SEIU’s Hostile Takeover of UHW: Power Politics Trumps Progressive Principles

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by Paul Kumar

On behalf of the 150,000 members of SEIU United Healthcare Workers – West (UHW), I want to thank Brother Garver for his attention over many months to the critical dispute taking place within SEIU and its enormous implications for the U.S. labor movement.

In previous posts, Brother Garver has reported and commented upon what UHW members would argue are the core issues at stake in this dispute:

  • the centralization of decision-making power among a small number of top SEIU officials and staff and the weakening of rank-and-file members’ voices with their employers and in their own union; and
  • the use of this newly centralized power to pursue top-down deals with employers and politicians that have sacrificed workers’ rights, employment standards and long-term capacity to build industry power – as well as workers’ historic alliances with consumers and support for progressive policies – in a failed quest for growth.

Unfortunately, Eliseo Medina’s post, in seeking to justify SEIU’s impending hostile takeover of UHW, avoids these issues entirely.

Making his debut as an ambassador to the left regarding the looming civil war inside our International Union, Medina writes that he’s simply, “clearing up the record,” but his account of events is a fabrication that intentionally obscures the specifics of SEIU’s actions in California.

Medina claims that the forced removal of 65,000 homecare and nursing home members from UHW against their will and their placement in a newly created statewide long term care local with leadership to be appointed by SEIU President Andy Stern is the result of a nationwide reorganization process that began in 2000, and that this consolidation effort is not an attack on UHW, but simply one of the last stages of this process. Medina also claims that this effort is aimed solely at building greater power for California’s long term care workers to improve their standards by strengthening their voice in the political process and, particularly, in the resolution of California’s current state budget crisis. Both claims are belied by the facts.

Here is the most critically relevant information:

1. SEIU’s actions in California contradict its decisions in the vast majority of other states to pursue its long term care goals through the creation of one statewide healthcare local representing workers in all sectors of the healthcare industry – even where these other statewide healthcare locals have demonstrated much less capacity than UHW to address much greater challenges in both acute care and long term care. Only in a handful of states where acute care leaders have shown signs of independence from Stern have separate long term care unions been formed.

2. UHW has as much specialized political and policy capacity around long term care as any local union in the United States. We have driven all of the successful long term care policy work and statewide mobilizations that SEIU has undertaken in California over the past decade, often over the obstruction and dysfunction of the International Union and its chosen long term care leader, the publicly disgraced Tyrone Freeman of Local 6434.

In coordination with his International Union handlers, Freeman for years blocked any effort to pursue comprehensive legislative or ballot strategies for further enhancement of homecare funding or expansion of home and community-based long term care services, despite numerous written proposals from UHW seeking to develop a unified approach. On these matters, if there has been any impediment to speaking with one voice and building greater power on behalf of long term care workers in California, it has been the International Union and its agents, not UHW.

3. Through the sworn testimony of SEIU’s Long Term Care Division Director before the UHW Trusteeship Hearings and, earlier, through published accounts of communications between other SEIU California staff leaders and SEIU’s top officers and staff, we know that highly placed staff leaders reporting directly to both Eliseo Medina and to Andy Stern had direct knowledge of the likelihood of serious financial misconduct in Local 6434 as long ago as 2001. Despite that, all the way through SEIU’s 2008 Convention and up until the day multiple, specific acts of malfeasance were documented in the Los Angeles Times, Medina and Stern did nothing to address these issues and, on the contrary, helped orchestrate a plan that would have made Local 6434 into California’s statewide long term care union and one of the largest local unions on the planet.

4. SEIU planned to transfer statewide long term care jurisdiction into Freeman’s hands despite the fact that UHW had achieved far better standards for homecare workers and nursing home workers than Local 6434, even in areas of Northern and Central California far beyond the immediate Bay Area, areas where the fiscal and political challenges facing the union are equal to or greater than those facing Local 6434 in Greater Los Angeles. UHW’s strong track record has continued to the present day.

Our most recent, groundbreaking successes over the past few months, achieved just as the International Union is doing everything in its power to undermine us, are contracts with three national nursing home chains and a major regional nursing home chain that dramatically close the gap between nursing home and hospital wages for the same work and functionally tie the two industries’ wage scales together, while also making major improvements in family health insurance and establishing, for the first time ever, third party mediation of staffing and resident care disputes. Perhaps most importantly, these contracts include a code of conduct that provides organizing rights for 65 additional nursing homes – a larger number of facilities than were made available for organizing under the now discredited California Nursing Home Alliance agreement.

Moreover, since Local 6434’s placement in trusteeship, the International Union has displayed a complete inability to improve its homecare members’ poor standards (or even defend against cuts in homecare members’ health coverage), to address representational failures or to promulgate a coherent public policy program, and has worked to undercut UHW’s nursing home members in collective bargaining by settling substandard contracts far weaker than those ultimately achieved by UHW with the same employers.

5. SEIU’s determination to forcibly remove UHW’s long term care members has been driven primarily by our underlying dispute over the process and the results of the California Nursing Home Alliance and the International Union’s top-down, backroom deals with the nursing home industry at the expense of caregivers and residents.

The Alliance included both a long term relationship agreement and template collective bargaining agreements that radically limited the scope of collective bargaining, worksite representation, and public advocacy. Under these agreements the total cost of workers’ economic package was determined by a fixed formula and the elements of the package could be adjusted unilaterally by the employer; no grievances could proceed to arbitration other than terminations; workers were prohibited from publicly reporting any resident care concerns other than those for which reporting was legally required, under a clause that allowed employers to contest any such reports as attempts at “leverage”; and the union was forbidden from advocating for or against any legislative or regulatory action impacting the nursing home industry without employers’ consent.

The Alliance also made tort reform a primary focus, arguably THE primary focus from SEIU’s perspective, as International Union staff led on renegotiating the Alliance agreement to make tort reform the objective whose achievement would trigger organizing rights for the largest number of nursing homes, while the number of facilities to be awarded organizing rights as a result of achieving Medicaid reimbursement reform was significantly diminished.

More that anything, it is the dispute over the Alliance (and later, a similar dispute that arose over the International Union’s attempt to exert unilateral control of negotiations with Tenet Healthcare) that precipitated SEIU’s efforts to strip UHW of long term care jurisdiction. The International Union’s animus around these issues was evident in its testimony before the 2006 California Jurisdiction Hearings, in which UHW was attacked for failing to embrace the Alliance as directed by SEIU’s Long Term Care Division.

These facts make plain that contrary to Medina’s claims, SEIU’s jurisdictional moves in California have nothing to do with what structure would create superior capacity to organize long term care workers or improve their lives and those of the people they serve. All of the proceedings and all of the outcomes to which they have been led have been about suppressing UHW’s dissent and consolidating the Stern administration’s control of the union and that alone.

In closing, it is important to note that UHW members have no blanket objection to the consolidation of jurisdiction and, in fact, have long advocated the eventual creation of one statewide healthcare union in California. Our concern is that any proposed jurisdictional changes should be developed through dialogue among the members and democratically elected leaders of the affected locals themselves and that, ultimately, any changes in jurisdiction should take place by free choice, through a local-by-local majority vote that respects members’ democratic rights.

The merger that created UHW took place through such a democratic process, after many years of dialogue among the rank-and-file leaders of its predecessor unions, and after their initial pursuit of a merger had been rejected by Medina and Stern for political reasons, not as Medina recounts.

In its efforts to strip UHW of its long term care jurisdiction, SEIU has never accorded UHW members or the members of other locals a free choice, but instead conducted a sham election in which the votes of members from UHW, Local 6434 and Local 521 were pooled and the only choices were to dismantle UHW by removing its 65,000 long term care members or to dissolve UHW entirely in favor of a statewide healthcare union to be led by Stern appointees.

More than 91% of the affected members in UHW, Local 6434 and Local 521 responded to this travesty by boycotting the phony vote and more than 125,000 members from all three unions signed petitions opposing the illegitimate process. Thousands more members have engaged in multiple protests against the suppression of their dissent, the violation of their rights, and the subordination of their interests to the political objectives of SEIU’s top officers and staff. In the end, it is these workers’ voices that must be heard and that will be heard, regardless of the International Union’s misrepresentations and machinations.

Paul Kumar, a former Chair of what was then known as the DSA Youth Section, is a directly elected Administrative Vice President of SEIU United Healthcare Workers – West, where he is the Director of Government Affairs. Prior to his nearly ten years at UHW, Kumar was the Assistant to the President and Political Director of the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, SEIU and worked as a Senior Health Policy Specialist for SEIU in Washington, D.C., where he led policy work in support of homecare organizing and bargaining, the analysis and redesign of nursing home reimbursement systems, and the union’s efforts to expand and improve the quality of home and community-based services.

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2 Responses

  1. I don’t have time to keep up on this right now. I am trying to understand as much as I can. Please forgive me if this sounds incredibly ignorant, but I’m trying to get a slight grasp of this:

    91% or a great number boycotted the election called here bogus.

    Under the Employee Free Choice Act, a very small minority of a workforce, if only a small minority complete cards, will decide whether said workforce will join that particular union. Am I wrong about that?

    The vast majority of the publicity received by the hardworking busy workers is likely to be that funded (much BETTER funded than any other) by the biggest baddest union (not necessarily in the good sense of bad).

    The cards are not anonymous. Now we all know employers have been known to retaliate.

    Is it because unions are angelic by nature that no one is worried about their retaliating, given that the cards are not anonymous?

    If this sounds rhetorical, it isn’t. I’m searching for something other than rightwing kneejerking to answer my questions.

    Respectfully,
    V

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