This Labor Day, Let’s Salute All Union Stewards — and Their Cutting Edge in California

The real heroes of what’s left of the labor movement are not people with full-time union jobs, union-furnished cars and credit cards, and union benefits that dues-paying members don’t get anymore.  It’s the men and women who take time out from their regular jobs, under the baleful eye of their boss, to be shop stewards.

Being a union steward, preferably elected rather than appointed, is not an easy job, if done well.  Fellow workers can have a multitude of problems and complaints.  If their union has a functioning steward system, the first person they’re going to contact is not the full-timer “down at the hall,” but the rank-and-filer who works nearby, in the same department, and functions as a part-time union rep.

Employers may not like the outside union officials who periodically visit their unionized workplaces — for contract negotiations, grievance meetings, or to sign up new COPE members.  But there’s not much they can do to make them feel uncomfortable.  Their privileged non-employee status insulates them from all kinds of management pressure and harassment that is an every-day occupational hazard of good union stewards.

The steward can confront a supervisor over a contract violation, pursue a grievance over it, and protest job conditions that are unsafe or unhealthy — all with full legal protection (or so stewards are told in their union training).  But at the end of the day, or maybe even before it, a steward has to go back to work under the same boss whose authority has just been challenged.  And some employers, not to mention their first-line supervisors, have been known to take union push-back quite personally, particularly when it comes from a “subordinate.”

What better time than Labor Day to salute the critical front-line role played by tens of thousands of labor activists who volunteer to give their union a human face and a stronger voice on the shop floor, under increasingly difficult conditions?

On this particular Labor Day, I can think of no better steward body to single out for special recognition than the very active one at Kaiser Permanente in California.  Most unions would be proud to have the kind of shop stewards’ network that was built up, over the years, by United Healthcare Workers (UHW) in Kaiser bargaining units with 50,000 workers around the state, prior to February of 2009.

But SEIU has mixed feelings about shop stewards, to say the least, because of how many have behaved at Kaiser lately.  When SEIU national officials put UHW under trusteeship and ousted all its elected officers and board members last year, KP stewards overwhelmingly opposed the seizure of their union.  Any stewards who refused to sign a statement pledging loyalty to the new UHW regime were removed.  Many others quit in disgust when they saw their “disloyal” brothers and sisters purged by out-of-town SEIU staffers who were backed up by Kaiser security personnel and, if necessary, the local police.

In one of the most infamous of these incidents, at Kaiser Walnut Creek Medical Center in March 2009, a future SEIU president, Mary Kay Henry, was present when cops were called because a popular (but defrocked) steward showed up, on his day off, at a stewards council meeting in his own workplace.

The idea that stewards should work for and be accountable to the co-workers who elected them is laughable in SEIU.  The union prefers stewards who are “on program” — which means they just follow the orders of those higher up in a structure that mimics management’s own corporate hierarchy.  Power flows, oppressively and bureaucratically, from the top downward in UHW now.  It’s not built at the base of the union, through the collective activity of workers themselves and their own democratic-decision making about who should lead and how.

At KP, the weakness of this top-down union model is being exposed every day.  SEIU headquarters in Washington has been forced to dispatch hundreds of full-time staffers to California to avoid decertification there.  These staffers are now flooding Kaiser facilities, with up to fifteen assigned to each one.  They roam the halls like the union equivalent of drug company “detail men” (the peddlers of free samples from Big Pharma, who often bring gifts and lay out free food in hospitals for doctors and other staff).  The workplace networks that SEIU operatives failed to destroy or control within the giant hospital chain are countering this invasion on behalf of the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

While NUHW does have some full-time organizers of its own, they are few in number compared to the vast army of pay-rollers working for SEIU.  NUHW’s Kaiser campaign budget is a fraction of the many millions of dollars that SEIU will spend to maintain its grip over a unit of 44,000 workers.  What makes NUHW competitive — in the largest NLRB election in 70 years — is a volunteer army of stewards.

These folks have something that SEIU conscripts don’t have, particularly those parachuted in from out-of-state.  And that is personal relationships with Kaiser workers.  Whether UHW stewards quit after the trusteeship, were later purged, or quietly continued to serve their fellow members, as best they could, they tend to have credibility that union outsiders lack.  Their years of dedicated assistance to co-workers earned them the respect of many other members.  They are well known and influential in their own workplaces.

When many stewards declared themselves for NUHW 18 months ago, everyone around them knew this was a decision based on principle, not political expedience.  No one would be getting any special perks or rewards from NUHW — which has no patronage jobs or paid time off to dispense, unlike the incumbent union.  Nor would there be pats on the head from Kaiser management, which has displayed a strong preference for SEIU over NUHW — and committed multiple unfair labor practices to prove it.

In the Sept. 13-Oct. 4 mail ballot that will decide whether SEIU remains the largest union at Kaiser, or NUHW replaces it, the role of current UHW stewards has become even more significant.  In a series of remarkable defections from SEIU (all chronicled here), rank-and-file leaders in a number of Kaiser facilities have thrown away their purple lanyards and donned the red t-shirts and buttons of NUHW.

The largest collective decision of this sort was made at Kaiser Santa Rosa, a hospital employing 1,200 SEIU/UHW-represented workers.  On August 2, forty-eight stewards — the entire elected stewards council — held a rally to announce their mass resignation from SEIU.  In a letter to their co-workers, they wrote:

Many of us have been stewards for years and have taken pride in our effectiveness at bargaining and enforcing our contract, as well as serving on the various committees and teams that have made our facility such a great place to give and receive care.

The Santa Rosa 48 quit not because they wanted to stop representing  other Kaiser workers.  They stepped down “in order to have the freedom to express our support for NUHW.”  They described their current absence from steward duties as “only temporary.”  Their letter predicted: “When we win, we will be your stewards again” — but as part of a union whose working members “will make the decisions about bargaining priorities and who represents us on the job.”

At Kaiser in San Jose, UHW chief steward and national bargaining representative Shar Vigil was among 17 stewards there who also openly endorsed NUHW earlier this month.  A 30-year Kaiser worker, she was immediately informed by her SEIU staff person that she no longer held either union position.  For Vigil and many others, SEIU’s latest purge of elected workplace leaders is just another reason to choose “a democratic, member-driven union” instead.

Steve Early is the author of Embedded With Organized Labor, from Monthly Review Press, and The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.  He is an active supporter of NUHW and an even longer-time supporter of shop stewards.

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