Thursday, September 23, 2010

NLRB election offers a choice to Kaiser healthcare workers in California: A union leadership they democratically elected or one imposed on them.

The NLRB is giving 44,000 Kaiser healthcare workers in California something that was denied to them inside the Service Employees International Union: a fair election to decide what kind of union leadership they want. The choice is between a leadership they had previously elected or a leadership that had been autocratically imposed upon them.

This was not your run-of-the-mill NLRB collective bargaining election. Voters are not deciding whether to have a union--they are already unionized--but whether they should accept continued representation by the Service Employees International Union or should shift to the National Union of Healthcare Workers, a new unaffiliated independent union.

On the eve of the election, Kaiser workers were already involuntarily imprisoned in the SEIU. But they finally got from the NLRB what they had been denied inside the SEIU: a democratic choice of union representatives. At the time of the election, Kaiser workers had been deprived of local union leaders they themselves had elected and were subjected to a union officialdom that had been appointed, without their consent, by the SEIU international president That's part of a long, convoluted, and depressing story.

Around 2004, these 45,000 Kaiser workers were members of United Healthcare Workers- West, a strong SEIU local whose 150,000 members were distributed all over California. Its elected president, Sal Rosselli, like the union itself, was respected as an influential progressive force in the labor movement and in state politics. Rosselli first emerged as an important SEIU leader in 1989 when, running as a progressive insurgent, he was elected president of SEIU Local 250. In the years that followed, his influence rose; he worked in harmony with International President Andy Stern; his Local 250 was merged with others and became the axis around which the UHW-W grew into the 150,000-member behemoth of workers in homecare, hospitals, and nursing homes--public and private.

All went well until sometime in 2007 when Rosselli concluded that Stern was signing sweetheart agreements with nursing homes on terms that undermined the conditions of his UHW-W members. When Rosselli criticized Stern publicly and led a petition campaign that forced Stern into a momentary retreat, that was the end of the happy relations between the two. But Rosselli was president only of a local, although a powerful one. Stern, however, as international president was armed with authoritarian powers. After a relentless campaign against Rosselli, Stern trusteed the local and removed Rosselli from office along with all the other top local officers. Usually when an union international president trustees a local, any recalcitrant local officer that stands in his way is fairly easily pulverized. But this time, Stern hit a hornets nest of unionists who would not submit supinely to dictatorial rule.

In his 20 years of local leadership, a small army of devoted followers had gathered around Rosselli; and he was armed with a buffer of respect from labor-oriented intellectuals around the country and community leaders in the state. Rosselli and his followers resigned from the SEIU, established the new National Union of Healthcare Workers, and gathered the thousands of petitions necessary to challenge the SEIU in NLRB elections that would enable them to take back the members left behind under Stern's trusteeship.

How much did the SEIU pour into this election to hold on to those 44,000 workers? The Rosselli camp says it was 40 million dollars. The SEIU claims it was "only" around one-tenth of that, an "only" that counts out to four million dollars. The SEIU could dig into the treasury of its 2,000,000 member and tap the dues money paid by those 44,000 Kaiser workers to finance this campaign to entrench local usurpers over them. In contrast, the NUHW had to rely largely upon donations and volunteer labor, because its leaders, previously on the paid staff, were now jobless and without pay.

In one ironic aspect, this campaign has shredded the facade of the SEIU's glittering image. In all the years of SEIU President Stern's rise to celebrity status, the SEIU boasted that it was striving for "Justice for All." It claimed to seek great social changes, to change to win, to change the labor movement, to change America, to change the world. Rosselli, they charged, was concerned only with the 'narrow' interests of his own members without regard for these grand goals.

Now, to induce workers to submit to a prefabricated officialdom, they appeal to their narrow, nervous, even unreasoning fears. If you vote against the SEIU, they warn, your union contract with Kaiser will be voided, and all your union gains will disappear. The alarm is fright-inducing and it is false. Yes, if NUHW takes over, the contract with Kaiser is no longer in effect, but the company is required to maintain all previous working conditions while the new contract is negotiated. The point is that the SEIU relies not on noble ideals of Justice for All, but on elemental fear. Meanwhile, the NUHW message is about the dignity of workers, the right to choose their own leaders, and the shame of bowing one's head to autocracy.

Kaiser workers must choose, either to insist upon their democratic rights or yield to authoritarian overseers.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Join us for AUD's Annual Beach Party!

Join the Association for Union Democracy and Herman Benson on Sunday, September 19th in honoring Union Reformers in the Maritime Trades. We will have an afternoon by the sea in the historic Long Beach District from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. for swimming, food, drinks and speakers from the labor movement! Tickets are $40 for individuals, $20 for students and only $60 for families.

Ticket prices includes food and drink and all proceeds will go to the Association for Union Democracy so we can continue our work to fight for the rights and interests of working people! Please email Patti to reserve your tickets:

Monday, July 26, 2010

NYS Nurses Association in Bitter Union Election

In August ballots go out for a partial election, by mail, of members of the Board of Directors on the New York State Nurses Association. The dominant management team is closely contested by a full opposition slate running as Nurses for a Better NYSNA. A contested election is nothing new; the opposition has run before, with a measure of success. What is unusual, this time, is the quality of campaigning. The roles of establishment and opposition seem to be reversed.

The opposition, union-oriented experienced bedside nurses, some with a long record of rank-and-file leadership, have been running a restrained, almost subdued, election campaign. They criticize the NYSNA management of behaving like authoritarian corporate officials who restrict information to "a chosen few" and base their actions "on 'policies' that neither elected leaders nor rank and file members have access to." And, in fact, NYSNA is part union and part corporation. Because it is the collective bargaining representative for some 34,000 staff nurses, it is a labor organization as defined by the LMRDA. But it is also a corporation under state law (a status which gives its Board of Directors expansive powers) and it accepts management representatives as full members.

A website that supports the current management slate has been conducting a screeching campaign that occasionally borders on hysteria. It flails out with vitriolic personal attacks on each member of the opposition slate. Out of the blue, apparently irrelevantly, it launches a personal assault against Pat Kane, who is not a candidates for any office. Kane, one of the outspoken leaders of the opposition, is actually a current member of the NYSNA Board of Directors. Although the website is obviously inspired by the management team, its sponsors remain anonymous. No one takes public responsibility for its contents.

The management team has good cause to be nervous, which surely accounts for its being thrown off balance and for the note of desperation in its propaganda.

Of the 13 members of the current NYSNA Board of Directors, four who had been elected in earlier elections support the opposition. The directors' terms of office are staggered. In this election, only six come up for reelection: vice president, secretary and four at large. Ann Bove', an opposition at-large candidate, is now an incumbent director (facing an official investigation that could lead to disciplinary charges against her, she has retrained a defense attorney).

On the eve of the election, management abruptly faced an formidable challenge from a new group: NY Nurses Coalition. Its formation was provoked by the discharge of Sonia Echevarria, a popular nursing rep, by the NYSNA CEO in April this year. The group and its website originated as a protest against the firing but soon expanded its concern to charge the NYSNA management with highhanded administration of association affairs. At first, unaware of the existence of an opposition slate, it endorsed a single independent candidate for Board of Directors. But once it learned of the earlier opposition, it endorsed its full slate. The opposition ticket is headed by Judy Sheridan Gonzalez, its candidate for vice president.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Just in time. Andy Stern retires from SEIU

(From Union Democracy Review #185)

Andy Stern's retirement as SEIU president took everyone by surprise. He is only 59 and voluntarily stepped out at the height of his power inside the union. Why? It was a rare initiative among top leaders who usually try to hold on until they are tottering on canes. If he said that he yearned to spend more time with his loving family, who would believe him? But he explained that he always felt that leaders should quit early to make room for the younger generation. Believable, even admirable --- except for one element that may not ring quite true:

It was only two years ago that Stern was reelected by inspired colleagues on a platform of changing the labor movement, changing America, and changing the world. You'd think that he would want to hang around for at least until the end of his term to make sure that it worked out.

However, regardless of why he really retired, he couldn't have picked a better time. He is at the height of glory and influence with President Obama with easy and frequent access to the White House and appointed by the president as the (only) labor representative on the 18-person National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The commission is charged with nothing less than figuring out how to improve the nation's fiscal position; they will start out with Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. As SEIU president, Stern accumulated experience handling big money.

In past years, Stern had acquired an enviable record and reputation as a new type of dynamic union leader, hailed in the mainstream media and respected by a staff of idealistic union activists, civil rights campaigners, and community organizers. But he managed to squander all that by projecting an authoritarian style of unionism, in principle and practice.

President Obama's staff may not have known, and obviously did not tell him, that Stern had just begun a free fall in status everywhere outside the White House. It began with a hundred writers, academics, and assorted intellectuals all over the country who criticized his attack on Sal Rosselli's 150,000-member West Coast SEIU local; those critics were joined by a similar group in California, and then by public and community leaders in the state. In the labor movement, AFL-CIO leaders denounced him for his attack on John Wilhelm, president of UNITE/HERE. No one except his own staff and International Executive Board came to his defense; he lost the support of his own former partners in the Change to Win Federation which he had inspired and led. Inside his own SEIU, people he placed in high union positions turned out to be corrupt. Officers who he had appointed to run two important locals were defeated by rank and file oppositions.

The unkindest cut of all came from his own International Executive Board which, under the SEIU constitution, was authorized to choose the successor to fill Stern's unexpired term of office. Stern's choice for SEIU president was Anna Burger, presumably second in command as secretary treasurer and the natural choice for the job. Under Stern's tutelage, she had emerged as head of the Change to Win coalition. She announced that she was a ready and willing candidate and she seemed to be the routine choice. But it was not to be. Now that the retiring Stern had lost the power to dispense perquisites and inflict pain, the members of the International Executive Board, who had seemed so supinely under his thumb, seem to have broken loose. Anna Burger, Stern's choice, never had a chance. She was obviously unable even to mount a campaign. Within two weeks of Stern's withdrawal, the board chose the new president: Mary Kay Henry, had been an executive vice president and a leader of the union's healthcare division.

In choosing a new career, Andy Stern may have performed one last service for his union. The new president and the old international board are free to try to mend what has begun to tear the union apart.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

In IBEW Local 103: A crazy application of a murky grievance system

Construction workers know it can be dangerous to file a grievance under their union contract: win or lose, you can end up blacklisted as a troublemaker. Nothing new about that. But for mystification bordering on the irrational, you must go to the decision of the appeals committee on April 8 dismissing the grievance filed by Peter deMont, a member of IBEW local 103 in Boston.

Local 103 and the Boston Chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association [NECA] agreed to change the job referrals requirements of the union contract, essentially by diluting provisions that require referrals from the out-of-work list in chronological order --- earliest to sign the list, earliest to get the job. When deMont argued that the agreement was invalid, the appeals committee rejected his protest in a 22-page decision whose labyrinthine windings touched upon two decisive points:

  • deMont pointed out that Section 1.3 of the contract between Local 103 and NECA clearly required that “Any such change or supplement agreed upon shall be reduced to writing, signed by the parties herein, and submitted to the International Office of the IBEW for approval…” Since the international never approved the change, any ordinary mortal would conclude that deMont had a powerful case. But watch how the appeals committee ducked out of that one:

    “Whether approval is necessary to satisfy para 1.3 is the essential disputed point in this case,” the appeals committee wrote. The only action necessary, the appeals committee replied in reply to its own question, is “the act of submission for approval, not the receipt of approval” (committee’s emphasis.) Moreover, deMont had “never raised the contention that the Memorandum had not been submitted.” Here, there would appear to be a kind of double duck: the committee does not contend that the changes were ever submitted for approval, only that deMont has not charged the union and company with not sending it for approval.

  • Apart from what is required by the contract between Local 103 and NECA, the IBEW International itself requires locals to submit contacts and changes to the International for approval. But that was an easy hurdle for this agile appeals committee; it simple brushed it aside: “The argument that the failure to obtain the approval of the International or follow the steps detailed in the July, 2003 International policy, violates the International Constitution is a matter between the local and the International, not the Appeals Committee.” The point is interesting but somewhat puzzling because one of the members of the Appeals Committee is a member of IBEW Local 3 and a signatory of its decision.

The three-member Appeals Committee consists of one representative of Local 103, one from the employers, and the third from the public. The issues raised by deMont have complexities but they boil down to this:

Most IBEW contracts require contractors to hire out of the union hall where referrals are supposed to be made in chronological order: earliest to sign goes to the top of the list and gets first crack at referrals. There are exceptions for workers with special skills, for foremen, for older workers, and some others; but, on the whole, workers get jobs through the hall and order on the list prevails. But Local 103 and NECA agreed to sweeping contract modifications that effectively disrupt the priority referral system.

Over the years, efforts had been made to chip away at the basic chronological system. In 1981, the business manager allowed 300 electricians on the list to solicit their own jobs; but, on protest/appeal by Basil Paicos, the practice was voided. However, as this appeals committee wrote, the incumbent business manager “has encouraged the use of solicitation to obtain employment.”

And so, the current appeals committee has OKed a system which permits a least the top percent of people on the list --- and no fewer that 250 --- to solicit their own jobs. The record of the appeal shows that the international has never approved of this system, nor does it show whether any request for approval had ever been submitted.