The Big Do-Over at Kaiser

04/12/2013 05:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2013

For 70 years, there was no bigger union representation vote in the private sector than the 2010 election involving 45,000 workers at Kaiser Permanente (KP), the giant health care chain in California. Now, the same labor and management parties are engaged in a costly re-match with wider implications for labor.

The initial election pitted the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) against its new California rival, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). SEIU, the incumbent union, retained its bargaining rights by the healthy margin of 18,290 to 11,364. But, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), that victory was tainted by SEIU misbehavior similar to that of anti-union employers -- the kind of tactics usually termed "union-busting." Over SEIU's objections, the NLRB ordered a re-run of unprecedented scale.

That's why the same group of Kaiser service and technical employees is receiving mail ballots this week giving them a second chance to replace SEIU with NUHW, keep their current union, or revert to non-union status (an option chosen by only few hundred workers in 2010). Due to an infusion of new resources on the NUHW side, the big do-over at Kaiser appears to be a closer contest than last time.

If SEIU is ousted when ballots are counted in early May, this once fast-growing union will suffer a greater membership loss in a single election than it did all last year when it shrunk by 43,000 members. Kaiser, in turn, will lose the linchpin of its 16-year-old "labor-management partnership," long heralded as a model for "union friendly" employers everywhere.

Implications for Labor

NUHW was formed four years ago after SEIU removed 100 elected officers and executive board members of United Healthcare Workers (UHW), its third largest affiliate, and put the local under trusteeship. After UHW President Sal Rosselli and other SEIU dissidents were purged, SEIU President Andy Stern installed his own appointees to run UHW, including Dave Regan, a member of the SEIU national executive board from Ohio. Since this controversial headquarters take-over, more than 9,000 workers in nearly 20 hospitals and nursing homes have defected to NUHW, which is now affiliated with and heavily financed by the California Nurses Association.

The latest attempt to decertify SEIU puts key questions facing labor in sharp relief: Can unions best protect past contract gains by cooperating with management, or by using strikes and workplace militancy to resist demands for givebacks? Should unions partner with employers on legislative and regulatory issues affecting their industry, or develop an independent agenda reflecting worker and consumer interests?

To see how these questions were playing out at Kaiser, I visited its shiny new "campus" in Vacaville, south of Sacramento, last week. In a scene replicated at 30 other Kaiser medical centers around the state, the competing unions both had information tables set up in the hospital cafeteria.

Red vs. Purple in Vacaville

Most NUHW-CNA supporters sported their signature red T-shirts. A smaller, less buoyant crowd of purple-clad SEIU activists staffed the opposite table, which was filled with literature critical of union militancy. SEIU-UHW campaign material took particular aim at recent picketing of Kaiser and Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, where, "NUHW-CNA has gone on strike 12 TIMES and they still have no contracts and are losing benefits." The flyer also quotes CNA Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro as saying at the Left Forum last year, "We're always out on strike."

Another SEIU-UHW mass mailer asks Kaiser workers, "Would you rather spend your time fighting or winning?" It assures NLRB election voters that SEIU-UHW takes "a balanced approach, working in partnership with Kaiser management when possible and taking them on strongly when necessary." As a result, "We have bargained the best contract in the hospital industry without losing a day of pay on strike."

In the NUHW-CNA corner of the cafeteria, a longtime medical records keeper named Jerry Corpus had a different view of that bargaining history. Corpus, who retired last month, comes from a big, extended Kaiser family: His wife is an unhappy SEIU member, his sister a CNA-represented nurse, his mother, brother, son, nephews and nieces are or have been on the Kaiser payroll. For more than a decade, during his own 23-year hospital career, Corpus was active in the pre-trusteeship UHW (then SEIU Local 250). Why did he curtail a long-planned, post-retirement fishing trip to campaign for NUHW-CNA? "If we stay with SEIU, it will affect my whole family," he explained.

According to Corpus, it was the pre-trusteeship UHW leaders, like Sal Rosselli, who helped members fight, for two decades, to achieve "the best contract in the hospital industry." Now, he believes, that agreement has been weakened by "many takeaways" and lack of union enforcement, particularly in the area of job security. Since the trusteeship, SEIU-UHW has agreed to pension and medical plan changes reducing Kaiser's benefit costs by $2.1 billion, during a period when it was racking up record profits of more than $8 billion. Kaiser's elimination of 1,000 jobs has gone largely uncontested by SEIU-UHW; job security is also being undermined through sub-contracting and use of "per diem" employees who should be converted to regular status.

"If you're a strong union, you're for the employee, not the employer," Corpus said. "But it doesn't seem like that's happening any more. The managers now are just walking all over people. When we were Local 250, management respected the union and the union kept us informed. We had steward councils and our local leaders never made a move unless employees first had a voice in the decision."

Corpus hardly fits the stereotype of a strike-happy union militant. His last role at Kaiser was in Human Resources; for many years he was the lead labor-management partnership (LMP) coordinator and trainer at Kaiser facilities in several counties north of San Francisco. Kaiser bills its labor-management partnership as an innovative program for non-adversarial labor relations, in which "front-line physicians, managers, and union members work together in unit-based teams to solve problems collaboratively." In his role as LMP coordinator, Corpus favored "interest-based problem solving" and helped create more than 125 unit-based teams.

Now, Corpus observes, if Kaiser workers have a job problem, they're constantly reminded by supervisors and their union that "we're in a partnership." In his view, "Management and labor now use it as a weapon against us."

'High-road Labor Relations'

In a costly pre-election media blitz, NUHW-CNA is showcasing its anti-partnership stance in ads informing the public that the two unions are "working together to make sure that Kaiser and other big hospitals don't put their wealth ahead of your health." These 30-second TV and radio spots feature, respectively, Kaiser nurses Catherine Kennedy and Monica Russo, who discuss a recent NUHW-initiated state crackdown on Kaiser for its managed-care deficiencies. "NUHW-CNA members just forced Kaiser to use its record profits to hire more mental-health clinicians to reduce long delays in care," the ads report.

This whistle-blowing approach is anathema to new UHW President Dave Regan and his allies in the hospital industry. Under Regan, SEIU-UHW has developed close ties with the California Hospital Association (CHA), which lobbies for Kaiser and other major healthcare chains. In an interview with the Sacramento Business Journal last year, CHA president Duane Dauner publicly praised Regan's business-friendly approach, while condemning the more adversarial stance of NUHW and CNA. "They look at management and employers as the enemy," Dauner said. "They draw a line in the sand. Anything management does, they are against. It's just 'give us more and more.'" In contrast, he noted, SEIU leaders "are working with us, and we are trying to work with them, on healthcare policy and high-road labor relations."

A huge infusion of CNA resources has enabled NUHW to field more than 125 organizers and afford mass mailings and ads, plus a door-to-door canvassing operation hired from outside. SEIU-UHW is flooding Kaiser facilities with its own army of full-time staff in advance of the election

Whether worker discontent with SEIU's organizational behavior in California reflects a militant minority or a new majority at Kaiser won't be known until the vote count begins on May 1, a day long associated with red, not purple, in the ranks of labor.

(Steve Early worked for 27 years as an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of America. He is the author of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, from Haymarket Books, which chronicles past California healthcare union conflicts. He has a forthcoming book from Monthly Review Press titled, Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress. A version of this article originally appeared at Working In These Times.)