Reflections on Labor’s Civil War in California


by Paul Garver

Carl Finamore’s report on SEIU’s trial for civil damages against leaders of the NUHW provides a valuable guide to the current situation.  I will add a few reflections based upon reading Cal Winslow’s just published Labor’s Civil War in California: The NUHW Healthcare Workers’ Rebellion, and upon attending the Left Forum debate: “How Should Friends of Labor on the Left Respond to Conflicts Within and Between Unions?”

Cal Winslow’s book is both a partisan pamphlet on behalf of the NUHW, as well as a compact and useful narrative of the background and development of SEIU’s civil war in California.  I liked Cal’s analysis of the two warring “souls” within SEIU. His treatment of the SEIU/Unite Here conflict is more sketchy, and a few minor errors reflect its being rushed into print (on p. 37 he writes that Unite Here is still SEIU’s partner in Change to Win, whereas Unite Here rejoined the AFL-CIO in September 2009).  The book is well worth reading and is modestly priced at $12 (available from PM Press, Oakland, CA,

The debate at the Left Forum left me a bit frustrated. I was hoping that SEIU would mount a serious defense of the conduct of its conflicts with NUHW and Unite Here. Indeed, SEIU seems to have absorbed a lesson from the fiasco caused by its ham-handed intervention at the Labor Notes conference in 2008. Several persons supporting or sympathetic to SEIU spoke coherently from the floor at the Left Forum.  Inaccurately claiming that SEIU had not received an invitation to formally participate on the panel, SEIU spokesperson Larry Alcoff chose to speak only from the floor, which he did at length. His basic message is that SEIU should not be demonized, that there were different conflicting “narratives,” and that “friends of labor on the Left” should focus on the future and work together with SEIU. He also claimed, with less credibility and no supporting evidence, that SEIU was now conducting a rich internal debate and dialogue on issues of democratic control. Other speakers from the floor argued that the conflict between Unite and Here was rooted in different institutional cultures, and that its messy divorce was not due to SEIU interference. Elizabeth Cowan told of her own negative experience with “pink sheeting” when being trained as an organizer for HERE, and of her decision not to get caught in a conflict between “two white men” (Raynor and Wilhelm).

Panelists Sal Rosselli (NUHW), Rafael Feliciano Hernandez (Puerto Rico Teachers Union), Andrea van den Heever (UniteHere) and Stephanie Luce (Amherst Labor Center) made interesting presentations, and Steve Early was a scrupulously fair chairperson. But the discussion never quite jelled, perhaps because of the lack of symmetry between panel and floor presentations.

As Carl Finamore points out, civil court is also a curious venue in which to conduct a crucial debate over democratic control of labor unions. At first blush, it would appear that plaintiff SEIU’s high-priced team of lawyers and expert witnesses (ironically paid for by membership dues from members of SEIU-UHW, the majority of whom support the NUHW leaders who sit in the dock as defendants!) hold all the cards. Right from the start, questioning the legality and even wisdom of the trusteeship imposed by SEIU on UHW-W was not permitted as part of the defense.

The imposition of the trusteeship was in fact justified by a flimsy legal pretext inserted at a late stage into Ray Marshall’s arbitration decision that required UHW-W to totally agree within five days to cede 65,000 members to the corrupt SEIU Local 6434. After consulting several thousands of its shop stewards and rank-and-file members in open mass meetings the UHW-W leaders agreed to most of the arbitration’s conditions, but insisted that the 65,000 affected members should have the right to vote on their transfer. This modest reservation was the pretext for imposing SEIU’s trusteeship. It was not the actual cause, since the SEIU’s war machinery had long been geared up to seize control of the local.

The former officers of UHW-W do not deny that they were resisting the trusteeship, but rather insist they were doing so legitimately and in accordance with the will of the members they represented. As SEIU’s case has proceeded, virtually all of the substantial allegations of corruption or misuse of funds have evaporated, as the very witnesses called by SEIU contradict SEIU’s more outlandish charges. What remains of its case at this stage is mostly that SEIU should be reimbursed the costs of the extensive security force contracted by SEIU for surveillance and occupation of UHW-W offices and protection of its occupying force against the (imagined and exaggerated) threat of violence from outraged union members.

The trial is still in process, and it would be premature to prejudge the jury’s decision. It may well be that SEIU’s major motivation is to further stretch the slender financial and personal resources of the NUHW, and to divert them from the campaign to win back representational rights within the Kaiser Hospital System. NUHW has filed for numerous representational elections at facilities now represented by SEIU-UHW that are currently blocked by SEIU delaying tactics, but where votes have been allowed NUHW has won the support of most hospital workers. Head to head electoral competition between SEIU and NUHW for the loyalties of California health care workers may well be the only “debate” that really matters. And its outcome will be important for the entire US labor movement.

Like Cal Winslow, many commentators believe that the future of American unionism will be greatly influenced by the outcome of that competition between the competing union models projected by the SEIU and the NUHW. In an article in Solidarity magazine (UK, Spring 2010), Kim Moody imagines that a national alliance of a victorious NUHW with the new National Nurses United (NNU, a merger of three state nurses’ unions led by the California Nurses Association) could lead to dramatic gains in organizing the US hospital industry. I think that for once Kim Moody might be thinking too small. Let us consider SEIU’s United HealthCare Workers East (SEIU Local 1199 with its rich tradition of militancy and struggle, located mainly in New York and extending to other Eastern states). SEIU’s largest local, it has appeared rather lukewarm in its support of national SEIU’s crusade against NUHW. Moreover it continues to effectively represent its members and engages in creative organizing tactics (for example, its campaign to unionize the Caritas hospital system in Massachusetts). Its members are active in progressive struggles for healthcare and immigration law reform.

SEIU’s Stephen Lerner has correctly argued that only a single focused sectoral union can provide the necessary concentration to organize a giant industrial sector like the health care industry. Currently there are fewer than one million unionized hospital workers in the USA, only about half of them in SEIU, with a very low union density rate outside Western and Eastern coastal cities. Is it too Utopian to imagine that a national healthcare organizing “dream team” that combined the strengths of a resurgent NUHW with those of the NNU and SEIU Local 1199 could form the nucleus of such a union strategy for the national healthcare industry? Such a realignment probably cannot occur within the unwieldy bureaucratic top down structure of the giant general union that national SEIU has become. But if NUHW wins back the core of the former UHW’s hospital and nursing home jurisdiction in California, other alternatives become imaginable. For this reason, as well as for a more democratic and member-controlled labor movement, all “friends of labor” have a dog in the fight in California.

5 Responses

  1. I appreciate Mr. Garver’s request for evidential support for the claims made by SEIU participants in the Left Forum floor discussion, but that works both ways right? There are a couple of claims made here that I’d like to see more evidence for. For one, the claim that the majority of members of UHW support the deposed leadership could use some backing up. On a related note, the author mentions that SEIU is delaying a number of representation elections. Why no mention of the numerous elections which NUHW is blocking?

    Another claim that could use some backing up with evidence is the lukewarm support from 1199. What is the basis for this claim? As the author notes, 1199 is the largest and most powerful local within SEIU. Doesn’t it stand to reason that this local has a good deal of power in determining the course of the national union? In fact, two of SEIU’s EVPs, Woodruff and Regan, come out of one of the 1199 locals with a proud and militant history – 1199WKO.

    So, yes, let’s provide evidence for claims that are made in the whole debate around SEIU and the mess in California. But let’s demand evidence for claims that are being made on all sides. Much of what I have seen on this blog about this situation comes across as little more than NUHW press releases. The debate is worthy of more rigorous engagement and analysis than that.

  2. Fair comment. According to NUHW, a majority of members at 360 facilities representing 100,000 members have petitioned the labor board for elections to join NUHW. Of course only elections can determine whether this majority still holds. You are correct that SEIU has asked the labor board to schedule elections at 26 facilities with some 4000 workers, while NUHW wants elections to be scheduled at 54 facilities with some 10,500 workers. Of course both sides tactically prefer elections to be scheduled first in those units in which they feel stronger.

    Clearly the Kaiser system is the big enchilada, and the majority of its workers become elegible to switch representation only in June 2010. However in the three Kaiser professional units that were able to vote in Jan. 2010, NUHW received a total of 1652 votes to SEIU’s 257. To date, this is the only bellwether available for Kaiser.

    You are also correct that national SEIU EVPs Regan and Woodruff, as well as Dennis Rivera and Gerry Hudson come from 1199, and are part of the national leadership team that support SEIU’s intervention against UHW-W. TalkingUnion solicited and posted pro-SEIU articles by Gerry Hudson and Eliseo Medina earlier in the conflict. My comment about lukewarm support for the trusteeship at 1199 is based on numerous conversations with lower ranking members of SEIU1199.

  3. Thanks for the response. Yes, the Kaiser system will be the big measure in all of this. Both sides have made claims about level of support there and elsewhere, but little has been proven by either as of yet. In homecare, UHW won in Fresno and NUHW failed to get the number of signature necessary to trigger the anticipated contest in San Francisco. In hospitals, NUHW won among the Kaiser pros. It’s still too early to tell who is close to claiming a victory in California.

    I would also argue that it’s still too early to tell what either victory would mean. Some on the left are painting this as a contest between rank and file control and big bad union bosses. That’s far too simple. This is, at least in part, about building islands of union power (and resulting worker gains) along the coasts vs building a truly national healthcare workers union (which has long been the dream of the 1199 wing of the union).

    My point is simply to say that there are very difficult and complicated questions in play here. Unfortunately, I feel that left discussion around this has been far too simplistic (and I’m not singling out Talking Union with this criticism). I’m glad that Eliseo Medina and Gerry Hudson were invited to take part in discussion here. I hope they or other SEIU leaders will take further advantage of that opportunity in the future. Failing that, I hope for more nuanced and rigorous analysis of these pressing, but difficult questions. The future of the labor movement deserves as much.

    • I agree with wzf that we need a more nuanced and rigorous discussion of how to build a truly national healthcare workers union. One blowback from SEIU’s imposing the trusteeship on UHW-W is that it shortcircuited that debate within SEIU itself. It also unfortunately polarized the debate among “friends of labor” outside SEIU to “white hats vs. black hats.” As I expected the UHW-W (now the NUHW) had built such a deep leadership/shop steward structure that it was able to survive and fight back despite SEIU’s formidable financial resources and the presumptive legitimacy afforded by incumbency. Those of us who have some experience with trusteeships in SEIU or other unions must recognize what an extraordinary achievement that is. But whatever the blunders of its national leadership in this case, SEIU retains enormous assets no matter what happens in California, and particularly in its healthcare sector that means SEIU1199. I would personally favor a scenario in which NUHW bests national SEIU in the battle to represent healthcare workers at Kaiser and other California hospital chains, but then an agreement is hammered out to create the framework for a national healthcare organizing campaign (including the NNU, SEIU1199 and the NUHW). Improbable as this may sound, I can even imagine some farsighted leaders within SEIU might recognize that this would be a desirable outcome.

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