A clear analysis of tactics and politics, this thorough account examines the dispute between the United Healthcare Workers (UHW) union in California and its “parent” organization the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—one of the most important labor conflicts in the United States today. It explores how the UHW rank and file took umbrage with the SEIU’s rejection of traditional labor values of union democracy and class struggle and their tactics of wheeling and dealing with top management and politicians. The resulting rift and retaliation from SEIU leadership culminated in the UHW membership being forced to break out and form a brand new union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). Timed to coincide with elections in California, this detailed history calls for a reexamination of the ideological and structural underpinnings of today’s labor movement and illustrates how a seemingly local conflict speaks to the rights of laborers everywhere to control their own fates.
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About the Author
Cal Winslow is a historian, the coauthor of Albion's Fatal Tree, and the coeditor of Rebel Rank and File, Labor Militancy in the Long Seventies. He is a fellow in environmental politics at University of CaliforniaBerkeley and the director of the Mendocino Institute. He lives in Mendocino, California.
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Labor's Civil War in California
The NUHW Healthcare Workers' Rebellion
By Cal Winslow
PM PressCopyright © 2010 PM Press
All rights reserved.
"We Have to Destroy this Union to Save It"
In 2007, national leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) orchestrated a multi-fronted all-out assault on its powerful, 150,000-member California healthcare workers local union, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW). The attack was designed to break the union.
SEIU is a large and influential union. It is the nation's second largest union and boasts that it is the fastest-growing union in the United States. Its President, Andy Stern, U. Penn, '71, is perhaps the best-known labor celebrity in the country. He apparently has had more access to the White House than any other individual — 22 visits by November 2009. The SEIU is one of the richest unions and spends freely; it reportedly contributed nearly $85 million to the 2008 Obama campaign. The returns for this generosity remain unclear. SEIU's intention in California was to seize control of UHW, remove the elected leaders and relegate its members to other jurisdictions or to altogether new organizations. This goal, formally, was the "trusteeship" of UHW, that is, a hostile take-over, an action that labor journalist Steve Early has described as the trade-union equivalent of "martial law."
SEIU expected resistance, so from the start the attack was all-out, take-no-prisoners. It employed the language of war. In November 2007, top SEIU officials — including Andy Stern and Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger — held a "War Council," where the plans were developed to dismantle UHW — a "skunk team" was established to discredit UHW and its leaders. The SEIU plan involved, literally, an invasion. It set up a suite of offices, including a "war room" in a "Green Zone" in Oakland. The first skirmish was September 18, 2008, when 70 UHW members overran the chamber, a sign of things to come, chanting, "Whose Union? Our Union!" Speaking at the MGN Grand in Las Vegas, SEIU Executive Vice President Mary Kay Henry referred to the staff preparing the California invasion as "warriors." Bill Ragen, another top staffer, drew, with breathtaking brutality, a parallel with the war in Iraq! "It's like Iraq," Ragen advised SEIU on options, "easy to get in and then a slog"; "implosion might be better," he cautioned in the leaked memo.
"Implosion," Iraq talk, was SEIU headquarters language for breaking UHW up from the inside, in this case carving it up — transferring 65,000 UHW members to a local in Southern California. If trusteeship was pre-emptive, "implosion," in hindsight, seems to have been the long-haul strategy, yet the very fact that it was proposed is an example of the anything-goes mentality that prevails in SEIU. It is also an example of the regard with which SEIU's top leaders holds its members. They showed no interest in the sentiments of these tens of thousands of long-term care workers. This forced transfer still remains on hold, but these options, equally belligerent, were the only ones SEIU considered — no others, no compromise, no mediation (despite offers), no loyal opposition allowed, no "let a hundred flowers bloom!" — instead, a fight to the finish.
In 2007 UHW was SEIU's third largest affiliate. It was then California's second largest SEIU local and the single most powerful labor organization in the state. Taking it down would involve collateral damage: the invasion would necessitate the reorganization virtually of SEIU's entire California operation, which is home to nearly 700,000 SEIU members. New, replacement organizations had to be devised, and most involved separating long-term care workers from hospital workers and others. SEIU spokespeople promoted a statewide local of home-care workers and nursing-home workers as their goal — it still no doubt is. Yet, in every other state where SEIU represents healthcare workers — acute care, nursing home, and home care workers — these workers are all united in a single healthcare workers' union. In California this would mean 350,000 workers in one local. There were other designs, and some no doubt remain in the imaginations of the union's ever plotting central staff. But no elections were projected. Once in place, the majority of SEIU members in California would be in "trusteed" locals, as indeed they are now. These schemes had this in common: whatever the outcome, the California SEIU would be managed directly from the SEIU national headquarters in Washington, D.C., through appointed surrogates.
The SEIU campaign combined organizational, political, and legal attacks. These included formal legal charges against leaders, the dismantling of workplace organizations and the replacement of elected union officers right down to the stewards. It thrived on the harassment of individual members. The first phase lasted a year; indeed, it continues, a relentless onslaught against NUHW and its members including the destruction of the workers' base, workplace organizations that were the result of decades of struggle. Particularly vicious has been the legal assault — specious lawsuits conceived by highly compensated attorneys to bankrupt and humiliate former UHW staff.
SEIU sent many hundreds of staff into California, and spent many millions of dollars. The savagery of the assault was bewildering to insiders and outsiders alike. For most of the former UHW staff and members, it has been a long, ongoing nightmare, a conflict imposed with no reasonable justification whatsoever. It is endured only because of the righteousness of the cause. Protests were widespread, including from labor councils throughout California. Mike Casey, the leader of San Francisco's Central Labor Council and President of UNITE HERE Local 2, opposed the intervention from the beginning. "I believe that there must always be room within organized labor for legitimate and principled dissent," he said. "The public discourse initiated by UHW and Sal Rosselli may well be kicking up a lot of dust, but it has also provoked a closer examination of the direction of our movement."
Wrecking UHW would be no cake-walk; not even SEIU predicted dancing in the streets. The local's 150,000 members made it larger than many national unions. It had 100 elected executive board members, 85 of whom were working members. These workers are overwhelmingly people of color, mostly women, often immigrants — UHW members spoke more than 50 languages. UHW had deep roots, in particular in Northern California, where it began in 1938, the first hospital union in the country. It was born in the aftermath of the San Francisco General Strike, when longshoremen led an historic rank-and-file rebellion, inspiring the transformation of industrial relations on the Pacific Coast. Hospital porters led the drive to organize San Francisco General Hospital — from the bottom up.
In 2008 UHW members in its hospital division had the highest standards in the industry in the nation: wages, fully-paid health, defined pension plans, a real voice in hospital staffing and patient care, as well as employment and income security. This in an industry dominated by fiercely anti-union corporations. UHW's contracts with Kaiser Permanente were referred to as the "gold standard," the best acute-care agreements in the U.S. It was a fighting union. UHW was the single fastest growing local union in SEIU. Since 2000 it had organized nearly 75,000 workers, doubling its size in eight years. The power of this union was seen in the 60-day strike in 2005 against Sutter Health's California Pacific Medical Center, one of the most profitable hospitals in the country. The strike issues were organizing rights for the unorganized and the right of caregivers to have a voice in how the hospital would be staffed. UHW's new members accounted for almost all of SEIU's growth in hospitals.
UHW was democratic, certainly by trade-union standards. There were elections at every single level. Its structure was egalitarian — from its universal system of elected shop stewards, stewards' councils, and divisional bodies to its elected executive committee. UHW prided itself on workplace organization and member involvement. Interestingly, in January 2009, just days before trusteeship was imposed, Rosselli and the other officers were reelected — overwhelmingly in a thoroughly fair election — in spite of the international's year-long "skunk" campaign of defamation and disinformation. Under trusteeship there will be no elections.
Rosselli is a former nursing home worker who won an insurgent campaign in the 1988s, challenging an SEIU leadership slate in the aftermath of a trusteeship. He went on to lead what was then Local 250, rebuilding the union by emphasizing democratic decision making and worker militancy. Then, as now, Kaiser was the center of power in the union. UHW was also a progressive union; it opposed war and supported social justice. Its support for universal healthcare dated back to the 1980s, when it supported Proposition 186, the single-payer healthcare initiative. It was a founding member of U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) in Iraq. It helped UNITE-HERE members win their "two-year war" — a strike and lock-out that rocked the San Francisco hotel industry in 2004–2006. Among other things, UHW persuaded Kaiser to maintain hotel strikers' healthcare benefits. UHW led, with the California teachers, the trade union fight against Proposition 8, the anti-same-sex marriage referendum narrowly passed in November 2008. Rosselli is a past Grand Marshall of San Francisco's annual Gay Pride Parade.
Why wreck this union? Why exactly SEIU chose this course of action remains a question to this day: hubris, retaliation, a rapacious, sectarian organizational perspective? All of the above? How can we know for sure? What possibly could justify an intervention on this scale?
There were no murders, no dissenters shot. There were no beatings, no mobsters, no fleets of Cadillacs, no double or triple salaries, no lavish accommodations, nothing like SEIU's Gus Bevona's marbleand-mahogany palace in New York City in the 1990s. As labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein testified before the trusteeship hearing officer,
In this instance, from what I know ... it strikes me as a local in which there is no self-serving, self-interested strata of leaders who seek to perpetuate their leadership for criminal or self-aggrandizing purposes. Instead it is a democratic, open union — in some ways a model union. I wish there were more like United Healthcare West.
SEIU's formal complaints came in a March 24, 2008, letter from Stern to Rosselli, with copies to the UHW Executive Board. The letter consisted of a list of charges: 1) that UHW leaders had created a "shadow entity," namely the healthcare education fund; 2) that UHW "undermined" negotiations with five California nursing home chains; 3) that the local conducted "a deceptive and phony mail ballot" concerning the union preferences of long-term care workers; 4) that it "colluded" with the California Nurses Association (CNA); 5) that it developed a plan to "destabilize and decertify" bargaining units within SEIU; 6) that it employed a range of tactics that were "chilling membership free-speech rights"; and 7) and that it colluded to undermine SEIU affiliation talks for teachers in Puerto Rico.
I don't believe anyone really took these charges seriously. Within the year Stern would announce his own sleazy deal with the CNA. As for "collusion" regarding the Puerto Rican teachers, laughable. Undermining bargaining? UHW had the best healthcare contracts in the country; it was in negotiations representing nearly 80,000 workers. "Chilling" members' voices — please.
There were, however, two issues of substance. First, the charge that UHW was guilty of "financial malfeasance" struck a chord with some, and in the end this was the charge that became the basis of its case for trusteeship. In 2007, UHW set up a healthcare education trust fund — some $6 million was to be set aside for the purpose of campaigning on healthcare issues. News of this fund set off alarms in the inner chambers of SEIU. It reacted by charging UHW with essentially setting up a self-defense fund, the basis, it suspected, of a possible union within the union, "a shadow entity." This, of course, was strongly contested by UHW, which nonetheless responded by disbanding the fund. SEIU took UHW to court but could not find a compliant judge. Instead, a district court judge dismissed all charges, finding nothing amiss and declaring SEIU's solicitations to be without merit. Ray Marshall, the trusteeship hearing officer, would find this charge insufficient to justify trusteeship.
Second, SEIU charged that UHW was obstructing the forced transfer of 65,000 long-term care workers to Tyrone Freeman's Local 6434 in Southern California. This charge was, strictly speaking, true but was a bit more complicated. On the surface it was a simple organizational issue — but why was SEIU pressing such fundamental jurisdictional realignments in California? And why should UHW willingly accept this industrial partition that would mean the loss of nearly half its membership, without debate or the consent of the members involved? Yet at SEIU's 2008 San Juan convention, Stern had rammed through a "jurisdictional change," paving the way for the home care and nursing home employees to be moved from UHW to Freeman's local.
But much more was involved — and both sides knew it. Beneath this jurisdictional controversy there were foundational issues at stake that went right to the heart of the trade union project.
The place to begin is the San Juan convention, where the dispute was framed theoretically. The international explained the alleged transgressions of UHW as symptoms of deeper villainies. Justice for All, the document of the majority in San Juan, laid out the perspectives of the leadership, justifying, among other things, the transfer of the 65,000. These included, implicitly, a condemnation of UHW, its practice and its leadership. In San Juan UHW opposed the international leadership's perspectives, the only healthcare local union to do so. That, in turn brought further charges: UHW — unwilling to abandon its own views and the results of decades of building — was charged with, in effect, defying national perspectives, that is, of defying the will of the majority. No small matter, in SEIU's conception of the importance of "democratic" centralism.
Stephen Lerner, an SEIU leader, however, alleged that UHW was guilty of far more than the misdemeanors, real or imagined, listed above. According to Lerner, who was once celebrated as architect of the 1990 Justice for Janitors campaign, UHW "had reverted to a 1950s strategy of dedicating the union's resources to existing members instead of building a broader workers movement." UHW, with its "just us" strategy (SEIU's label for the UHW document Platform for Change) did this, according to Lerner; it focused "the union on servicing and defending remaining islands of unionization (i.e. local union interest)." He called this "neo-business unionism," adding that it was "a prescription of death for the labor movement." So there we have it — pretty serious! UHW, according to SEIU, advanced "a prescription of death for the labor movement!"
"Neo-business unionism" is a new species, yet to be fleshed out, but its elaboration might well merit a generous SEIU grant. Still to give SEIU its due: Justice for All, Lerner said,
is both an ideological and practical commitment to build a movement for all workers to win broad goals to change and transform the country: healthcare for all, immigration reform, quality public services for our communities, and the organization of millions of workers in the South and other non-union regions of the country. Combined with a commitment to work to build a global labor movement and a focus on getting out of Iraq, the program adopted by SEIU delegates is one of the most progressive and ambitious of a major union in recent history. The most radical development from the SEIU Convention is that delegates overwhelmingly voted to commit SEIU to changing the world.
Strong words. We'd all like to change the world. But I hope we can be forgiven for taking Lerner with a grain of salt. It seems quite plain here that he was simply raising the stakes (rhetorically) as high as possible, thus making reconciliation even theoretically impossible.
Excerpted from Labor's Civil War in California by Cal Winslow. Copyright © 2010 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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What People are Saying About This
Strange tales from the gothic wing of the capitalist health industry, complete with vampires and leeches. In this instant classic of journalism from below, one of the pioneers of radical social history reports on remarkable signs of life in the morbid body of American labor. (Iain Boal, Retort Collective)
Highly informative. And the spirit is invigorating.
The emergence of [the National Union of Healthcare Workers] has been one of the most exciting recent developments in U.S. labor. From the ashes of the old, health care workers in California are trying to build something that's new, different, and definitely worth fighting for. Cal Winslow's account of their difficult struggle is moving and insightfuland maybe even a roadmap for others to follow. (Steve Early, author, Embedded in Organized Labor)
The civil war inside the [Service Employees International Union] is a tragic story, yet as Cal Winslow emphasizes in this urgent and dramatic account, it may contain the seeds of authentic renewal. (Mike Davis, author, City of Quartz)