NUHW and its alternative vision for unions against the SEIU machine and its advocacy of partnership with employers. Carl Finamore, a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, visited Kaiser facilities to investigate the issues involved in this hard-fought battle over the future of our unions.

THE NATIONAL Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) is getting another shot in a battle that is critical for its survival--and for the future of the labor movement.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has announced a re-vote in a 2010 representation election at Kaiser Permanente. Some 45,000 health care workers spread across 32 locations around California are involved.

According to the NLRB, the Service Employees International Union's United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) prevailed over the NUHW in the 2010 vote by violating the law and colluding with Kaiser to rig the vote. There is no nice way to say it. These are the facts.

The NLRB admitted it rarely overturns elections of this size and scope, but on this occasion, the egregious violations compelled it to act. The agency's official statement noted misconduct by "SEIU-UHW, that the judge found to have interfered with the employees' exercise of a free and reasoned choice."

A new mail ballot election has been scheduled for April 5 through April 29, with the vote count to start on May 1. I recently spent an afternoon at Kaiser San Francisco to see what I could find out.

Kaiser workers and NUHW supporters Kekela Moberg (left) and Michael Turk
Kaiser workers and NUHW supporters Kekela Moberg (left) and Michael Turk (Carl Finamore)

More Concessions and Less Representation

"Look, I have a life outside of work, but at the same time, the outcome of this election will directly affect my life, and so I am doing what I can to talk to co-workers about voting NUHW," David B. told me. He is a Radiology tech with 15 years experience, and he is frustrated.

"We have voted on two contracts since SEIU took over in 2009, but none of us were shown the language prior to voting," he said. "Later, we learned some important things we weren't originally told, such as agreements reducing pension benefits and eliminating jobs."

This is true. In language that reverses years of job security guarantees, SEIU-UHW's 2012 contract with Kaiser commits the union to a "joint process for looking at restructuring work away from the bargaining unit." NUHW leaflets state that this has already resulted in 1,000 layoffs statewide.

Regarding retirement, SEIU had already agreed in 2010 to give Kaiser a 15 percent cut in the contract's lump-sum pension payout, but in 2012, the union went further and agreed with management to freeze retiree health benefits. According to "Section 2.B.2.h: Retiree Medical Benefits" of the SEIU-UHW/Kaiser national agreement, "the employers' cost-share shall be capped at a fixed dollar amount effective January 1, 2017."

Up to now, Kaiser retirees enjoyed the same prescription, emergency room and hospital coverage they received as active employees. This ends with SEIU-UHW's latest contract.

Management saves $1.8 billion, but neither the company nor SEIU openly admits this is accomplished by shifting medical costs to employees in their retirement years. Meanwhile, Kaiser CEO George Halvorsen is covered by eight pension plans and shamelessly collects almost $9 million a year in compensation.

"Yet," David said, "our dues still went up to around $90 a month, and we don't see our union representatives."

I heard similar complaints time and time again. "I gave SEIU a chance after they won the last election back in 2010. We all did, everyone in my department," Soni Armstrong told me. Soni is a medical assistant in the surgery clinic and has worked at Kaiser San Francisco for 13 years. "But then, we just could never seem to get a hold of our steward. It was real difficult getting information when we had a question much less representation when we had a problem."

Michael Turk, an 18-year ER tech and Certified Nursing Assistant, echoed these same sentiments. "SEIU stewards seem to only appear when they want to push their own thing. It took me a month to reach a steward to get information to help a co-worker, and that is neither an isolated nor an exaggerated experience."

Union representation is especially important because cutbacks--strongly opposed by NUHW, which cites Kaiser's $2.6 billion profit windfall in 2012--have resulted in numerous schedule changes, temporary department closings, staffing reductions and layoffs.

Employees disrupted by these changes have seniority and bidding rights, but if a steward does not actively intervene, the company will unilaterally implement policy without employee input. And that is happening frequently.

"I don't know of any department at Kaiser San Francisco where unit-based teams are operating," 11-year Pharmacy tech Kelela Moberg told me. "These management/employee/union teams are supposed to involve the employees in operational decisions that affect our lives. In fact, they are non-functioning, and SEIU doesn't do anything about it."

In addition to these unaddressed complaints of everyday working conditions, dramatic increases in discipline cases were also reported to me, including a growing number of terminations that have gone unchallenged by SEIU. In fact, the Stern Burger With Fries blog documents over 1,000 Kaiser employee grievances still lingering in limbo, including over 239 for wrongful termination.

Phooey! says SEIU-UHW

We have just this to say, SEIU-UHW spokesperson Steve Trossman told me: "We are highly confident that Kaiser workers by a large margin will vote for SEIU-UHW to keep the best contract in the hospital industry."

This confidence is shared by many UHW supporters quoted on the union's website. "To most Kaiser workers, voting for SEIU-UHW is a no-brainer," writes Verna Hampton, a receptionist in Patient Registration at Kaiser West Los Angeles. "We have negotiated two contracts with 18 percent raises, and the best benefits, pension and job security in the hospital industry."

Nonetheless, I found it a bit ironic that UHW's website fails to mention its jobs security and pension concessions, while at the same time unabashedly proclaiming in large, bold type that "Facts Don't Lie."

One Big Hospital, One Big Union

In any case, amid these important discussions of the issues, a new factor has emerged. NUHW has forged an alliance with the California Nurses Association (CNA), which means 18,000 Kaiser nurses in the CNA and 4,000 Kaiser mental health and health care professionals already in the NUHW could be united with the 45,000 whose representation is at stake in the April election.

"It's hard to overestimate how important this unity is," Katy Roemer told me. Katy is a CNA board member and nurse for 18 years, half of those spent working at Kaiser Oakland's Mother-Baby unit.

"Kaiser is a huge and profitable institution emboldened by SEIU-UHW's concessions," Katy explained. "To preserve and to even think about advancing our primary obligations of patient care, while maintaining decent working and living conditions, employees need each other. We all need to be on the same page, and it's pretty clear that UHW is just not on that page."

It seems obvious that the NUHW-CNA alliance makes the commitment to protect the interests of employees even more real. And, after all, that's what it's all about.

United Farmworkers leader Cesar Chavez would often remind us that "the fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people." So true. By the same token, this Kaiser election is also about people--and many are hoping they get it right the second time around.

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