Two Health Care Unions Battle Each Other for Members

Voting began today 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. At stake are 44,000 at Kaiser Permanente health care facilities throughout Northern California.

SEIU’s national leadership placed its Oakland affiliate, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), in trusteeship in January 2009, alleging “financial wrongdoing” by then-UHW President Sal Rosselli. In response, Rosselli accused then-SEIU President Andrew Stern of using trusteeship to forcibly seize his local and merge it with a scandal-ridden Los Angeles-based local, whose president, Tyrone Freeman, had stepped down amid serious corruption allegations.

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.

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 in the private sector, where organized labor is a fading force. 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.

Voting ends on October 4 and the vote count begins two days later. This is a contest well worth watching.

For more on SEIU, see here, here, here, and here.