Friday, January 30, 2009

United Healthcare Workers forms new union as SEIU moves against local

Lisbeth Latham
Months of simmering tension within the Service Employees International Union finally broke this week as the SIEU's leadership moved, on January 27, to place its third largest local the 150000 member United Healthcare Workers - West under trusteeship. The UHW-W board responded on January 28 with an announcement that they were resigning from the SEIU and would be moving to establish the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

The SEIU had given UHW-W two ultimatums on January 23, demanding that the Local accept transfer of 65,000 nursing home and homecare workers out of UHW against their will, or face an immediate takeover and the expulsion of more than 70 healthcare workers who were elected to lead the local union.

The UHW-W executive board replied to the SEIU stating "given the enormity of this decision and its vast implications for UHW members," the executive board wrote, "such a decision should be enacted by a fair membership vote on a local-by-local basis, not by executive fiat." Their letter called for a democratic voting process that is "consistent with the SEIU Constitution and follows the model of the merger between Local 250 and Local 399 that led to the creation of UHW in 2005, and the various mergers, including most recently of 1199NJ, and other local unions into 1199UHE." The SEIU had held a non-binding advisory vote in November and December, however only 8% of affected members voted and the UHW-W had run a boycott campaign against aspects of the ballot it argued were undemocratic.

Following the UHW-W refusal to meet the SEIU's demands, SEIU International President Andy Stern moved to place UHW-W in trusteeship. Under the trusteeship the Local's assets were frozen, dissolved the UHW-W executive board and removed from the payroll all full-time staff. The SEIU sent employers a memo saying that the SEIU was now in charge, that UHW staff no longer had any authority and that employers should report any contact by UHW staff.

UHW-W president Sal Rosselli told the January 29 LA Times that following the trusteeship employers had broken off negotiations and informed some of the union's stewards that they would no longer recognise their authority. SEIU executive vice-president Dave Regan, one of the co-trustees appointed by SEIU, said shop stewards and other rank-and-file representatives have not been stripped of their positions and are trying to ensure that all bargaining goes forward without delay.

The SEIU's move to place UHW-W under trusteeship follows the recommendations of trusteeship hearings held over November and December. These hearings were initiated to instigate financial irregularities with-in the UHW-W. Ray Marshal, Labor Secretary during the Carter administration, who was hired by the SEIU to conduct the hearings, found that the UHW-W had established a not for profit entity with the intention of funding confrontation with the SEIU's leadership. Marshal found that this was insufficient to warrant trusteeship, but recommended that the union be place in trusteeship if it continued to oppose the SEIU's previous decision to shift 65000 members from the UHW-W to a single local representing workers in long-term-care.

UHW-W leaders said it is unprecedented to have a trusteeship request denied, and argued that Marshall linked two unrelated disputes by tying his recommendations to the fate of UHW-W's long-term care members.

Rosselli told Labor Notes "We suspect that the hearing report from Secretary Marshall got amended by SEIU lawyers to get their desired outcome," UHW-W's former head Sal Rosselli said. "Frankly we don't have a lot of respect for it being some independent report or process."

Prior to the publication of Marshal's recommendations, the SEIU had already moved to establish a offices in Oakland and Los Angels from which to impose the trusteeship with staff from across the country being flown into California to help take over the UHW-W.

According to Labor Notes, although many staffers were initially told that UHW-related assignments would be voluntary, the International informed organisers that failure to travel to California will be "considered a resignation."

New Union Launched - National Union of Health Workers
Following the announcement of the trusteeship, thousands of UHW-W members rallied at UHW-W offices across California to express their anger at the trusteeship. Hundreds of members occupied UHW-W offices on January 27 and 28.

On January 28, the UHW-W executive board announced that they had formed the National Union of Healthcare Workers and would begin to collect union cards as a first step towards winning recognition in their workplaces.

Announcing the creating of the union, Rosselli said "As a healthcare workers union, NUHW is committed to continuing the tradition of a member-led, democratically controlled union. There are lot of things that we still have to figure out, but we know NUHW will be all about accountability to the members, democratic-decision-making, organizing the unorganized and winning improvements for healthcare workers and the patients and residents we serve."

The UHW-W had little choice but to establish a new union, the original push to conduct a disaffiliation ballot had little chance of success even prior to the trusteeship. The SEIU constitution makes it almost impossible to win such a ballot, not only are union staff not allowed to support such a campaign, if just seven members support a local remaining affiliated to the SEIU then disaffiliation is not possible.

Constructing a new union will also be exceeding difficult. It is not sufficient for members of the UHW-W to decide they wish to be members of the NUHW for the new union to get bargaining rights. The workers would first need to be in a workplace which is in an "open period" prior to contract expiration and then file for an election and then attempt to defeat the might of the SEIU. However the UHW-W renegotiated 100 contracts in 2008 so the process will take many years.

Despite these difficulties UHW-W members who want a democratic union have little choice but to form a new union. "For decades, healthcare workers in California have wanted to be part of a democratic, progressive movement that would raise standards for caregivers and the patients and residents we serve. Events over the last several days have proven that's not possible in SEIU," said Angela Glasper, a 20-year optical services clerk from Kaiser Permanente. "Healthcare workers deserve to be part of a union that healthcare workers control democratically, not one that is led by a handful of outsiders from Washington D.C.".


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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