CA Health Unions Have Forgotten Solidarity Forever

John Commins, February 1, 2010

Woody Guthrie must be spinning in his grave. His rousing labor song "Union Maid" warns working men and women about "goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid."

So what would Woody make of the internecine organizing battles for healthcare workers in California? The fight that pits the giant Service Employees International Union against the upstart National Union of Healthcare Workers has been most remarkable for its very public vitriol. These guys hate each other, and they're not bashful about saying it.

"We don't trust them with our contracts, and we don't trust them with our dues," NUWH supporter Shayne Silba, a psychiatric technician with Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, said of the SEIU at a media conference.

I'll spare you the "he-said she said" of the fight, which started more than a year ago when the California leadership of an SEIU Oakland local was ousted by the national office amid allegations of financial mismanagement. The ousted SEIU officials formed the NUHW, and the battle was joined. For more than a year, California  media have provided scintillating stories about the two sides throwing knives—and the knife drawer, pots, pans, and the kitchen sink—at one another.

It's been an ugly divorce.

Last week, SEIU suffered a major defeat when workers at Kaiser Permanente hospitals in Southern California voted overwhelmingly to accept NUHW as their union. The vote capped months of bad-mouthing from both sides. Bad feelings linger.

"We heard they were thugs and henchmen and cronies out to destroy our union," Denny Henriques, an SEIU supporter and respiratory therapist at Sutter Delta Medical Center told the Los Angeles Times. "It wasn't true. They've represented us well."

Henriques wasn't talking about KP management's anti-union campaign. He was talking about NUHW.

In fact, about the only people you didn't hear from in the KP union battle was KP management. Wisely, KP watched from the sidelines, and kept quiet.

"Kaiser Permanente respects the right of our employees to choose whether they want to be represented by a union and which union will represent them," said John Nelson, a spokesman for KP. "We have a long history of working constructively with the unions that our employees select to represent them. We did not favor one union over the other in the elections . . . We will bargain in good faith with the certified union. Any questions concerning the outcome of the elections or next steps in the legal processes should be addressed to the NLRB."

John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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