Division of labor

Health-care unions duke it out at Kaiser hospitals

Stay or go? That’s the choice for 4,000 Kaiser Permanente service and technical workers in the Sacramento area.

They and close to 36,000 fellow employees statewide are voting by mail to join the National Union of Healthcare Workers or to remain in the United Healthcare Workers local of the Service Employees International Union.

The election could be a huge loss for the powerful SEIU and a victory for controversial labor warrior Sal Rosselli. Rosselli was ousted from SEIU in a power struggle last year and formed the breakaway NUHW immediately thereafter (see “Rank and riled”; SN&R Frontlines; February 12, 2009).

SEIU-UHW hopes the strength of its new Kaiser contract will convince members to stay put. Workers overwhelmingly approved that pact in the middle of one of the worst economic crises in U.S. history, said Steve Trossman, SEIU-UHW spokesman.

But NUHW leaders say SEIU wields too much power over members’ dues. Sonia Askew is an optician at the Kaiser facility in south Sacramento. The 14-year Kaiser employee backs NUHW.

“Over the last 18 months, SEIU-UHW has agreed with Kaiser to reduce our retirement pension without a vote from members,” Askew said. According to her, SEIU-UHW sealed other dubious deals with Kaiser. She said one such deal affected union members’ pharmacy benefits without their taking part.

Askew was an elected shop steward with SEIU-UHW until it was taken over and placed into trusteeship by the national SEIU union 19 months ago. Rosselli and other local officials were accused by higher-ups of misusing union dues. The national SEIU suspended the union’s constitution and bylaws, seized its financial assets, removed 100 elected union officials and replaced them with appointed executives. Askew said NUHW has a more democratic approach to workers’ rights on the job.

The National Labor Relations Board is overseeing the three-week election from September 13 to October 4. This is the largest mail vote in NLRB history, according to Nancy Cleeland, director of public affairs for the 75-year-old federal agency.

Kaiser serves roughly 6.5 million patients in California. Jolene Camp, a medical assistant at the Kaiser facility in Roseville, said she is sticking with SEIU-UHW.

“In our new union contract with Kaiser, my family and I kept my employer-paid health-care benefits,” Camp said. Kaiser recently increased the costs of health-care benefits (co-pays and deductibles) for its managers and nonunion employees. Camp said she doesn’t want to risk her benefits, along with 3 percent raises annually over the three-year contract, by choosing to join NUHW.

But according to Cleeland with the NLRB, “An employer is required to maintain existing contract terms when a new union is selected to represent bargaining unit employees, subject to further bargaining.”

In fact, an NLRB decision on August 27 spelled that issue out relative to negotiated benefits and wages in Southern California, where Kaiser workers voted for representation from NUHW instead of SEIU-UHW.