by Wade Rathke
Little Rock Probably surprising none of the organizers involved or anyone looking at the campaign, the vote count on the rerun decertification election between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) produced the same result with a wider margin as Kaiser hospital workers in California overwhelming voted for SEIU by almost a 2 to 1 margin, 58.4% to 40.6%. In such a landslide both sides had to have known the outcome for many weeks, and the NUHW and its new partner, the powerful California Nurses’ Association (CNA), likely did not pull the petition simply as a talking point for the future as they engage other healthcare workers and try to put a spin on the defeat. SEIU won this round hands down, but their victory is pyrrhic, if it doesn’t now come with the grace that goes with leadership.
I wouldn’t bet on it, but it would be wonderful, if this closed one chapter for all the unions involved and opened another. This whole division among unions in California has been a disaster for all involved, undermining the stature and reputation of all of the organizations and their leadership, dividing workers from each other therefore only benefiting employers, costing millions, and reducing the strength of all progressive forces everywhere. It has to stop now for the sake of the labor movement and workers everywhere, especially in the healthcare industry.
SEIU and Mary Kay Henry, its international president, as one of the largest unions in the country has to lead the reconciliation.
There’s no need to pretend this would or should be a love feast, but conflict has to now be replaced by competition, and the competition has to be to organize the more than 95% of all healthcare workers in the United States who don’t have any union protection or advocacy. The union density numbers are a little better in California, but not by a world of difference. The same energy, dollars, and staffing used by these organizations to fight against each other should now be committed for deployment into organizing the unorganized.
If there was real leadership in the labor movement, the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka would be calling his affiliate, the head of the national nurses’ union, and doing everything possible to see that they and the CNA moved forward in a new direction. The list would start there, but union leaders everywhere, including in SEIU and the Change to Win federation, are all better at pushing the buttons behind the scene to connect with people who know people at every level, and in this mess one of the problems is that too many people know each other too well and know too much about each other. When the labor movement mattered, a real Secretary of Labor would be calling the President, and then President Obama would be making calls that could not be avoided to Trumka, Henry, and Rose DeMarco and calling them to Camp David to make a deal and make it stick. Kaiser and the Catholics and other employers would be hitting the speed dial on their phones as well.
Let there be competition, but with ground rules and real understandings about turf and targets. Sure NUHW will get bigger and might go from 10,000 members today to 100,000 in the future, but the nurses and SEIU stand to get exponentially larger not only in California, but everywhere, if we can finally get unions to focus on the future opportunities and not the past problems.
With the coming of Obamacare the whole world is shifting around healthcare in terms of access and expenditure, and will be shifting for workers as well, requiring unions to speak with a clearer, more united voice, and creating a huge opportunity for healthcare unions to see huge membership increases if they go “pedal to the metal” on organizing.
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.