SEIU vs NUHW: Do Employees Have Free Choice to Change Unions under Obama?

Barack H. Obama won the White House on the promise of “change.”  One of the big donors for Obama’s campaign for change was the Service Employees International Union, which spent nearly $30 million for his presidential campaign according to the Center for Responsive Politics.  One of the first changes brought about by the SEIU under the new Obama administration is its takeover of the United Healthcare Workers-West, an affiliate based in Oakland, on January 27.

“Today we bring an end to a sad chapter in the life of a local union with great members, whose leadership lost their way, engaged in serious financial wrongdoing, refused to end their attempts to subvert the democratic processes of this union and failed to take action against reported decertification efforts,” said Andy Stern, the SEIU president.  “This trusteeship is grounded in the clear facts found in Secretary Marshall’s report and the direct actions of Sal Rosselli and the officers of UHW.”

In a press teleconference a day before the SEIU takeover, Rosselli “strongly disagreed” with Marshall’s findings that he misused members’ dues placing them into a political action account to resist Stern’s policies.  “No UHW official benefited from that.”  The money in question, he said, went back to the union source from where it came.

As for the “democratic processes” of the union, the SEIU trusteeship eliminated UHW’s policy of elected representatives, suspended its constitution and by-laws, and seized its financial assets — all against the UHW members’ wish.  One of the 100 elected officials removed by the SEIU is John Borsos, an administrative vice president in the Sacramento area, where 28,000 UHW members live and work.  “The only people happy with the SEIU takeover are the bosses, especially those of nursing homes,” said Borsos.  Asked why, he said, “SEIU negotiates agreements that give away gains for patients and workers.”

Like Borsos, Paul Kumar was an elected UHW official fired in the SEIU takeover.  Kumar fleshed out some details of the SEIU approach to bargaining with nursing home owners.  “Under these agreements the total cost of workers’ economic package was determined by a fixed formula and the elements of the package could be adjusted unilaterally by the employer,” he said.  “No grievances could proceed to arbitration other than terminations.  Workers were prohibited from publicly reporting any resident care concerns other than those for which reporting was legally required, under a clause that allowed employers to contest any such reports as attempts at ‘leverage.’  The union was forbidden from advocating for or against any legislative or regulatory action impacting the nursing home industry without employers’ consent.”

Before the SEIU trusteeship, elected members of UHW such as Sharon Martinez, a medical transcriptionist and an elected shop steward at Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital, took part in contract talks with their employers, in her case Catholic Healthcare West.  Another result of UHW’s approach was the creation of a third-party mediation structure to judge workers’ claims that employers did not meet legal staffing levels for patients.

In Sacramento, a few days after the trusteeship, UHW members occupied their Midtown office building.  Banners opposing the SEIU were hung on both sides of the doorway, where an unarmed security guard stood.  UHW members milled about inside, bleary eyed but steadfast.  They awaited the transfer of the building UHW owns to SEIU.

“Stern needs a court order to make us leave,” said Ricardo Hagen, a UHW homecare worker.  He earns $10.40 per hour providing in-home care for a disabled and elderly woman.  Hagen fears that SEIU will agree to California budget cuts that drop his pay to the state minimum wage of $8.00 per hour.

“We don’t want Andy Stern’s appointed leaders,” said Marcel Berry, an in-home care provider and UHW member.  “He is trying to silence us.”

Robert Thyfault is a UHW shop steward for homecare workers in Sacramento.  “I got a call last night from SEIU that its takeover was to save me from a lack of democracy.  If the takeover was democratic, I would have voted for it.”

A short time later, SEIU took control of the UHW building.  Stern’s appointed trustees, Eliseo Medina and Dave Regan, will be in charge of UHW from now on.

UHW leaders and rank-and-file members had contacted President Obama and his Labor Secretary-designee, Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA), to prevent the SEIU trusteeship . . . to no avail.  Nevertheless, they are continuing to call on Obama and Solis to investigate the national SEIU.

Obama, as a senator, backed the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.  The EFCA would make it easier for the nation’s non-union workers to join a labor union by signing a card.  What about employees’ free choice to change unions?

One day after the SEIU trusteeship, ousted UHW leaders and rank-and-file members announced they would form the National Union of Healthcare Workers to represent workers who want to decertify SEIU as their representatives.  The fledgling union filed election papers at National Labor Relations Board offices in Oakland and San Francisco on February 2 to represent 9,000 workers at 62 hospitals and healthcare facilities in California.

Rosselli predicted that Stern would oppose the organizing effort of the NUHW.  “SEIU should get out of the way and let workers join the NUHW.”

This battle is far from over.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento.