Eliseo Medina: Why SEIU Supports Uniting Long Term Care Workers

by Eliseo Medina on January 21, 2009

(Ed.note: Following our November 19, 2008 article on progressive Bay Area support for UHW in its dispute with its parent, SEIU International, we offered SEIU Executive Vice-President Eliseo Medina an opportunity to respond. His response is below, and addresses the recent SEIU Executive Board decision to shift 65,000 long term care workers from UHW to a newly-created statewide local.)

This is an auspicious time for all progressives who care about economic and social justice. We have a new U.S. President who openly promotes unions and a nation poised for change. Will the labor movement be ready to seize the moment? We must be. In my own union, SEIU, the largest union in California and the fastest growing union in the country, we constantly debate the best way to protect our current union members, while at the same time bringing union representation to the millions of workers who do not have the benefit of union representation.

It’s easy to forget, here in a city like San Francisco with such pro-union sentiment and high union density, that in the rest of America — even elsewhere in California — support for unions is weak and even hostile. That’s why we must use all of our resources to strengthen union membership and political power in parts of this state and across the country.

At SEIU, we began a process almost a decade ago to retool our union for the 21st Century, adopting the New Strength Unity Plan that realigns our local unions so that our members and potential members can take better advantage of their full potential as workers in a difficult economy. This was a several-prong process, including extensive member engagement through field hearings and polling, deliberation by a representative committee of our union and finally, a compilation of a detailed list of recommendations that won the support of the entire union leadership, including San Francisco-based United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) head Sal Roselli.

In fact, United Healthcare Workers-West was among the new locals created by the reorganization early on. At the time, its leaders, including Sal Roselli, actively supported the dissolution of Locals 399 and 250 in 2005 to create UHW, and this led to the appointment of Sal Roselli as president.

Now, after a vote on January 9th by our union’s International Executive Board, we are continuing the process with the next step by uniting home care and nursing home workers from three SEIU local unions into a single union local to create the nation’s largest and most powerful organization of long term care workers – 240,000 strong, reaffirming the plan that was set out by our union way back in 2000.

In the words of Leonard Page, former General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, who wrote an opinion on this for our International Executive Board: “By implementing its jurisdictional policy, SEIU has been able to create local unions of the size and resources to successfully mount the organizing, political and collective bargaining campaigns that have delivered for members …. My recommendation is that, for the present, California long term care members should have their own SEIU local union devoted exclusively to the needs of these workers.”

In this next month, I will be working with members in California to ensure that this new plan will continue to accommodate members’ concerns before I present a final recommendation in February to our union’s International Executive Board. In almost every case, locals have accepted and fully cooperated with the jurisdiction decisions and our members have grown in strength. I hope that UHW members will also realize the strength that comes in numbers as together we build a union that can meet the difficult challenges before us.

Homecare workers hold an important place for SEIU is as a union. When our international union made a commitment to organize home care workers as a way to raise standards in this sector, the entire national union fought intensely to pass laws to allow home care workers to organize and we bargained hard to ensure contracts to raise folks out of poverty so that they can provide for themselves and their families.

The decision to unite all long term care workers into one unified local couldn’t come at a more critical moment. California’s budget crisis and the sweeping cuts Gov. Schwarzenegger has proposed to the IHSS home care program and other critical long term care funding, means that long term care workers are facing cuts in hours for home care consumers and rollbacks of gains they have earned in pay back to minimum wage.

Under the reorganization, California long term care workers will be among the most powerful political and economic forces in the state -positioned to fight draconian budget and wage cuts and to press for meaningful long term budget solutions in Sacramento and to continue to bargain strong contracts for our members and new members to come.

Eliseo Medina is an executive vice president of SEIU where he is leading SEIU’s efforts to organize workers in 17 states. Medina’s career as a labor activist began in 1965 when, as a 19-year-old grape-picker, he participated in the historic United Farm Workers’ strike in Delano, California. He worked alongside Cesar Chavez, eventually serving as the United Farm Workers’ national vice president.

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