California Health Care-SEIU Contract Rift Widens

seiu logoAndrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, has a dream: to make organized labor mighty again. He views huge increases in membership, most of all in his own 1.8 million-member union, as central to this campaign. And with a hike in rank and file must come a new approach to collective bargaining, with unions being more businesslike in running their organizations and less adversarial in their negotiations with employers. The May 7 issue of Union Corruption Update, relying on an earlier story in the San Francisco Bay Area alternative newspaper, SF Weekly, reported that the SEIU, with strong guidance from Stern, has put together sweetheart deals with dozens of California health-care providers. The result has been severely substandard contracts for workers employed at dozens of health care facilities and a 140,000-member Oakland-based SEIU affiliate, United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), left out in the cold. UHW chieftain Sal Rosselli already has denounced the agreements as sellouts. Now he’s taken his fight to a higher level.    


In a May 29 letter signed by 15 top officials of United Healthcare Workers West, Rosselli demanded an end to what he sees as undemocratic decision-making by SEIU top brass back in Washington, D.C. “Some in the national SEIU are negotiating an agreement with nursing home employers – in California and nationally – and have repeatedly excluded UHW nursing home members and elected representatives from the process,” he wrote. “Those agreements could restrict our nursing home members’ voices on the job and be implemented without affected members even having the right to vote.” It’s not as if he doesn’t have a case. Four years ago the SEIU and major California nursing home operators reportedly reached a secret agreement: The union would use its Democratic Party connections to expand state MediCal nursing home subsidies, but minus patient quality-of-care requirements – and employee collective-bargaining rights. Workers no longer could negotiate on their own issues of wages, benefits or working conditions. Carol Criss, a medical transcription specialist and UHW shop steward at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara, is leading a petition demanding that Stern scrap a plan to put international union representatives in charge of local bargaining. “Stern wants working relations with corporate America where they would accept unions, but they would be weak, ineffectual unions,” she said.

The UHW at this point appears to have nothing to lose. The SEIU now has stripped the union of all authority to represent nursing-home employees, reorganizing all affiliated locals into a new bargaining unit to be run by Stern ally Tyrone Freeman, head of Local 434B in Los Angeles. Still, the union insists it is adhering to democratic process, issuing the following statement: “SEIU has established a Nursing Home Unity Council where every local union, including UHW, is represented. Members through their locals on the Unity Council make decisions about any future national and state agreements with nursing home employers, and members will have the opportunity to vote on those agreements.” Neither side, however, appears willing to address a larger long-term obstacle to bargaining power: the high share of immigrants, especially from Mexico and other Hispanic countries, in the health care work force. Lacking in education and English-fluency relative to native-born workers, they are unable to press demands in the labor market. Nursing home operators surely are as aware of this as any union. That’s why they can afford to be stingy, secure in the knowledge that state taxpayers will bear the tab for higher MediCal costs. (SF Weekly, 6/13/07; other sources).