by Wade Rathke
New Orleans First come the disclaimers. I have no stomach for this 5 year saga in California that has created a huge rift in the labor movement as folks picked sides between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the National Union of Healthcare Workers’ (NUHW). Depending on how you line up, NUHW is either a principled group of dissidents trying to reform SEIU and the whole labor movement and bring it back to its roots or a band of renegades who broke when they didn’t get everything on their Christmas list from SEIU.
Regardless the ballots are now out to the workers of the huge 45,000 member bargaining unit at Kaiser Hospitals on the question of whether or not to decertify the existing bargaining unit, SEIU, or to certify NUHW. Starting May 1st the ballots are due and the counting will begin, perhaps to put an end to all of this or maybe to simply open another chapter in his horrible mess. This is a re-run election. SEIU won the first round by a large margin, but the election was overturned by the NLRB based on findings of unfair labor practices in the way that Kaiser favored SEIU before the vote.
[Readers may be interested in our recent reports on the upcoming SEIU-NUHW election by Carl Finamore Steve Early, and Harold Meyerson, as well as coverage of the background to this election.–Talking Union]
Stomach or no, I finally manned up and spent some time looking at how the campaign was going to see if there were reasons to handicap the election differently than I have done in the past. Over recent years were I to have been asked, and believe me I was not asked, I would have advised NUHW to find a stronger path for its organizing future and let this Kaiser thing go, even knowing that if lightning might strike, it would be a whole different world for them. I just saw the odds as too long and the strengths of SEIU’s incumbency as the bargaining agent, resources, and commitment to the fight as too strong to be overcome. Regardless, I thought I should look to see if I should revise my prediction or reassess the odds and the outcome.
The folks at NUHW are no fools that’s for sure. They did their best to even the odds and hooked up with the California Nurses’ Association part of the national nurses’ union affiliated with the AFL-CIO. The union severed its no-raiding agreement with SEIU which could rekindle organizing wars in hospitals around the country. Nurses pay big time union dues, so this tie-up gave NUHW a partner with deep pockets assuring that they wouldn’t get blown out of the water during the election. Reading the reports of folks a little closer to the ground like NUHW supporter, former CWA representative, and labor journalist (and Social Policy contributing editor) Steve Early, these resources have allowed them to try and match the SEIU ground campaign of several years ago so that currently they have 125 organizers, mass mailings, and a contracted canvass crew to help with voter turnout.
Nonetheless, reading the back-and-forth on the websites, it all looked “same ol’ same ol’” and that’s not enough to change the final outcome. SEIU is making a big deal of the failure of NUHW units to get a contract with Kaiser and using the classic argument to workers that the “devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” SEIU isn’t silent either on the lost court appeal of the NUHW officers on the multi-million dollar claim against them for diverting members’ dues in order to finance their schism and split. SEIU is calling CNA and its leadership strike happy. Theirs is a conservative, hold-the-line incumbent’s campaign. NUHW is also still fighting the last war and arguing that SEIU is too close to management and that the labor/management partnership, now 16 years old, is hurting the workers. On either side there didn’t seem like any real breakthrough, new issues. If this is all there is, my guess is that it’s not enough. My bet would still be that for NUHW to win there would need to be something more. Something bigger. Something much better.
Hospital workers facing the brave new world of the Affordable Care Act and the depressing recent world of the worst economy since the Great Depression are not going to be wide eyed radicals looking for a new future. The status quo for better or worse might not look great, but will look good enough, returning SEIU as the bargaining agent with perhaps a smaller plurality than they had last time.
There can no longer be any winners in California, and at this point I would bet money that the workers are all sighing and saying under their breath, “a pox on both of their houses.”
Wade Rathke founded the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). He served as ACORN’s chief organizer for thirty years. He is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Social Policy, a quarterly magazine for scholars and activists. He blogs here, where this post originally appeared.