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Voting began Monday  in one of the most disputed union elections in recent years. The contest pits the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) against the upstart National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which was created last year by former officials of a SEIU affiliate in Oakland, California. 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 vote tally starts on October 6.) Also at stake is how labor organizing may look in the near future.
SEIU suffered a loss to NUHW  in Southern California in January, so the current contest is major test for SEIU's new national president, Mary Kay Henry, who took over from her notorious predecessor Andy Stern last May. Henry seems committed to this fight, and for good reason. She worked alongside Stern during his tenure as president, and helped to implement some of his more controversial policies, including his efforts to create a handful of giant mega-locals, through mergers such as the one imposed on SEIU's California health care affiliates.
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 sought to forcibly merge UHW with a scandal-ridden Los Angeles-based local, whose president had to step down in 2008 amid allegations of corruption. Then-UHW President Sal Rosselli denounced the trusteeship as "an act of desperation by Stern" to deflect public attention from the Los Angeles scandal, and claimed that Stern was trying to punish him for fighting the transfer of his members to the Los Angeles local.
Union power struggles are nothing new, and, as in most, the dispute between SEIU and NUHW has its share of egos. But this fight also centers on the future of unionism. To revive unions' sagging private sector numbers, SEIU, under Stern's leadership, has pursued a strategy of increasing union "density," which entails increasing the number of union members in the overall workforce to gain greater clout in negotiations. This often has meant compromising on contract terms to lessen employer resistance.
Rosselli, by contrast, has preferred to drive a hard bargain to gain the best contract terms for existing members, even while trying to organize new ones. Throughout this conflict, Henry worked alongside Stern to pursue the goal of greater "density," which Rosselli has derided as "organizing workers for the sake of numbers."
Whichever strategy wins out, it's safe to say that the leaders of SEIU and NUHW can agree on at least one thing: support for the so-called Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which can help both their goals. EFCA's card check provision would both allow unions to organize members more easily by effectively eliminating the secret ballot in organizing elections, while its binding arbitration provision would allow union negotiators to drive a harder bargain in the expectation that after 120 days a federally appointed arbitrator could step in to impose an agreement that is bound to be no worse for the union than management's final offer.
EFCA is currently stalled in Congress, and its chances in the lame-duck session of Congress are uncertain, but its supporters are now looking for ways to implement some of its provisions outside the legislative process.
One such possibility is remote voting. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) -- which now includes former SEIU counsel Craig Becker -- recently put out a request  for information 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 …"
Despite this call for "safeguards," 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. Indeed, the SEIU-NUHW fight shows how remote voting can lead to vote tampering and intimidation  -- including at workers' homes. In the current campaign, some workers have accused SEIU of taking mail-in ballots from their mailboxes and harassed at 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.
The campaign in California is proving a testing ground for new, aggressive organizing tactics. Whichever union wins, worker freedom may be the ultimate loser.