SEIU Defeats NUHW 61%-37% at Kaiser

by Randy Shaw on October 8, 2010

SEIU has prevailed 18,290 to 11,364 in its hard-fought battle to retain representation of 43,500 workers at California’s Kaiser Hospitals. NUHW will ask the NLRB to set aside SEIU’s victory on the grounds that the employer violated federal labor laws by aligning with SEIU during the campaign. In the short run, it means SEIU’s record financial investment – which most conservatively exceeded $10 million to secure 18,290 votes and was likely much higher – paid off. The two parties face a smaller Kaiser election on October 18, as well as other contests across the state. While many tried to portray the SEIU-NUHW struggle as a personality dispute, the contest involved two very different models for labor unions, and SEIU’s victory was ultimately a defeat for the organizing culture that originally built SEIU-UHW.

I have written extensively on the Kaiser election, and felt for some time that NUHW would not be able to overcome the massive spending and employer-SEIU alliance. Optimistic reports from various facilities and the great enthusiasm of NUHW supporters created glimmers of a possible upset, but the task of convincing workers in a recession that they were not risking contract benefits by switching to NUHW –when SEIU and Kaiser said otherwise, and Kaiser revoked (illegally, according to the NLRB) contractual raises for employees that earlier vote to switch – could not be overcome.

A Defeat for Union Organizing

SEIU’s victory was ultimately a triumph of big money over organizing prowess. It was a defeat for the organizing culture that built SEIU-UHW, and a victory for a union model relying not on veteran California health care organizers, but on the hiring of those whose job duties excluded building permanent relationships with workers.

SEIU-UHW outsourced its Kaiser campaign. Many of its Kaiser “organizers” no longer work for the union, while others returned to their home states weeks ago.

Does anyone believe that UHW is interested in launching major organizing drives among unorganized workers at the St. Joseph’s hospital chain, or in other non-union hospitals? There is barely anyone affiliated with the local with experience organizing California hospitals, as SEIU is living off the work of the now-NUHW organizers that it has sued, demonized, and defamed.

We know that the most principled and committed side does not always win, and that the best organizing talent and strategies cannot always overcome big money. We also know that spreading fear is easier than inspiring hope, and that creating uncertainty and confusion leads people to oppose change.

What SEIU has primarily accomplished in the nearly two years since placing UHW in trusteeship is to kill most new health care organizing in California, and to create havoc in the lives of many of the best organizers currently working in the United States today.

In their place, SEIU has elevated and rewarded labor bureaucrats like UHW Trustee Dave Regan, derailed the Employee Free Choice Act by making a mockery of the notion of employee “free choice” – it held up Kaiser and other elections through bogus NLRB charges for over a year – and squandered at least $50 million in members dues on a fight with its own workers.

Those who did not want to “choose sides” in the SEIU-NUHW struggle, or in SEIU’s attempt to destroy UNITE HERE, should start taking a closer look at how these battles have damaged the labor movement. Talented young organizers are not attracted to SEIU regardless of the lack of job opportunities, which is why UHW had to hire temp workers and borrow staff from other states to wage its Kaiser campaign.

There is no longer a culture of organizing at SEIU. It is a culture of press releases and Astroturf campaigns that can succeed when the union’s far greater resources and employer relationships take on the much smaller NUHW, but falls short when battling Republicans and powerful corporate interests.

Anyone who cares about the future of progressive change in this country should thank each and every NUHW worker and organizer who tried their best to restore a culture of organizing and worker power to the labor movement.

When Cesar Chavez launched what became the United Farmworkers in 1962, he had no idea how long the struggle for the nation’s first agricultural labor relations law would take. It took 13 years.

NUHW was formed in late January 2009, and has over 5000 members after less than two years. Cesar Chavez would have been thrilled with such progress.

So while the Kaiser defeat is a setback, the organizers and workers of NUHW are not prepared to quit. Anyone who gets into this world knows that the struggle for justice is long and winding, and that those retaining the Si Se Puede spirit are most likely to prevail.

Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century is now available in paperback. He is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook.

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