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.

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