Rank and riled

Local United Healthcare West workers protest their union’s takeover by Service Employees International

United Healthcare Workers West are concerned that patients and employees will suffer under Service Employees International Union rule. The SEIU claims that patients and employees will benefit.

United Healthcare Workers West are concerned that patients and employees will suffer under Service Employees International Union rule. The SEIU claims that patients and employees will benefit.

On January 27, Andy Stern, national president of Service Employees International Union, came one step closer to realizing his dream of uniting service employees under a single SEIU banner. But Stern’s dream is nothing less than a nightmare for local members of United Healthcare Workers West, the Oakland-based affiliate that’s the latest union to be swallowed whole by the SEIU, the second-largest labor union in the country.

UHW represents 150,000 health-care employees in California, including 28,000 in Sacramento. Late last month, Stern placed UHW in trusteeship, a legal maneuver that amounts to a hostile takeover of the union and its members. SEIU suspended the union’s constitution and bylaws, seized its financial assets and removed 100 elected union officials, including UHW head Sal Rosselli.

More than a few local UHW members are livid about the takeover, including John Boros, an administrative vice president from Sacramento.

“The only people happy with the SEIU takeover are the bosses, especially those of nursing homes,” Boros said. “SEIU negotiates agreements that give away gains for patients and workers.”

Rosselli publicly criticized Stern in January 2007 for agreeing to a pact with the Tenet nursing-home chain in California that barred workers from striking for seven years. A year later, Rosselli, as president of the SEIU California State Council, knocked Stern’s stance on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failed health-care initiative. Stern’s response? He disbanded the entire state council, then stacked it with members more amenable to his positions.

Like Boros, Paul Kumar was an elected UHW official fired in the SEIU takeover. Kumar fleshed out some details of the SEIU approach to bargaining for nursing-home contracts.

“Under these agreements, the total cost of workers’ economic package was determined by a fixed formula, and the elements of the package could be adjusted unilaterally by the employer,” he said. “No grievances could proceed to arbitration other than terminations. Workers were prohibited from publicly reporting any resident-care concerns other than those for which reporting was legally required, under a clause that allowed employers to contest any such reports as attempts at ‘leverage.’ The union was forbidden from advocating for or against any legislative or regulatory action impacting the nursing-home industry without employers’ consent.”

Before the SEIU trusteeship, elected members of UHW such as Louis Rosario, a lab assistant and an elected UHW shop steward at Methodist Hospital in South Sacramento, and Sharon Martinez, a medical transcriptionist and an elected shop steward at Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital, were actively involved in contract talks with their employer, Catholic Healthcare West.

One outcome of UHW’s involvement was to create a third-party mediation structure to judge members’ claims of employers failing to meet legal staffing levels for patients. For UHW, patient advocacy works best when its members are involved in the oversight process with their employers and impartial mediators.

Some members haven’t been able to wrap their heads around the SEIU’s actions.

“UHW employees do not understand the reasons for the SEIU trusteeship,” said Rosario. “I and other UHW members have been trying to communicate with SEIU leaders. They have responded to our requests by treating us like stepchildren.”

In Sacramento, a few days after UHW was placed in trusteeship, its members occupied the union’s Midtown office building. Banners opposing the SEIU hung on either side of the doorway; some members even brought their patients.

“Stern needs a court order to make us leave,” said Ricardo Hagen, a local UHW home-care worker.

UHW shop steward Robert Thyfault questioned the SEIU’s commitment to representing the rank and file.

“I got a call last night from SEIU that its takeover was to save me from a lack of democracy,” he said. “If the takeover was democratic, I would have voted for it.”

UHW shop steward Robert Thyfault provides in-home care to his wife, Cynthia. He’s concerned that the SEIU takeover will be detrimental to both him and his wife.

Photo By Anne Stokes

A short time later, SEIU took control of the UHW building.

“Today we bring an end to a sad chapter in the life of a local union with great members, whose leadership lost their way, engaged in serious financial wrongdoing, refused to end their attempts to subvert the democratic processes of this union and failed to take action against reported decertification efforts,” Stern said. “This trusteeship is grounded in the clear facts found in Secretary Marshall’s report and the direct actions of Sal Rosselli and the officers of UHW.”

In a 105-page report on January 21, Ray Marshall, labor secretary for former President Jimmy Carter, found that UHW improperly transferred members’ dues into education and political-action accounts and misused an SEIU database.

Rosselli “seriously disagreed with Marshall’s findings on the “factual areas” of Stern’s allegations.

The money in question was used to fight the SEIU takeover and was returned to the union, according to Rosselli. “No UHW official benefited from that,” he said.

Indeed, Marshall’s report found the alleged financial transgressions “were merely symptoms of the basic underlying cause of the conflict between UHW and the International Union.” He recommended placing UHW in trusteeship “only if the UHW leaders don’t agree to abide by and cooperate with the International Executive Board’s January 2009 decision over long-term care.”

Marshall gave UHW five days to make a choice: Shift 65,000 of its long-term (home-care and nursing-home) workers into a single local statewide or face an SEIU takeover.

In December, there was an advisory vote on two merger options for 300,000 eligible SEIU members in California, including 150,000 members of UHW. About 25,000 of the eligible workers, barely 8 percent, voted to join a statewide local of 240,000 long-term-care workers from affiliates in San Jose, Los Angeles and Oakland-based UHW. In January, Stern’s executive board voted to approve that option.

UHW offered a counterproposal to SEIU’s ultimatum, agreeing to most of the demands but seeking to retain local control of the union through a democratically elected leadership that works closely with worksite leaders and rank-and-file members.

Stern responded to the UHW counterproposal by placing the local into trusteeship, closing the chapter on the conflict by appointing two SEIU executive vice presidents, Eliseo Medina and Dave Regan. They lead UHW now, to the disenchantment of some members in Sacramento.

“We don’t want Andy Stern’s appointed leaders,” said Marcel Berry, an in-home care provider and UHW member, in his office before SEIU took it over. “He is trying to silence us.”

Now that the union has been placed in trusteeship, some members are questioning the objectivity of the process, noting that Stern appointed and paid for Marshall as a hearing officer.

“A process like this would never be allowed in any union contract,” said Beverly Griffith, a UHW member in Oakland. “In my own contract, a hearing officer is a mutually selected neutral third party, who acts as an independent arbitrator. This is an injustice and a double standard.”

According to SEIU, its trusteeship of UHW and the pending formation of a new California union of a 250,000 long-term-care workers could by sheer force of size prevent politicians from cutting vital health-care services to balance the state’s budget deficit.

But UHW’s Hagen questions SEIU’s ability to look out for the interests of his clients or him. Currently, he earns $10.40 per hour providing home-care for a disabled and elderly woman. Hagen fears that SEIU will agree to California spending cuts that drop his pay to the state minimum wage of $8 per hour.

One day after UHW was placed in trusteeship, ousted leaders and rank-and-file members announced they would form the National Union of Healthcare Workers to represent workers who want to decertify SEIU as their representatives. The fledgling union has already filed election petitions with a half-dozen Sacramento area Catholic Healthcare West facilities, and Rosselli does not intend to give up the fight.

“SEIU should get out of the way and let workers join the NUHW,” he said.