Labor’s Growing Pains: SEIU Battles the California Nurses–and Dissidents Within Its Own Ranks

Source: Esther Kaplan, Nation, June 16, 2008

The biggest union feud since the AFL-CIO split three years ago, some would say, began in Ohio. The way Dave Regan tells it, the Service Employees union (SEIU) first began its effort to organize Catholic hospitals there in the small city of Lorain, just west of Cleveland, in 1999. Regan is president of a union that spans Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, one of SEIU’s newly merged megalocals at the heart of the international union’s ambitious plans for turning around labor’s decline. The 500 or so nurses at the facility faced, he recalls, a “classic, textbook, very intense, very nasty election environment.” The hospital hired antiunion consultants and campaigned aggressively against unionization, pulling in nurses for mandatory staff meetings, as well as for intimidating one-on-ones with their supervisors. According to one organizer, nuns serving as hospital administrators even hinted to the nurses that voting union was a sin.

In Lorain, the nurses did vote in the union, by a slim, sixteen-vote margin–and then, also typically, faced a thirteen-month battle to win their first contract. Along the way, the nurses called two daylong strikes to block the hospital’s demand for an open shop; each time, management punished the strikers with four-day suspensions. Through contract fights in subsequent years, Regan says, “we struggled and fought and built an organization that our members there are very proud of”; one nurse, galvanized by the experience, went on to become a state senator.

The hospital in Lorain is part of a Catholic chain that is the largest hospital system in the state. In many places, in the wake of steel mill closures, these hospitals have become the biggest employer in town. “So we started to think about the system as a whole,” says Regan, “and we decided to create a campaign the object of which was to secure the right for Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP) workers, across the system, to be able to vote on whether to join the union without going through the intense, negative conditions that existed in 1999.” What they sought was “employer neutrality,” the brass ring of today’s large-scale union organizing campaigns, which use corporate campaigns to pressure employers not to fight unionization drives.

What followed was a three-year corporate campaign. SEIU activists mailed out literature about fair unionization rules to elected officials, clergy and advocacy groups. … The culmination of this effort was an election slated to take place in mid-March at nine of the system’s twenty-one Ohio hospitals, with the possibility that up to 8,300 workers would unionize in the span of a week. The union’s public pressure had produced an agreement with CHP for a vote “free from coercion.” The employees were informed of the election two weeks in advance by means of a civilized letter, cosigned by CHP and SEIU, a jointly written fact sheet and a broadside from each party arguing, in language so dull as to scarcely be persuasive, for (SEIU) and against (CHP) the union. Each side set up a toll-free number for questions, and that was that. Neither side would say a word to the workers until after election day. SEIU had taken the concept of neutrality to a whole new level, applying it to the union as well. And the stakes were high. As CHP spokesman Orest Holubec says, if the election had gone smoothly, “it stands to reason that we’d continue the process in other regions.”

Enter the California Nurses, dozens of whom arrived in Ohio clad in scrubs and armed with anti-SEIU propaganda. What was to Regan an “enormous breakthrough” was, to the famously militant nurses union, a disturbing development in what they’ve come to see as SEIU’s corporate-friendly unionism, whose apotheosis was SEIU president Andy Stern’s joint press conference last year with Wal-Mart on healthcare reform. The fliers the nurses spent three days handing out in front of the Ohio hospitals asked, Democracy or Dictatorship? and called the upcoming vote a “back room deal” by the hospital to force nurses into a “‘sweetheart’ union.”

“In this environment, it was like setting off a bomb,” says Regan. “In a traditional campaign, where both sides are attacking each other, we prepare workers for months for what they’ll hear so they can put it in context. But in this case, we never prepared anyone.” And because of the neutrality deal, SEIU couldn’t say a word in response. Within days, the vote was called off, suspended indefinitely. Talk with anyone at SEIU who was involved, and the rage is palpable. Ohio will go down in labor history as the place where two of the nation’s most ambitious, visionary, fastest-growing unions declared war.

Leave a Reply