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Unions Eating Their Own

Not even a month past Labor Day, the holiest of union holidays, and the unions are waging war. These wars have developed into a pattern. The <acronym>SEIU</acronym>-UHW and the newly formed National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) are raiding each other’s membership. This battle will have a direct effect on everyone, not just those in the healthcare industry, in the form of healthcare quality and cost. In California, 43,000 Kaiser employees (and SEIU-UHW) members are voting on whether to stay with the SEIU-UHW or become members of the NUHW union.

Ricardo Torres President & CEO - PSLC

9/17/2010

Not even a month past Labor Day, the holiest of union holidays, and the unions are waging war. These wars have developed into a pattern. The <acronym>SEIU</acronym>-UHW and the newly formed National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) are raiding each other’s membership. This battle will have a direct effect on everyone, not just those in the healthcare industry, in the form of healthcare quality and cost. In California, 43,000 Kaiser employees (and SEIU-UHW) members are voting on whether to stay with the SEIU-UHW or become members of the NUHW union. This move is a clash of philosophies within the union movement.

The <acronym>SEIU</acronym> argues that a switch to NUHW will endanger everything in the workers’ existing Kaiser contract, including recently negotiated changes.

The NUHW says the question is “What kind of union workers should the union have. Will it be a “member-driven” union or a centralized union based in Washington”? The unions are, and have always been, divided into these two factions from the beginning but the division is growing. The 80’s, marked the beginning of external and internal pressure to decentralize the union’s base of power and a more radical movement was taking hold. Local supporters wanted a bigger say in the direction the union was taking. Most leaders, since then, have come into power from the far left but later moved to the center as they came into power.

While almost every new labor leader, like John Sweeney and Andrew Stern, comes into office from the far left of the labor movement (“industrial unionism”), they get hit with the reality of leadership and almost always resort back to a corporate style of unionism.

Health care is a potential billion dollar industry for unions with leaders like Sweeney and Stern (who preceded Sal Rosselli) who support a bottom- up or decentralize control system.

When you look at the history of the union movement you will see that new leaders predominantly were placed into power out of turmoil with a promise of peace, change, and a share of the power. They promise to lead from the bottom up, and promise union members that they will “be in control”.

A few examples are:

A young militant leader, John Sweeney, was elected President of the SEIU in 1980. Sweeney was elected to bring a new more aggressive face to the union. Sweeney got noticed because of his aggressive approach towards management and successful strike campaigns, One strike was implemented to wage war against the New York Realty Advisory Board (45,000 workers) a day before the union's contract was due to expire. After 17 days, the union won a new contract with significant wage and benefit increases.

Lane Kirkland refused to resign and announced he was running for re-election. The dissident members of the executive council argued for a change in leadership and policy. But Kirkland pointed to his administration's policies and initiatives and claimed that the dissidents were disloyal and power-hungry. Ten more unions announced their opposition to Kirkland's re-election. Now a total of 21 unions representing 56 percent of the delegates to the convention were opposed to Kirkland's presidency. Faced with such discouraging numbers, the delegates were victorious in their efforts and Kirkland announced that he would resign effective August 1.

Andrew Stern, an up and coming self proclaimed Leftist (Socialist) who Sweeney had put in charge of SEIU’s organizing department was planning his own takeover of the AFL/CIO. Along with leaders of the Wobblies (IWW), Stern differed from other union movements of the time by its promotion of industrial unionism, as opposed to the craft unionism of the AFL/CIO. Stern emphasized local leadership and rank-and-file organization, as opposed to empowering national leaders who would bargain with employers on behalf of workers. In Sterns early days, he refused to sign contracts which they felt would restrict the only true power that workers possessed; the power to strike.

The latest takeover culminated in a battle between then-<acronym>SEIU</acronym> President Andy Stern and local president Sal Rosselli over strategy. Stern decided to shift 65,000 home care workers out of Roselli’s Local and into another.

In 1996 as I was working to build the curriculum for the Organizers Institute with the AFL/CIO, we tried to develop a middle ground that would ease the dissent and complete chaos within the inner realm of the AFL/CIO.

Message Shift

Traditionally, nurses have had little interest in joining unions. They typically viewed themselves as professionals, in sharp contrast to the blue-collar workers which were traditionally organized by unions.

In order to gain support from nursing professionals, the AFL-CIO organizing department under Richard Bensinger implemented a master plan; steal the hospital’s message and use it against them. The union’s adopted a “Patient’s First” campaign.

Union’s knew that in order to make the necessary inroads with healthcare professionals they had to change their approach. Unions refined their messages and agenda. The shift in message and tactics has resulted in more union campaigns, more union victories, and higher union dues.

Healthcare unions are now instilling fears to the workers that the recent changes in the healthcare industry (including privatization of hospitals) will lead to a general decline in patient care.

Unions are promising nurses a louder voice in patient care. These promises provide healthcare workers the cover to support the union’s invasion of hospitals and healthcare facilities in spite of once held high ideas about what’s best for the patient and their community. In fact, nursing homes are a favorite target of unions because most can’t afford to fight their invasion tactics. When I was a Organizing Director, I taught my lead organizers to take a “recognize us or shut down” approach to long term health care.

A “catch-all” organizing approach has become so prevalent that unions with no direct connection to the health care industry have been trying to organize workers nationally. Operating Engineers, Food and Commercial Workers, Teachers, Communications Workers, Teamsters, Laborers, Public Employees, Steelworkers and Mine Workers have all jumped into the fray.

April 12, 2008, the SEIU’s anger against the CNA erupted, chaos ensured and fists flew. What did you aspect? This is a run for the brass ring and it goes way beyond these two unions. There are many up and coming union leaders who will be competing for leadership roles in the near future. These new leaders will also claim to support the “little guy” and have grand visions of how the healthcare industry should be run.

The healthcare industry is the knight on the proverbial white horse for unions. It is the fastest growing industry in the country with virtually every union fighting for their share and they will all do whatever it takes to win: “Victory by any means necessary.” Healthcare organizing will dramatically increase and the tactics will be much harder to counter.

AFL/CIO President Richard Trumka is determined to build on the momentum in healthcare. He is putting more money and resources into winning both healthcare and non-healthcare elections. Trumpka is emphasizing the need to target nontraditional states like Nevada, Texas, Arizona, and the southern states. Trunka also knows he can’t over play his hand and must strike a balance between the violence between unions. He clearly understands that the violence is a tool that will lead to his end goal but at the same time he must appear to show concern to build support. Trumpka recently stated, “Unfortunately, these issues have been submerged by an increasingly vicious turf war that is dividing and weakening the ability of health workers to fight the real enemy — management.”