Union muscle

Old habits die hard. So when the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) recently filed suit against the Sacramento City Council for approving Sutter Health’s planned $460 million Midtown expansion project, it was no surprise to us when the usual suspects cried foul. It is absurd for the union to pretend that the project’s alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act are the real reason for the lawsuit, these critics insist. On the contrary, they charge that the lawsuit is an underhanded attempt to establish leverage in the union’s longstanding struggle to organize Sutter’s health-care workers.

To which we reply: So what if it is?

Is not the purpose of a union to organize workers, by whatever legal means necessary? Must the public heap scorn upon the SEIU for employing such duplicitous tactics, as suggested by its opponents, which include local power brokers, Chamber of Commerce types and Sutter administrators? We find the sudden cry for transparency from such quarters amusing, to say the least.

Indeed, we find no overwhelming reason to buy into the idea that the SEIU’s lawsuit is a not-so-stealthy power play. Where is it written that a union’s activities must be confined to the bargaining table? Rose Ann DeMora, executive director of the California Nurses Association, has written that unions must embrace the issues that concern all working Americans, including the decline in real wages, the lack of health care and ongoing environmental degradation. Who better to guard the rights of working people?

There’s no question that Sutter’s expansion will dramatically affect the Midtown environment—perhaps much more than the project’s boosters have let on. As the SEIU has noted, besides increasing traffic and noise pollution, “the project will harm local air quality by generating ultrafine particulate matter through diesel-powered equipment and the demolition of 10 to 14 buildings. Science has discovered that even minimal exposure to ultrafine particulate matter increases rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease and cancer. The harmful effects could be reduced if Sutter employed construction equipment with pollution-control devices such as particulate traps and catalytic oxidizers as well as cleaner alternative fuels.”

The union and neighborhood groups raised such concerns with the city council in December but were rebuffed; thus the lawsuit. The city attorney confidently predicts the suit will be defeated. If it is nothing more than a cynical attempt to force Sutter’s hand to the bargaining table, perhaps it should be.

Then again, maybe the impact of Sutter’s project deserves a second look. During last fall’s special election, public-employee unions flexed their muscles, defeating a six-time Mr. Olympia and giving voice to ordinary working people, union and non-union alike, across the state. Maybe that’s what’s happening right here in Midtown, and if the SEIU gains a few new members in the process, what’s wrong with that?