Two unions join against Kaiser

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On Jan. 3, the CNA (California Nurses Association) issued a press release to announce their fightback campaign against California’s large hospital chains such as Kaiser and Sutter Health. They were also announcing an affiliation agreement with NUHW (National Union Of Healthcare Workers).

This is not a new relationship, as the two unions have worked together and conducted strikes against Kaiser Permanente in the past. The Kaiser health-care chain has made $6 billion in profits since 2009 and continues to demand job cuts and givebacks.

There was a time when NUHW was part of SEIU. They were SEIU 250, and then SEIU/UHW (United Healthcare West)—one of the largest and most powerful health-care unions in California. Sal Roselli led the union in criticizing SEIU International President Andy Stern on issues of internal democracy and too many concessions to management in national union contract settlements in return for “union growth” agreements. UHW believed that fights could be won with greater militancy and member involvement.

In return, Andy Stern started laying the groundwork for seizing the headquarters of UHW. Stern—who had been rapidly moving towards running SEIU like a corporate board, cutting pro-management deals and only consulting with a select group of the International Executive Board—was now faced with something he had never seen before. UHW mobilized rank-and-file members to actively resist the hostile takeover. They sent Stern a public letter (printed in The New York Times) asking for “respect for legitimate and principled dissent” and claiming that trusteeship of their local “would show that internal democracy is not valued or tolerated in SEIU.”

On Jan. 27, 2009, 100 elected leaders of UHW were removed in Stern’s imposed trusteeship. Not caught unaware, they immediately formed NUHW. CNA continued their close relationship with NUHW, and then SEIU launched attacks on both unions. Some of the attacks were violent. They culminated in a near riot at the 2008 Labor Notes Conference when a busload of SEIU members crashed through a crowded room to try to stop CNA’s Executive Director Rose Ann De Moro from speaking—ostensibly because she was a union buster. De Moro was speaking through a video hook-up and was not even in Detroit.

In 2010, after Andy Stern resigned in the middle of his term, Mary Kay Henry announced that she would run against Andy Stern’s endorsed candidate, Anna Burger. When I heard Henry speak about why she was running and her vision for SEIU, she stated, “To restore our relationships with the rest of the union movement and our progressive allies.” That is the phrase that brought the rank and file to their feet.

I never met a rank-and-file member who liked or respected Andy Stern. He was always “the guy who held that press conference with Walmart corporate executives.” And no one was surprised when he accepted a paid position on the board of directors of the biochemical company SIGA, owned by billionaire Ronald Perlman’s private equity firm, after he resigned from SEIU.

In some areas of the country President Henry has restored relations with other unions. But California is not one of them—specifically at Kaiser Permanente, where there is now a united fightback alliance between CNA and NUHW. But SEIU/UHW Kaiser workers are also in a contentious election. The NLRB has scheduled an election for 43,000 Kaiser workers to decide whether to remain with SEIU/UHW or to join CNA/NUHW.

There are SEIU locals that have an empowered rank and file. They exist in areas where dissent is allowed, and where they have used an organizing model, not a servicing model, to keep members involved. They have histories of strikes and have hated the vision of a corporate structure for SEIU. They want Mary Kay Henry to complete her campaign promise so we can all unite and fight. Meanwhile, we should all be watching the two unions who will be uniting to fight back against the real enemy—Kaiser management.


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