SEIU Deploys Top-Down Organizing Tactics against California Hospitals

Labor unions no longer gain worker support prior to kicking off organizing campaigns. Now they find it much easier to apply public pressure and intimidate employers into signing card-check neutrality agreements, which takes away workers’ right to a secret-ballot election. This is known as a “top-down organizing” campaign.

This tactic is on display in California, where last year the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) threatened to file ballot measures that would cap hospital CEO pay and limit the amount hospitals can charge patients, in hopes that the California Hospital Association would sign a neutrality agreement that eases the union’s path to unionizing thousands of hospital workers in California.

Instead of protecting hospital workers in California and conducting a campaign to fight SEIU’s ballot measures, on May 2, 2014, The Wall Street Journal reviewed documents that show the California Hospital Association is willing to submit to union demands:

Under a union proposal made to the association last week, the labor giant would withdraw support for those initiatives in exchange for hospitals providing SEIU access to employees during an organizing drive of tens of thousands of workers, the documents show.

According to The Wall Street Journal, SEIU and the California Hospital Association are close to coming to terms on a neutrality agreement, which commonly include provisions such as card-check, union access to workplaces, and normally puts a gag order on employers on speaking out against unionization.

Specifics of the proposed deals:

The documents reviewed by the Journal show that on April 25, the SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers West local in California proposed a three-year deal that would give the union access to as many as 60,000 nonunion employees. The union also proposed a $100 million joint “advocacy fund” with the hospital association that would be used in part to support a 2016 ballot initiative. The measure would direct the state to cover what the hospital association says are shortfalls in payments to hospitals from Medi-Cal, the state Medicaid system.

In a counteroffer authorized by the hospital association board on April 28, the industry offered a five-year deal providing access to as many as 50,000 workers and offered to pay $60 million to the advocacy fund. The union would contribute $40 million under that proposal.

Opponents of SEIU’s top-down organizing campaign point to a 2012 case, UNITE-HERE Local 335 v. Mulhall, where the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that neutrality agreements run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act, which prohibits a company from providing unions assistance in organizing campaigns that could amount to “a thing of value.”

Clearly, California hospitals granting unions workplace access and card-check is valuable to unions (or why would unions negotiate for them?). But, unfortunately, courts are divided on the issue and the U.S. Supreme Court recently dismissed the Mulhall case that could have settled the issue.

Until federal labor law is reformed to guarantee a secret-ballot election, unions will continue top-down organizing campaigns that demand card-check. This is because private-sector union membership has been plummeting for years and employees continue to vote against unionization when conducted by a secret-ballot election (as seen recently in the secret-ballot election at the Chattanooga, Tennessee, Volkswagen plant).

A legislative fix is readily available. Senator Orrin Hatch’s bill, the Employee Rights Act (ERA), would make a secret-ballot the only way to conduct a union election in the private-sector. (For more on the ERA see, here, here, and here.)