The battle between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) started coming to a close at several northern California Kaiser Permanente offices and hospitals Monday. Tens of thousands of workers will vote between now and October 4 on which union, if any, will represent them. At stake are 44,000 members and an estimated $40 million in annual dues. The choices are SEIU, NUHW, and “no union.” The votes will be tallied starting on October 6.
In January, 2,000 health care workers in Los Angeles voted to quit SEIU and join NUHW by a margin of six to one. SEIU currently represents 150,000 health care workers in California.
Union power plays are nothing new, but this is about more than that. At the heart of the dispute between SEIU and NUHW is a conflict of visions over the future of unionism in the private sector. The North Bay Business Journal reports:
The contentious battle has reached new heights, with NUHW proponents saying their rival puts organizational power over individual workers while SEIU advocates claim NUHW and its supporters ultimately undermine organized labor and jeopardize workers’ collective bargaining power and the existing contract.
NUHW was formed in January 2009 by the former leaders of SEIU’s Oakland-based affiliate, after a bitter dispute with the SEIU national leadership. The breakup occurred after SEIU put its affiliate United Healthcare West (UHW) under trusteeship, throwing out 80 locally elected officers, accusing them of misuse of union funds.
The national SEIU, then under the leadership of Andrew Stern, sought to forcibly merge UHW with a scandal-ridden Los Angeles-based local, whose president, Tyrone Freeman, had been forced to step down in 2008 amid allegations of corruption. As my colleague Ivan Osorio notes, SEIU’s national leadership may have been aware of the corruption years before The Los Angeles Times broke the scandal.
The Los Angeles Times reported that a “source close to the union” said SEIU spokesman Steve Trossman had been informed six years earlier about the allegations against Freeman. “The source, who asked not to be identified because he feared retribution, said Trossman helped develop a strategy in 2002 to keep the allegations from embarrassing the SEIU at a time of epic membership growth … “
Osorio also writes:
[Then] UHW president Sal Rosselli denounced the trusteeship as “an act of desperation by Stern” to deflect public attention from the Los Angeles scandal. Rosselli said Stern was trying to punish him for fighting the transfer of his members to the Los Angeles local. The next day, Rosselli and other dissident local leaders announced the creation of a new union, National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which, according to its website (nuhw.org), “was formed after a two-year struggle to expose and reverse SEIU President Andy Stern’s drive to centralize power among a small clique of Washington-based officers and staff at the expense of rank-and-file workers’ voices with their employers and in their own union.”
The fight between mega union SEIU and upstart NUHW became increasingly nasty with charges of intimidation and election fraud. NUHW has released several videos that show workers accusing SEIU of harassment. Some said that SEIU told them that if they voted for NUHW they could lose their benefits and their jobs. In another video, SEIU Vice President Dave Regan rallies SEIU organizers to “drive a stake through the heart of the thing that is the NUHW. We have to put them in the ground and bury them.” Another video shows a SEIU staffer assaulting somebody who is filming her.
And it’s not just in the workplace. According to NUHW, SEIU took these ugly tactics to people’s homes. Others accused SEIU of taking a mail-in ballot from the mailbox and walking it to the front door of their home to sign. One worker said SEIU even marked the ballot for her. Others said SEIU opened their marked ballot and made them change their votes from NUHW to SEIU.
This illustrates how remote voting can lead to even more vote tampering and intimidation. Unfortunately, remote voting could become a national problem now that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)–which now includes former SEIU counsel Craig Becker–has taken steps to allow remote electronic voting in union organizing elections.
The NLRB put out a request for information earlier their summer for vendors to submit proposals “for the acquisition of electronic voting services to support conducting secret-ballot elections to determine representation issues. Specifically, the Agency requires a proven solution that supports mail, telephone, web-based and/or on-site electronic voting; that includes the necessary safeguards to ensure the accuracy, secrecy, observability, transparency, integrity, accountability, and auditability of Agency-conducted elections; ”
While the NLRB is requesting information on safeguards, remote voting can never truly be safe. There is nothing to deter union organizers from walking up to workers’ homes and bullying them into entering their secret codes and votes in front of the organizer.
Sound like card check? It should As Katie Gage of the Workforce Fairness Institute cautions: “What is plainly clear is that this introduction of electronic voting is the first glimmer that Big Labor is using Becker and the NLRB to enact [card check] just as they intended.”
The ongoing war between SEIU and NUHW will not likely end with the current vote at Kaiser. Whatever the outcome, we should expect card check supporters to use the experience gained in California to pursue similar organizing methods outside the legislative process. For that reason, supporters of workers’ free choice should pay close attention to this inter-union fight.