Comment on this article |
View comments |
Email this article |
News :: Labor
A Victory for Union Democracy in Oregon
by Shamus Cooke
Email: shamuscooke (nospam) gmail.com
15 Feb 2014
SEIU 503 Rank and Filers Defeat Mega-Local Merger
Union democracy triumphed in Oregon February 1 when rank-and-file members of Service Employees Local 503 organized to reject a top-down merger with SEIU Local 49. The merger would have created a two-state, 65,000-member mega-local in the Pacific Northwest.
Union leaders—the upper echelon of elected leaders taking their marching orders from the staff—had strongly pushed a “yes” vote for nearly a year. They used union resources and staff organizers to promote a pro-merger vote to the union’s General Council, a governing body that consisted of 198 elected delegates.
But several “sub-local” presidents and other officers organized to educate delegates and advocate a “no” vote. We used Facebook, emails, leafleting, and phonebanking to get our message out.
At the vote meeting, “no” speakers outnumbered “yes” speakers three to one. And opposition organizers were ecstatic when the tally was announced: 120 no, 75 yes, and three abstentions.
Is Bigger Better?
Each of the two locals already encompasses several different industries. SEIU 503, the larger by far, includes workers in homecare, state and local government, and private nonprofits. Most members of SEIU 49 are health care workers or janitors.
Merger supporters’ main arguments were that bigger is better, bigger means more political power, and merging would help fend off the attacks unions are facing.
Initially they stressed the threat of a “right-to-work” ballot measure coming to Oregon. But once word got out that the measure probably wouldn’t make it to the ballot, the emphasis changed to the anti-union climate.
Why did we organize against the merger plan?
For one, the rushed process was undemocratic. The appointed committees responsible for shaping the merged union met in private. Members weren’t even allowed to hear the committee’s discussions.
Suddenly in December, proposed bylaws were released with no opportunity to amend. The only options were “yes” or “no”—and delegates were under heavy pressure to vote “yes.”
The proposed bylaws were less democratic than those now in place at 503. The merged union would have restricted the General Council, the union’s top decision-making body, to meeting every three years, versus every two years now.
The General Council functions much like the state AFL-CIO convention: it’s the site of lively debate over resolutions that cover a wide span of union issues. For instance, at the last General Council I submitted a resolution for our union’s representatives to the public employee benefits board to be elected by the membership (it failed); a resolution endorsing Obama for President garnered significant opposition. Any delegate can speak on the resolutions.
The board of directors, which governs in between these meetings, would have grown from 40 to a bloated 80-plus members, and met only four times a year (down from six). The rest of the year, a tiny executive board of 12 would have governed the union.
The merger would have essentially gone with SEIU 49’s governance and dues structure—even though 49, with 10,000 members, is much smaller than 503, with 55,000.
Many SEIU 503 members simply wanted to keep their union intact, with the bylaws they had shaped and defended. Members had voted down the leadership’s previous attempts to change General Council from every two years to three, and to extend officer term limits from two to three years.
Others distrusted the rationale behind the merger, assuming the International union was the real motivating force—the assumption being that the International wanted 503 and 49 to resemble mega-locals elsewhere.
Strategy and Tactics
Merger opponents organized through the Committee for a Strong Union (CFSU), begun three years ago as a Facebook group for members to discuss and organize against a concessionary contract bargained by the union’s state worker arm. Afterward, some CFSU members ran for various union offices, with the group’s support.
These mostly-failed efforts taught the group valuable lessons in organizing—though many of CFSU’s members grew discouraged, finding it “impossible” to successfully organize anything not supported by the union leadership with its immense resources.
The retirees sub-local of SEIU 503 was especially outspoken against the merger. CFSU worked with retirees to release a statement signed by two 503 past presidents and by the current retirees local officers:
“We [retirees] spent years writing, amending and voting on our Constitution and By-Laws that protect and define us as a member run union. This is our legacy to future union members. Vote NO for this proposal [merger] to make our union strong!”
A crucial point in the campaign came when the local’s immediate past president, Linda Burgin, came out fiercely against merger.
Burgin had participated in some of the appointed committees planning the merger. She told the board of directors:
“When [merger] committee members raised issues, we were told to trust our leaders, who would ‘fix things later…’ The [new] constitution and bylaws were written not by our General Council, but by Locals 49 and 503 staff. Committee members suggested changes, but they were clearly not welcome suggestions, and most were not incorporated in the document. The Unified Constitution and Bylaws totally changed our union structure.”
Dueling Email Blasts
As the vote neared, CFSU sent an email blast to all delegates, incorporating Burgin’s and the retirees’ statements along with others co-authored by officers who had participated in the merger process. It also included “10 Reasons to Vote No,” such as “bigger unions are not always better”:
When a union gets too big democracy faces new challenges. Most members already feel alienated from their governing body, the Board of Directors. A bigger Board of Directors will create most distance between members and the Board of Directors. A less Democratic governing structure—with less frequent General Councils—will result in a less engaged membership, which will make for a weaker union.
The email blast received an immediate positive response from many General Council delegates, who were not even aware anyone was opposed to the merger. Some of these delegates joined in CFSU’s efforts and helped organize on the day of the vote.
The union leadership responded immediately by mimicking our email blast: they sent out their own email with “10 Reasons to Vote Yes.”
CFSU also organized a phonebank to delegates that won some additional votes.
Day of the Vote
On the day of General Council, CFSU brought a packet of the above-mentioned documents and another called “Four Myths of Unification.”
[Myth #2] We need to create a new union in order to fight political attacks: This myth ignores the fact that, when it comes to politics, SEIU 503 and 49 have been unified for years. The two unions already coordinate closely on political campaigns, and share a unified process for screening and endorsing political candidates. When it comes to fighting anti-union ballot measures, the unions also share resources, in coordination with the International. Creating an entirely new union adds zero value to the existing political dynamic.
We handed these packets to delegates as they registered and engaged them in conversation. Many said they were changing their votes to “no” after these discussions.
When the meeting began, CFSU joined forces with other “no” voters to craft and pass a motion to amend the agenda to allow Burgin equal time: after the current president spoke in favor of the merger, Burgin was allowed 20 minutes to speak against it.
For the discussion, CFSU had organized many “no” speakers, so that a diversity of arguments was expressed.
After the victory, everyone involved felt fired up with the power of rank-and-file organizing. We are now inspired to organize for the upcoming General Council in August, where members can submit new resolutions. We want to use this opportunity to steer the union’s policies in a more progressive direction and extend democracy further.
This work is in the public domain
Re: A Victory for Union Democracy in Oregon
by Steve Early
rand.wilson (nospam) gmail.com (unverified)
16 Feb 2014
May 07, 2013
Thirty-one months ago, when the Service Employees International Union first defeated the National Union of Healthcare Workers in a unit of 45,000 service and technical workers at Kaiser Permanente in California, SEIU leader Dave Regan proclaimed that “NUHW is now, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant.”
That obituary proved a little premature. Rank-and-file supporters of NUHW remained alive and kicking, not only at Kaiser but also in other healthcare workplaces around the state. Using member-based internal and external organizing methods, NUHW largely bucked the national tide of concession bargaining in nearly 20 new units composed of previously unorganized workers or SEIU defectors.
With strong financial backing from its new affiliation partner, the California Nurses Association, NUHW has been gearing up since January for a re-run of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election at Kaiser. SEIU had won the first round in October 2010 with 18,290 votes to NUHW’s 11,364.
A major theme of the joint NUHW-CNA campaign this year was the need to resist SEIU’s damaging contract concessions to Kaiser and other hugely profitable California hospital chains. To back up their own anti-concessions stance, NUHW and CNA members at Kaiser conducted two of the four largest strikes in the U.S. since 2011. During both of these statewide walkouts, SEIU urged its followers to ignore the picket lines set up by unions that don’t participate in the “Labor-Management Partnership” (LMP) led by SEIU.
When the votes were tallied at the NLRB regional office in Oakland yesterday, NUHW support in Kaiser’s largest bargaining unit had increased by 15 percent—but SEIU, the vocal opponent of striking and fan of partnership, won again with 18,844 votes versus NUHW’s 13,101. (Another 334 workers chose no union).
For hundreds of Kaiser LMP participants headed toward the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim for a big weekend meeting in the Magic Kingdom Ballroom (located in the hotel’s Fantasy Tower), SEIU’s victory yesterday was good news indeed.
Delegates to that fun-filled confab are scheduled to discuss “the future of unions and health care partnerships” with speakers like multi-millionaire Bernard Tyson, the incoming Chairman and CEO of Kaiser, who will offer “his view of partnership and how it can become a strategic differentiator for Kaiser” as the hospital chain “face[s] the demands of health care reform.” (See the full agenda here.)
Another keynoter earlier today was Dave Regan, whose post-election statement deplored the amount of money being spent on inter-union competition at Kaiser “at a time when unionization is down to 7 percent in the private sector.” According to Regan, “it’s time for people like the leaders of NUHW and CNA, who call themselves ‘progressives,’ to focus on organizing non-union workers instead of attacking people who already are in a union and have the best contract in the country.” Regan will no doubt be arguing that SEIU’s friendly relationship with Kaiser insures future membership growth as the giant HMO expands its workforce by 90,000 to meet the increased demand for healthcare generated by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Meanwhile, several hundred of those Kaiser union members supposedly under attack gathered at the NLRB to observe the vote count yesterday or await the outcome a few blocks away at CNA headquarters. These NUHW supporters were definitely not pleased with the results. Most were off the job, at their own expense, or came long distances after work on their own time. Yet, when the trend in favor of the incumbent union became clear, the previously planned and hoped-for victory party in downtown Oakland didn’t dissolve into tears.
Instead, the roomful of red T-shirt wearers began an impromptu rank-and-file speak out about how a militant minority of Kaiser workers, still trapped in a management-oriented union, could continue their struggle to replace it with something better. As posed by one NUHW activist, the question facing everyone was “what are we going to do tomorrow?”
“We were hopeful this time would be different than last time,” said Roberto Alvarez, a 17-year Kaiser X-ray technician from southern California. “In Orange County, we tripled the support for NUHW, so it was a great leap forward for us there. We know what the future is with SEIU, so what we have to do now is keep on fighting.”
That future, according to Alvarez and others interviewed yesterday, will include further deterioration of working conditions, weak enforcement of the “best contract in the country,” and, at some point, major SEIU give-backs on pensions, job security, and medical coverage for active employees. These takeaways have already been won by Kaiser competitors like Dignity Healthcare and Daughters of Charity Health System.
“My theory is that SEIU has promised Kaiser a lot of stuff, cuts that are coming down sooner or later, now that the election is out of the way,“ Alvarez said.
What Strategy Now?
The usual rank-and-file strategy for resisting concessions and trying to change the direction of a union calls for replacing the existing leadership. Elect new stewards, bargaining committee members, and local officers willing to wage a more effective fight.
But NUHW supporters believe there are few opportunities to do that within the SEIU structure, given the experience of workers at Kaiser and other California hospitals when they tried to reform SEIU nationally in 2008. That effort led to the ouster of all their elected officers. Their statewide local, United Healthcare Workers, was put under trusteeship and hundreds of key workplace leaders resigned or were removed as shop stewards and Kaiser “contract specialists.”
The strong union activists sidelined by this SEIU coup helped sustain, and have now added to, NUHW’s shop floor support, as reflected in the latest vote count. In some facilities, their network has majority support and could wrest bargaining rights away from SEIU if petitioning for decertification elections at individual Kaiser hospitals was legally possible.
Since 2010, these “member organizers” also enabled NUHW to win bargaining rights for 4,000 Kaiser workers in smaller professional and technical units who could switch unions more easily. All are still engaged in protracted negotiations with Kaiser, which has stonewalled NUHW to give its larger union rival a much-used campaign talking point: ie all NUHW (and CNA) do is fight the boss, never win a contract.
NUHW backers’ deep estrangement from SEIU is obviously not yet shared by enough of their co-workers, who again opted for the security of the status quo rather than the perceived risk of changing unions.
“There was no way NUHW or CNA could convince us to give up our great wages, health coverage, pension and job security, especially since NUHW has been unable to bargain a contract at Kaiser for more than three years,” said Cleto Delizo, a Kaiser worker from Sacramento quoted in a SEIU’s post-election press release. “This is now settled, once and for all, and we are ready to give all of our attention to doing our jobs providing the best possible care to our patients.”
NUHW-CNA organizers believed they had made greater progress overcoming SEIU’s campaign of strike-baiting and fear-mongering about restarting negotiations with Kaiser under a more militant union banner. That major change in union representation would have meant beginning negotiations on a successor agreement right away, with a lot more membership education, agitation, and organization than SEIU-UHW encourages these days. Although the old Kaiser contract terms would have remained in effect during these talks, SEIU argued that its current 3-year agreement with the HMO provided more worker security and protection, without the burden of having to become more involved in union activity.
Pre-election assessments, done systematically and in multiple ways by NUHW-CNA supporters, showed that 18,000 to 19,000 workers were ready to vote against SEIU anyway, an estimate that proved to be off by more than 5,000.
In a post-election message to NUHW supporters, union president Sal Rosselli said he was “stunned by these election results.” NUHW’s post-election statement applauded the courage of its thousands of supporters who stood up against “fear, intimidation, and collusion with management” and “voted for change in a tough economy.”
Some CNA activists predict that Kaiser may now feel emboldened to intensify its current “offensive against nurses” in the run-up to their contract negotiations next year. Already, one CNA rep reports, RNs face daily hassles over Kaiser’s unilaterally imposed and punitive attendance policy, plus increased workloads due to understaffing.
However, CNA believes the widespread engagement of its 17,000 Kaiser members with the service and technical workers provided a kind of “boot camp” for building their own 2014 contract campaign. “Nurses gained far greater unity among themselves to fight Kaiser than any bargaining prep would offer,” CNA Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro observed. “We have always needed worker solidarity to defeat the corporate agenda.”
The “unity across classifications” forged at Kaiser during the latest round of NUHW-CNA resistance to the LMP is not without its potential fault lines. But, according to Rosselli, “that unity is not going away. It will persist in our workplaces, in the friendships we’ve made, and in the continued affiliation between NUHW and CNA. It will fuel our continued struggle to stop the cuts that Kaiser is trying to force down our throats with the shameful complicity of SEIU-UHW.”
Pursuing a “minority union” organizing approach, while awaiting the next decertification election “window period” when SEIU’s contract with Kaiser expires in 2015, will require a further commitment of resources by the CNA. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, CNA financial backing for NUHW this year totaled $4 million–on top of the $2 million in loans made to the new union when it was founded in 2009.SEIU’s Regan acknowledged yesterday that his union spent $4 million to $5 million to retain its bargaining rights, and claimed that CNA devoted $8 million to NUHW’s campaign at Kaiser.
The smaller number of organizers assigned to assist NUHW supporters, on a continuing basis, will have plenty to do, as will the hospital-level committees that must now shift their focus from the demands of NLRB electioneering to day-to-day organizing around workplace issues.
“We’ve got to stay organized, support each other, and remain defiant,” said George Wong, who works for Kaiser in San Francisco. “There’s going to be another day, and the fight will continue—because it has to.