While millions of Americans work jobs with stagnating wages, poor job security and no union representation, two labor unions are waging a turf war over a group of unionized California hospital workers, leading critics to question whether the saga best serves the interests of ordinary American workers.
In the latest chapter of one of the nastiest union battles in recent memory, the National Labor Relations Board has ordered a do-over of one of the largest union elections in U.S. history. The board's ruling is a blow to Service Employees International Union -- one of the most powerful and fastest growing American labor unions -- which won the October election when employees at California health care giant Kaiser Permanente chose not to join the rival National Union of Healthcare Workers by a vote 18,290 to 11,364.
Last month, a judge found that the election was tainted when the SEIU distributed information claiming that Kaiser would withhold some raises and benefits if employees voted to join the NUHW -- a charge complicated by the fact that Kaiser did illegally withhold some wages and benefits from a group of workers who joined the NUHW before the October election. Kaiser has since been forced to pay backpay to those employees.
Labor historians, meanwhile, worry that both unions miss the broader point: At a time of massive declines in union membership and influence, two unions are fighting over a group of workers who already have representation -- and wages higher than their non-union counterparts.
"It's like, the crew is fighting while the Titanic is sinking here," said Joshua B. Freeman, a labor historian at Queens College, City University of New York.
Despite the board's ruling in their favor, NUHW says the NLRB did not go far enough. The NUHW, formed by union leaders forced out of the SEIU in 2009, alleges that the SEIU was working in collusion with Kaiser to manipulate employees into staying in the SEIU fold -- a charge that the SEIU vehemently denies. Kaiser maintains that it has reminded neutral throughout the union dispute.
Both unions accuse the other of not having their members' best interests at heart.
"The real question for Kaiser employees is: So why is it that Kaiser so wants this union? Its because the SEIU is a company union; it's a sellout union; its not about workers rights," said NUHW vice president John Borsos. Borsos added that in order for the election re-run to be fair, there would have to be extensive efforts made to insure that every employee understood that Kaiser and SEIU lied in the previous run up to the election.
SEIU, meanwhile, says that while they don't agree with the NLRB's recommendation for an election do-over, union leadership at Kaiser has already voted to support a speedy reelection.
"The election wasn't close last time, it wasn't close at all," said SEIU-UHW spokeswoman, Elizabeth Brennan, who called the NUHW's accusations against them "desperate."
"From the members' perspective, it's about what union is going to represent them the best and the choice is very obvious -- I think they trust that when presented with the facts and chance to make their own decision, they can do that," Brennan added.
In Freeman's view, the NLRB's ruling for an election redo is fair, but he worries about the resources devoted to the grievances between the SEIU and the NUHW. The fight, he says, should be focussed on organizing new members and bargaining for good contracts. Last year, only 6.9 percent of private sector workers belonged to a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1983, the oldest year comparable data is available, 16.8 percent of private sector workers belonged to a union.
"The rerun of this Kaiser election will involve a huge amount of money, resources and attention ... at a time when unions are in such trouble," Freeman said. "It seems a great shame to me that such energy is going to be devoted to an internal squabble. No matter who wins this fight, workers at Kaiser will be represented by a union -- not so for thousands of U.S. workers who would be benefited by representation."
This report has been updated to include comment from Kaiser Permanente.
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