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Health Care Worker Unions Team Up In California

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Two major health care worker unions entered into a formal affiliation in California on Thursday, arguing that they could better fight concessions sought by hospitals and health care companies in contract talks if they joined forces.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and the California Nurses Association (CNA) will now jointly fight what they describe as declining workplace standards in the industry, officials with the two unions told The Huffington Post. The NUHW, which was created four years ago after a split with another union and now includes 10,000 members, has found a significantly larger partner in the politically powerful CNA, which represents 85,000 nurses in the state.

"Some of us in both organizations, for decades, we have had this goal to form a national health care union," said Sal Rosselli, president of NUHW. "This affiliation, we believe, will make it come to be."

The affiliation comes at a time when the two unions have been engaged in high-profile fights with the health care companies Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health, as well as public spats with another union, the Service Employee International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU). NUHW and the nurses association have accused SEIU of being too friendly with the industry and too conciliatory to employers during contract talks.

Deborah Burger, president of CNA, told HuffPost that the union decided to enter a formal affiliation with NUHW in part because SEIU "has been cooperating more and more with the hospital [lobby] and our mutual employers to erode employee benefits" -- a charge that SEIU denies.

NUHW launched in 2009 after an acrimonious split with SEIU over organizing philosophy. NUHW lost a major union election to SEIU at Kaiser hospitals in 2010, but a judge later threw out the results, finding that SEIU and Kaiser had illegally interfered in the process. The election will take place again in the spring, and CNA hopes to give its new affiliate a boost when 45,000 workers decide who will represent them.

Rosselli said NUHW and CNA will maintain their separate constitutions, but "the legal affiliation will have us acting as one union."

Steve Trossman, an SEIU spokesman, downplayed the new affiliation as superficial, noting that the two unions will remain autonomous and that they've already been known allies. "It's really much ado about nothing. It memorializes what's already happened," Trossman said. As for allegations that SEIU is too cozy with employers like Kaiser, Trossman said the union has secured some of the best contracts in the country for its health care workers. "We have a strategy of winning," he said.

Recently, NUHW has been battling Kaiser over employee wages, benefits and workplace staffing levels, going on repeated strikes with the support of CNA. When 4,000 NUHW members walked off the job last September at Kaiser facilities in California, roughly 17,000 CNA members joined them in a one-day "sympathy" strike. Kaiser later sued CNA, arguing that the strike violated a no-strike agreement in its labor contract.

CNA enjoys a reputation for hard bargaining. In 2004, it won a major legislative victory when California implemented a law mandating patient-to-nurse ratios, which require hospitals to staff a certain number of nurses at all times. The ratio mandate is now considered a landmark health care law, and CNA has so far successfully fought industry efforts to have it rolled back.

In June, NUHW and the nurses association accused SEIU of siding with employers in an effort to water down the ratio mandate.

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