by Paul Garver
Eight hundred organizers from SEIU locals in California and other states have flooded into the Central Valley city of Fresno. Rallying at the Fresno Fair Grounds (site of the first of the California internment camps for Japanese-Americans in 1942), the conscripts were provided with SEIU T-shirts and purple paraphenalia, water bottles, and speeches (view report on speech by SEIU-UHW trustee Dave Regan) exhorting them to kick the asses, whip the butts, and drive a stake through the heart of the rival National Union of Health Workers (NUHW). They will make daily house calls on the 10,000 homecare workers who are currently members of SEIU-UHW, which national SEIU put into trusteeship in January. The workers have petitioned for representation by the NUHW, founded by deposed UHW leaders and shop stewards. UHW first organized the Fresno homecare workers and won a good first contract in 2002-2003.
A much smaller number of volunteer organizers represent the NUHW. One of their elected leaders within the Fresno homecare unit is Florine Furlow, who was arrested at a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Little Rock in 1960, who in an op-ed article in the Fresno Bee views her union struggle as a continuation of her campaigns for civil rights and disability rights. Other volunteer organizers include Dana Simon, who had coordinated the original 2002-3 organizing and contract campaigns in Fresno and a month ago resigned his SEIU position as lead organizer for Massachusetts hospitals to protest SEIU’s actions in California. As reported by Randy Shaw on this blog, former UFW leaders are divided. Dolores Huerta supports the NUHW, while Eliseo Medina is SEIU-UHW’s co-trustee along with Dave Regan.
The 10,000 homecare workers are mailing back their ballots from June 1 to 15 to choose between SEIU-UHW and NUHW as their collective bargaining representative. In a sense they are choosing between Goliath and David. Goliath has the troop numbers and the deep pockets. David lacks these resources. In other respects as well, the battlefield is favorable for Goliath. The fiscal crisis in California is posing an imminent threat to the precarious gains of the Fresno homecare workers. SEIU-UHW already lost an arbitration to maintain the wage level, but claims that its political connections in Washington and Sacramento can help restore them. Inundating Fresno homecare workers with house calls, television messages and other propaganda may not persuade them to love or support SEIU, but as every union-busting management consultant knows, you do not have to convince workers you are right to persuade them to vote against change – you merely have to confuse them and paralyze their wills. In the tumult and stress of a chaotic campaign, many will choose “no union” -or in this case the “incumbent” union- in a desperate attempt to ease the tension. The unit of Fresno homecare workers is relatively new to the labor movement – its members work in isolated individual households and lack the work relationships that facilitate communication and can bolster group solidarity among co-workers in hospitals and nursing homes.
The stakes are high both for SEIU and for the NUHW. The NUHW might survive an electoral defeat in Fresno, and live to fight on at Kaiser and other large institutional settings where its support is more firmly based. And if SEIU fails to “drive a stake through the heart” of NUHW in Fresno, it will surely keep on trying. But even SEIU’s resources are not infinite. Some of its 800 conscripts in Fresno are already proving reluctant and might be hard to mobilize for a similar effort in the future. Local 99 SEIU staffers, for instance, signed a letter demanding neutrality in the SEIU/NUHW conflict and picketed the union office in protest against assignment to Fresno. Others are posting critical reports on the pro-NUHW PerezStern blog site.
Moreover SEIU is increasingly engaged on another costly national front, against UniteHere. SEIU has had to loan $1 million to its Workers United conference that split off from UniteHere to support its internal battle with the larger group that remained within that union. Workers United has only about 100,000 dues paying members, and will likely have to seek further relief from making per capita payments to SEIU. So long as a settlement is not reached over financial issues, control of the Amalgamated Bank and jurisdictional issues, SEIU may find its battle against UniteHere to be more draining than expected.
This is probably why SEIU has chosen to run such a massive effort amounting to overkill to crush the NUHW insurgency in Fresno. But even electoral victory in Fresno would not in itself restore SEIU’s moral legitimacy that is being eroded by its repeated involvement in fratricidal inter- and intra-union conflicts. SEIU had amassed considerable political, financial and moral capital over decades of organizing workers and fighting progressive campaigns over issues.
Would it be tragic for SEIU and for the entire progressive movement if the “real SEIU” is represented only by the face of Dave Regan talking trash on the Fresno fairgrounds? Is the “real SEIU” better represented by the Flo Furlows and Dana Simons? Read their articles and listen to their speeches on the links provided to answer these questions for yourself.