Dueling unions battle for the loyalty of Salinas Valley hospital workers.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
I t’s D-Day for Ernesto Gonzalez and a team of workers campaigning in a hard-fought union-versus-union contest at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital.
The Service Employees International Union, the nation’s largest, is battling the former leaders of its powerhouse statewide health care local, United Healthcare Workers West, which has started its own National Union of Health Care Workers at hospitals and nursing homes across California. The ultimate winner is likely to become a dominant player in California’s health care industry.
On Thursday, April 22, 850 workers at the Salinas hospital will choose which union will represent them in a vote-by-mail contest to be decided in mid-May.
“What we’re fighting for is true union democracy,” says Gonzalez, an NUHW backer. “The union is about your co-workers. It’s only as strong as its supporters.”
But SEIU loyalist James Stogner, an operating room technician, argues it’s irresponsible to go with the fledgling NUHW because it lacks the money and membership of the larger union.
Over Thai iced tea and a steaming tureen of spicy soup at Main Street eateryz, Gonzalez and two other NUHW activists say they were angered when SEIU swept in and, with the stroke of a pen, removed the union’s elected stewards and bargaining committee and replaced them with paid union reps they say no one knew.
The vote comes as the SEIU’s powerful president, Andy Stern, surprised labor-watchers with a decision to retire.
Under Stern’s leadership, SEIU has grown at a time when most unions are hemorrhaging membership. But critics charge the growth has come at the expense of worker control. They cite agreements with big employers that weren’t disclosed to local leadership and which offered concessions in exchange for the union’s right to organize workers without employer opposition.
The current fight started when the SEIU announced plans to move a third of its health care members out of the UHW and into a Los Angeles-based affiliate. Local leaders rebelled, arguing that workers deserved to vote on the question.
SEIU national officers took over California’s 150,000-membership health care local, replacing elected leaders with national staff. Those leaders responded by starting the NUHW and petitioning for elections at hospitals and nursing homes statewide. The SEIU has sued, and won a judgment against NUHW in federal court.
In Salinas, both sides agree the middle-class wages and top-tier health care benefits guaranteed in their union contract, which is up for renegotiation this August, are at stake in the election.
SEIU supporter Stogner is one of many part-time workers who want to share in the bounty.
“We would like to restructure the contract so it’s easier for people to become employees,” Stogner says. “I get no benefits, no insurance, no accumulated vacation time, and can be dropped from the schedule at any time.”
Labor activists across the state are taking sides in the debate. Former United Farm Worker’s union co-founder Dolores Huerta is set to campaign for the NUHW Thursday, while another iconic former UFW organizer, Eliseo Medina, now an SEIU vice president, is leading the fight on the other side.
“Meanwhile, I’m sure hospitals and nursing homes are laughing up a storm,” says Ray Abernathy, a prominent D.C. labor consultant who has worked with the opposing players.
Locally, workers on both sides point to a bright spot—a real debate over the union’s direction and a jump in activism.