In California, Kaiser Workers Vote for SEIU

By Seth Sandronsky

About 43,000 Kaiser Permanente service and technical workers who serve 6.5 million patients in California finished voting by mail on Oct. 4 to join the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) or to remain in the United Healthcare Workers (UHW) local of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The National Labor Relations Board announced the results on Oct. 7. SEIU won, getting 18,290 votes to 11,364 for NUHW in an election overseen by the NLRB from Sept. 13 to Oct. 4. Some 365 workers voted for no union representation. In all, it was the biggest mail vote in NLRB history, according to Nancy Cleeland, director of public affairs for the federal agency, and the largest private-sector union representation vote since 1941.

In the run-up to the three-week voting process, SEIU-UHW highlighted its robust new Kaiser contract to sway workers to stay put. Members had overwhelmingly approved that pact with Kaiser in the middle of one of the worst economic crises in US history, said Steve Trossman, SEIU-UHW spokesman. The prolonged downturn that began in December 2007 has propelled the national unemployment rate to 9.6%. In California, epicenter of the housing foreclosure crisis, the rate of joblessness is 12.4%.

Jolene Camp, a medical assistant at the Kaiser facility in Roseville (Sacramento), opted to remain with SEIU-UHW. “In our new union contract with Kaiser, my family and I kept my employer-paid health care benefits,” Camp said before the election. Choosing to join NUHW would risk her negotiated medical benefits plus 3% wage increases annually over the three-year contract, according to her.  

Kaiser recently increased the costs of health care benefits (co-pays and deductibles) for its managers and non-union employees. That price hike mirrors a trend in health-care costs for workers with employer-paid coverage across the US.

“NUHW leaders deliberately put our pay raises, benefits and job security at risk in an attempt to gain personal power at our expense,” said Bernadette Cabrales, a unit assistant at Kaiser Santa Clara, in a post-election news release.

How would the current SEIU-UHW contract with Kaiser hold up in the event that NUHW had won the election? In their campaigns, SEIU-UHW and NUHW asked this question of Kaiser workers, said Cleeland.

According to an NLRB statement from her, “An employer is required to maintain existing contract terms when a new union is selected to represent bargaining unit employees, subject to further bargaining.” In fact, an NLRB decision on Aug. 27 spelled that issue out relative to negotiated benefits and wages in Southern California. There, 2,300 Kaiser workers voted for representation by NUHW instead of SEIU-UHW.

A total of 5,600 workers are NUHW members statewide now, according to Sadie Crabtree, NUHW spokeswoman. “Kaiser illegally withheld more than $1 million in raises and benefits from Southern California Kaiser professionals who joined NUHW last year, and threatened to do the same to members of the Service and Technical unit if they voted for NUHW,” she said. “SEIU built its entire campaign around Kaiser’s illegal withholding of the raises, telling workers they’d lose their guarantees and start from scratch.”

Marc T. Brown, a Kaiser spokesman, has a different view of his employer’s role in the recently completed vote. “In the dispute between SEIU-UHW and NUHW, and during the election between the two unions, we have been neutral and continue to be neutral. We have not and will not support or assist either union, but we do fully support the election process, according to the NLRB’s guidelines. We respect the rights of our employees to choose whether they want to be represented by a union and, if so, which union will represent them.”

On the NUHW backers’ side of the fence, Kaiser workers contacted before the election chafed at SEIU-UHW’s corporate governance structure for wielding excessive power over members’ dues money and self-rule. “Over the last 18 months, SEIU-UHW has agreed with Kaiser to reducing our retirement pension without a vote from members,” said Sonia Askew, an optician at the Kaiser facility in South Sacramento. According to her, SEIU-UHW sealed other dubious deals with Kaiser, including one that shaped union members’ pharmacy benefits minus their input.

Askew, a worksite leader, was an elected shop steward with SEIU-UHW until its take-over 19 months ago that ousted her from that post. On Jan. 28, 2009, NUHW emerged from the SEIU’s legal take-over, or trusteeship to seize financial and political control, of SEIU-UHW. That move suspended the union’s constitution and by-laws, seized its financial assets, removed 100 elected union officials and replaced them with appointed executives. Askew prefers NUHW for its more democratic approach to workers’ rights on the job versus those with SEIU-UHW.

NUHW and SEIU-UHW can appeal the election results to the NLRB in its largest mail vote ever, according to Cleeland. “Any side can file a complaint about voting, and if there’s merit, the NLRB can investigate and issue a complaint,” she said.

In a news release the day that the NLRB announced the results of the mail-in ballot, SEIU urged “NUHW to respect workers’ democratic decision and not file frivolous objections to the election.” However, the NUHW had other ideas.

A week after the Kaiser election results were announced, NUHW lawyers filed objections with the NLRB, alleging that Kaiser Permanente engaged in “illegal and collusive behavior” with SEIU that influenced the election outcome.

Sal Rosselli is the NUHW president, and former head of the SEIU-UHW before trusteeship. “We’re committed to doing everything we can to help them (Kaiser employees) win the right to a new, fair election,” he said. “At the same time, our members are working together to win great contracts across the state, and thousands more workers are organizing to join with us at other California hospitals.”

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2010

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