by Eileen Prendiville
On January 27, the Service Employees International (SEIU), headed by Andy Stern, put its United Healthcare Workers-West local (UHW) into trusteeship. This means that the local’s assets are seized, its constitution and bylaws are suspended, its elected officers are removed, and Stern-appointed ‘trustees’ replace the local’s elected leadership.
The hostile takeover followed UHWs refusal to comply with SEIU’s order to split the 150,000-member local in two. UHW refused on the basis that its members had a right to vote on the matter.
Over the past few years, SEIU and the UHW have locked horns over healthcare reform, internal union democracy, how to organize non-union workers and the consolidation of smaller locals into mega-locals.
Sal Roselli, head of UHW, has been a vocal critic of Stern’s top-down, anti-democratic leadership style, while Stern has accused UHW of being in collusion with the California Nurses Association (CNA), one of SEIU’s most vocal critics.
While the SEIU leadership preaches unity with UHW, it is trying to divide and conquer CNA.
The same day UHW was placed under trusteeship, nurses represented by CNA were contacted by SEIU staff using a front group – RNs for Change. It seems that SEIU is trying to undermine upcoming CNA elections for Board of Directors and delegates to our fall convention.
CNA has long been at odds with Andy Stern and his appointees over his leadership style and his cozy relationship with management. His willingness to cut deals with employers to secure contracts has hurt health workers and patients.
In California, SEIU backed legislation that would bar the union from reporting healthcare code violations in nursing homes and make it more difficult for patients to sue nursing homes for abuse and neglect. In other states, SEIU joined the hospital industry to lobby against laws mandating minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratios.
New Union – New Hope?
Refusing to roll over and die, UHW has formed a breakaway union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and plans to disaffiliate from SEIU – a long and difficult process.
At the hospital where I work, contracts for UHW members as well as CNA nurses are currently open for renegotiation.
As the newly-formed NUHW begins organizing, SEIU staff sent in by Andy Stern, are already meeting with employers. They will likely push for quick contract settlements, but UHW members, at least at my facility, are organized and informed and will likely vote to decertify SEIU. However, with the current economic uncertainty the average worker may be unwilling to strike.
Reactions to the split inside SEIU are mixed. Some see only the destruction of unions and the glee of employers who will move to take full advantage of the situation. At one hospital a negotiator from management said, “Why would we negotiate with you [UHW] when we could negotiate with Andy Stern?” There is also the fear that a weakened labor movement will undermine passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.
Others are more hopeful. It is inspiring to see thousands of rank-and-file workers fighting to defend their union. Chanting “WE are the union! The mighty, mighty union!” they remind us that the power of any union lies in the collective strength of its members. This message is sorely needed by a labor movement reeling from years of defeat.
Their Fight is Our Fight – Support NUHW!
SEIU is spending millions of dollars on its campaign to squelch the new union. Because UHW’s assets were seized, NUHW staff are working long hours without pay or benefits. They urgently need our financial support.
Please donate online or mail your check to:
The Fund For Union Democracy
465 California Street, Ste. 1600
San Francisco, California 94104
Video – Rank-and-file UHW members explain why they want to keep control of their union