SEIU Faces Reckoning on Eve of Kaiser Election Results

by Randy Shaw on October 7, 2010

As SEIU awaits the results of its Kaiser election contest with NUHW, the union faces a reckoning regardless of the outcome. If SEIU loses, it will likely have no workers under contract at major California hospitals within three years. If it wins, SEIU will be forced to reconcile the split personality it has displayed since the early months of the Obama Administration, when it placed its UHW local in trusteeship and sought to take over UNITE HERE. SEIU’s good side invests in progressive electoral campaigns, promotes comprehensive immigration reform, and funds progressive institutions. SEIU’s darker side spends millions of dollars in members’ dues on false and misleading advertising campaigns, and relies on thuggery, intimidation, and out of state staff and temp workers with no history in health care unionism to maintain worker loyalty. The union’s split personality was on display last week, as SEIU President Mary Kay Henry denounced “corporate greed” at the giant October 2 labor rally in Washington D.C. while her SEIU-UHW political director joined the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce in a mailer promoting corporate-backed local candidates opposed by other progressive unions, including other SEIU locals.

SEIU confronts a “heads I lose, tails you win” scenario as Kaiser election results are announced on October 8.

A victory justifies SEIU’s multi-million dollar investment and keeps 44,000 dues paying members, but empowers a large California local whose political agenda conflicts with SEIU’s progressive allies and other of its locals. Meanwhile, an NUHW victory spells the impending demise of SEIU as the lead union for California hospitals, and ensures that SEIU’s representation of health care workers in the state will steadily decline.

Complicating matters is the possibility that SEIU wins the election but it is then reversed by the NLRB on the grounds that employer Kaiser violated federal labor law by interfering with the election to help SEIU in several amply documented ways. And considering that the NLRB went to court this week seeking a 10(j) injunction in U.S. District Court against Kaiser Permanente for illegally withholding a 2% pay increase from the 2,300 RNs and Pros who voted overwhelmingly to join NUHW in January – an action that was central to SEIU’s argument that Kaiser workers could lose guaranteed contractual benefits if they voted for NUHW – the chances are quite good that the NLRB reverses an SEIU victory and orders a new election.

SEIU’s Inner Conflict

Regardless of the Kaiser outcome, SEIU’s split personality cannot continue. In fact, SEIU unity behind the Kaiser campaign suppressed the contradictions between SEIU’s public political role and the conduct of its UHW local in California.

Since Mary Kay Henry replaced Andy Stern and made peace with UNITE HERE, the media narrative outside Beyond Chron and a disappointingly few other sources has been that the SEIU-NUHW conflict is an “internal” dispute driven by personalities, not issues.
Adding to this erroneous media framing is that the broader progressive community pays little attention to labor issues. Most progressives only know SEIU as the union most targeted by Republicans and FOX News, and for helping fund progressive campaigns and events like the large October 2 labor rally in Washington DC.

SEIU is regularly quoted on immigration reform and Latino issues, and it seems that rarely does a day pass when SEIU Secretary Treasurer Eliseo Medina is not quoted in the media on either or both of the above subjects. The number of media stories about SEIU’s progressive actions has overwhelmed reports of its disturbing mimicking of anti-union employer tactics in its UHW elections in California.

I know the good side of SEIU well, having written a book that discusses key leaders like Medina as well as the union’s many accomplishments. But SEIU’s darker side is expanding beyond what outsiders consider “internal” union fights, and is clouding the union’s well-crafted image as a progressive political force.

The UHW-Chamber of Commerce Alliance

I described last November how SEIU-UHW was attacking California progressive political leaders, including State Party Chair and longtime labor hero John Burton. UHW even launched eggs at fellow union members at an event in Los Angeles, after threatening the city’s teachers union that it would organize teachers in charter schools in retaliation for its support for NUHW.

The national traditional media ignored these attacks, and SEIU’s allies chalked the incidents up to “internal” union business rather than an assault on the union’s progressive political agenda. But it has become increasingly obvious that these events foreshadowed UHW’s transformation into a political operation at odds with SEIU’s progressive reputation.

I wrote back in March about UHW’s aligning with anti-union health giant Sutter Health against a broad San Francisco coalition of community and health care advocates. I then reported August 3 that SEIU-UHW was joining with Sutter Health in its political endorsements, while both continued to work to promote Sutter’s CPMC mega-hospital in the face of community concerns.

Now, as SEIU President Henry was denouncing the Chamber of Commerce at last Saturday’s big D.C. labor rally, her union’s third largest local was working with the Chamber to elect “pro-business” candidates in San Francisco supervisor races. According to the October 1 San Francisco Bay Guardian, “an alliance backed by the Chamber of Commerce, the SF Police Officers Association and United Health Care Workers West is dropping major money on Steve Moss in D10, Scott Wiener in D8 and Theresa Sparks in D6.” (These are the business community’s favored candidates in each race)

The “Chamber-Police-UHW alliance has spent $20,000 on bilingual (English/Chinese) door hangers for Moss that feature photos of Chamber of Commerce President Steve Falk and United Healthcare Workers political director Leon Chow.” The alliance spent $90,000 in a two-week period in September, with some expecting it the final total to reach $800,000.

The Guardian states that SEIU 1021 member Ed Kinchley, “is furious that UHW is pouring all its money into downtown candidates like Moss, Sparks and Wiener and trying to undermine everything that its progressive sister union is trying to do.”

Of course, the money UHW spends helping corporate San Francisco’s favorite candidates is just a tiny drop in comparison to the tens of millions of dollars that SEIU has devoted to the UHW cause. Do not be surprised to see other SEIU locals, as well as progressive groups battling the UHW-corporate alliance, publicly confront Henry over UHW’s agenda once Kaiser is at least temporarily over and the midterm elections have passed.

Note: Randy Shaw will be discussing SEIU’s direction at book readings for the paperback release of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century at Diesel bookstore in Oakland on Thursday, October 14 at 7pm and in New York City at the Graduate Center for Worker Education, located in the auditorium at 25 Broadway, 7th fl, on Thursday, October 21at 6:30pm.

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