OPINION More than 43,000 California health care employees are currently involved in the largest union election in private industry since the 1940s, a contentious campaign that pits officials of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) against the National Union of Health Care Workers (NUHW). The outcome of the election may well determine the future of the labor movement for years to come.
The leaders of NUHW (the interim president is Sal Rosselli) are the same organizers who inspired and united us in achieving a historic victory: the five-year Kaiser Permanente contract of 2005-10. Health care workers all over the state depend on the benefits enumerated in that contract, including employment and income seniority, paid retirement, paid family health care, and employee participation in staffing and health care issues. The contract is still considered the national gold standard for hospitals.
A few years ago, our union, part of SEIU, was united and strong. The nurses, lab technicians, secretaries, operators, environmental service personnel, x-ray technologists — we were all proud to work together in a noble enterprise, fostering and saving human life. Today, SEIU is in disarray.
The decline began when Andy Stern took power in Washington. He established absentee rule of California. After he withdrew SEIU from the AFL-CIO (which prohibits union raids of other unions), Stern launched a series of raids on two sister unions, UNITE HERE and the Puerto Rican Teachers’ Union. The San Francisco Labor Council (along with the AFL-CIO) formally denounced the Stern raid on UNITE HERE. The raid cost our members millions of dollars. Stern then moved against our California locals, particularly United Healthcare Workers-West, led by Rosselli. Rosselli was the leading champion of democratic unionism in the state. In defiance of the wishes of our membership, Stern fired Rosselli.
The bitterness and hostility within our union today are a direct result of Stern’s mass purges. One hundred elected members of the executive board were removed by fiat. Hundreds of elected shop stewards were dismissed. Subsequently, 48 other stewards resigned in protest of the autocratic policies of the national office. The standard joke at California Kaiser worksites is, “Got a grievance? Call Washington!” Juan Gonzalez, the widely read columnist for the New York Daily News, called the Stern blitz “a stunning assault on democracy within his own union.”
SEIU represents a new kind of McCarthyism in the labor movement, a trend that threatens the unity of labor as a whole.
SEIU bully tactics to prevent workers from joining NUHW are so widespread, so well-documented, that Dolores Huerta, cofounder of the United Farm Workers, sent an open letter to SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, who succeeded Stern after he retired. Huerta complained that “every time workers met to talk about NUHW, SEIU staff surrounded them and began chanting and yelling insults, refusing to let workers talk.”
Even the homes of workers are not off limits. In Fresno, local TV stations (just Google “TV Coverage of SEIU Threats”) documented SEIU pressure tactics during house visits, after workers received their ballots in the mail.
The demise of our once great union has implications far beyond our locals in California. If California’s most successful, democratic labor organizers can be overthrown, If elected shop steward networks (shop stewards are the backbone of union democracy) can be dismantled by fiat, if Washington can establish absentee rule of locals from 3,000 miles away, no union is safe, and American democracy itself is diminished.
Jessica Garcia and Elaine Monney are rank-and-file members of SEIU.