Fallout from the power struggle between Service Employees International Union and its Oakland-based local, United Healthcare Workers, has been felt particularly strongly in the Bay Area since SEIU took over UHW and ousted its leaders Jan. 27 (see "Union showdown," 1/28/09).
After SEIU replaced UHW head Sal Rosselli and more than 70 elected leaders of that union for defying SEIU demands, Rosselli and his team formally resigned from SEIU Jan. 29 and formed a new union, National Union of Healthcare Workers, hoping to draw thousands of current SEIU members disgruntled with the top-down management style of SEIU head Andy Stern.
It took a few days for SEIU to take physical control of UHW’s Oakland offices, where Oakland police officers were called Jan. 30 to mediate a final showdown between UHW loyalists and the new SEIU management team, which is under the direction of two SEIU executive vice presidents that Stern appointed as trustees: Eliseo Medina and David Regan (see "SEIU seizes last holdout: UHW’s Oakland headquarters," Guardian Politics blog).
"It’s not about the building, it’s about the members," Regan told the Guardian Jan. 30, later adding, "At the end of the day, the members of the union get to decide if they want to be in the union or not be in the union."
And after a weekend when Rosselli said SEIU was aggressively trying to close outstanding contracts with many employers, a move that would make it difficult for members to disaffiliate from SEIU and join NUHW, he filed petitions showing that many members do indeed want to leave SEIU.
"We don’t trust them with our contracts and we don’t trust them with our dues," Shayne Silba, a psychiatric technician with Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, told reporters during a Feb. 2 teleconference announcing that about 9,000 workers at 62 medical facilities have filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board asking to leave SEIU and join NUHW.
Rosselli said that more than 50 percent of workers at most of these facilities signed the petition, and he’s asking SEIU to honor the request and let them go.
The list of facilities includes some prominent Bay Area medical centers such as Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Alta Bates, and California Pacific Medical Center and other entities run by Sutter Health. Sutter has clashed with union members and community leaders over numerous issues, including the future of St. Luke’s Hospital in the Mission District.
"The Sutter Healths of the world are colluding with SEIU just like they did before the trusteeship," Rosselli told reporters, echoing his persistent theme that SEIU is too cozy with employers and doesn’t negotiate good contracts.
SEIU spokesperson Michelle Ringuette disputed that characterization and the accusations that the union was trying to quickly sew up outstanding contracts with employers to forestall moves to NUHW. "There were an astonishing number of contracts left incomplete," she said. "It’s callous to leave contracts open for whatever purpose."
Regan said SEIU will challenge the NUHW petitions. "We are not going to let these discredited, deposed members weaken UHW," he said, adding that the petition drive "is incredibly cynical and reckless in this economic climate."
But the wheels are now set in motion for a protracted fight over who will lead UHW’s 150,000 members, as well as the question of whether Rosselli’s highly democratic management style might be attractive to members of other unions.
"We’re getting calls from other SEIU members from other locals about joining NUHW," Rosselli said, citing Alameda County Medical Center, whose employees are part of the San Franciscobased SEIU Local 1021, one of many locals that have been reformulated in recent years by Stern, who then appoints its leaders.
Rosselli plans to hold a founding convention for NUHW in March, when members would vote on bylaws and a constitution, and elect their leaders, while Regan said SEIU will work to win the confidence of its members: "We have to show people that we’re on their side and we care about the work we have to do together."