Following months of criticism and sharp internal debate, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) ended its controversial partnership agreement with a group of California nursing homes on May 31. The four-and-a-half-year-old deal was a quid pro quo arrangement that brought over 3,000 workers into SEIU after the union secured higher state government payments to nursing homes that care for Medicaid patients. In addition to giving SEIU organizing access to a number of nursing homes, the agreement provided “template” contract language for these newly organized workplaces.
SEIU announced it was ending the partnership just days after the executive board of United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), one of the two SEIU locals that were party to the original deal, launched a campaign to steer the agreement in a different direction.
In recent weeks, leaders of UHW, which represents health care workers throughout California, started a petition campaign to force SEIU’s international board to give members a voice in re-negotiating the nursing home partnership. As part of that campaign, UHW leaders sent a letter to members painting a grim picture of where things were headed:
“Some in the national SEIU are negotiating an agreement with nursing home employers — in California and nationally — and have repeatedly excluded UHW nursing home members and elected representatives from the process. These agreements could restrict our nursing home members’ voice on the job and be implemented without affected members even having the right to vote.”
UHW leaders proposed three principles that should govern any future employer agreement in the health care industry: union democracy, the right to aggressively advocate for the people they serve, and full union membership for workers organized through partnership agreements.
Using the petition campaign and intense behind-the-scenes pressure, UHW leaders demanded that these principles “be embodied by clearly defined contract standards” in all future agreements.
WHAT IS AT STAKE?
Each of the three principles responds to problems with the nursing home partnership identified by health care workers and patient advocates since its inception.
For example, the agreement prohibited the union from reporting problems with organized nursing homes to state regulators or the media, except in cases mandated by law. Short staffing was one such issue, and a top concern for new members organized under the agreement, according to internal UHW survey data. But under the terms of the partnership, the union was barred from waging an aggressive public campaign to address staff-to-patient ratios.
Similarly, most workers who joined SEIU through the partnership agreement ended up with “template” contracts that were negotiated before they joined the union. These deals, according to an internal analysis by UHW, “allowed for very little power on the shop floor with no right to strike and no clear path towards full collective bargaining rights.”
The overall effect was to create a growing pool of second-class union members, with the pre-negotiated deals “discouraging — and in some cases preventing — workers from independently engaging in struggle to improve their working conditions.”
Finally, the California nursing home agreement reflected a new approach to organizing members and negotiating contracts in the nursing home industry, one aimed at spreading these agreements nationwide. Under this new model the international union, particularly a small group of national officers and staff, played a decisive role in negotiating with nursing home operators. Current nursing home workers, and their elected union leaders, were kept at arm’s length during recent talks, leading to a justifiable concern about who was looking out for their interests in negotiations.
According to SEIU members in Northern California, interest in this partnership agreement has been high. More than 20,000 people had signed the UHW petition within weeks of its release.
“We’ve signed up over half the members where I work,” said one UHW shop steward who asked to remain anonymous. “What really got people upset was this idea that guys in suits, sitting in Washington, D.C., will bargain our contracts.
“These are people who have never worked in a hospital and who don’t know anything about our jobs. Then, to top it off, we won’t even have a right to vote on the contract they negotiate.”
Although the California nursing home agreement has been shelved, it sparked a national debate inside SEIU, raising important questions about what kind of labor-management partnerships are possible or advisable as the union continues its relentless drive to expand its membership.
Jerome Brown, former president of SEIU’s massive 1199 New England health care local, has openly questioned whether the union can forge effective employer partnerships from scratch in non-union workplaces. In a review of SEIU International President Andy Stern’s 2006 book, A Country that Works, Brown noted that real gains, including organizing rights, were usually “the payoff for years of struggles, strikes, and other conflicts with employers.”
Only after a period of open conflict, Brown argued, can “strong unions and engaged members enter into mature, cooperative relationships” with their employers. By contrast, the arrangements SEIU has used to organize the nursing home industry left Brown with some lingering concerns:
“We have to ask ourselves if these methods can produce a real, democratic workers’ organization or if it is more likely that they will produce a ‘membership’ that is as alienated from the union leadership as it is from the employer. A ‘membership’ that sees itself, correctly, as a third party in a relationship with union brokers and employers — the very antithesis of true rank-and-file unionism.”
This perspective, that it’s “the bosses bringing in the union” rather than the members, was common among nursing home workers organized under the California agreement, according to internal UHW documents. For UHW leaders, this raised the question of, “What kind of worker organizations are . . . template agreements creating?”
After years of experience, some of these leaders have concluded that these arrangements “may come close to becoming what have historically been called ‘company’ unions.”
Mark Brenner works as Labor Notes (www.labornotes.org) director in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com.