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Kaiser employees strike
Kaiser employees strike in May 2011 over a contract impasse after 1,100 nurses switched to NUHW in January 2010.

Merged union girds for battle

NUHW, CNA aim for Kaiser workers from SEIU

By Ashok Selvam
Posted: January 26, 2013 - 12:01 am ET

The National Union of Healthcare Workers and the California Nurses Association want to rally workers to take a more aggressive stance in collective bargaining, and to do that, they're ready to tear down the relationships its rival Service Employees International Union has built with some large health systems.

Officials from the two California unions describe their merger as a step toward becoming a national foil to SEIU. But it may not mean much unless the NUHW wins its bid to poach 43,000 Kaiser Permanente workers from SEIU—United Healthcare Workers West. NUHW now represents only 4,000 workers at Kaiser hospitals.

NUHW Secretary-Treasurer John Borsos said the election will be held in the spring.

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An affiliation agreement announced this month brings together NUHW's 10,000 members in California with the 85,000 members of the California Nurses Association.

The election would be a redo. NUHW filed a complaint before the National Labor Relations Board alleging Kaiser gave SEIU preferred treatment in 2010 labor elections when SEIU-UHW won. The NLRB since ordered another election. A Kaiser spokesman said in an e-mail that the system “remains supportive of our employees' choice in this matter, and is entirely neutral in the dispute between NUHW and SEIU-UHW.”

Christopher Cimino, CEO of Chicago-based Chessboard Consulting, said there is a financial angle to the contest.

“If they don't end up getting those Kaiser employees, this is all about getting (National Nurses United President RoseAnn DeMoro's) money back,” he said. The agreement calls for repayment of $2 million borrowed from the nurses' union in 2009 when some officers and organizers split from SEIU-UHW to form NUHW. “This becomes less of a significant development if they don't have that 43,000,” Cimino said.

Borsos maintained the agreement was about more than money—giving healthcare workers a unified voice. NUHW officials said they hope to formally ally with NNU in the future to form a national superunion of sorts.

“SEIU is trying to figure out how to change the subject on this very powerful alliance between two very progressive, strong and united organizations that are united to take on employers like Kaiser and SEIU-UHW in California,” Borsos said.

SEIU-UHW isn't threatened by the fortified NUHW and is confident about the Kaiser election, SEIU-UHW spokesman Steve Trossman said: “We feel we're in a strong position this time.”

SEIU's healthcare membership includes 150,000 in California and 2 million nationwide, including nurses, pharmacists, housekeepers and other healthcare workers. They've enjoyed significant success with Kaiser. The union negotiated 3% annual salary increases for the next two years in a contract that both sides heralded. Kaiser touts the contract as part of its National Labor Management Agreement, which included 29 local unions and nearly 100,000 workers.

That achievement was a result of careful work building trust and a more collaborative relationship with hospitals, said Stephanie Dodge Gournis, a labor attorney with Drinker, Biddle & Reath in Chicago. Neutrality agreements between SEIU-UHW and systems such as Kaiser have called for toning down rhetoric in exchange for organizing support from hospital brass.

The success of that approach might make it difficult for a united NNU and NUHW to make gains with a more antagonistic style, characterized by strikes and aggressive rhetoric, Gournis said. “In this new world of healthcare reform, we really need all hands on deck and work collaboratively on how do we handle this new world from staffing, patient care,” she said.

Hospitals' aggressive efforts to cut costs are driving more union activity as they ask workers for pay cuts and other concessions, Cimino said. SEIU-UHW drew insults from rival unions last year by taking a neutral stance on the California Hospital Association's campaign to amend a state law that mandates nurse-staffing ratios and allow hospitals to suspend the ratios during meals and breaks.

Accepting concessions may have led to quick resolutions and labor deals with SEIU-UHW members at Kaiser and other hospitals, but that could backfire, Cimino said. “The question for SEIU is, how much are they willing to give?” Cimino added. “I think (NNU's) DeMoro understands concessions weaken their ability to grow her union, and that's one of the reasons she saying, 'no way, we're not giving an inch.' ”

SEIU last March brokered a deal with the CHA that allowed the association to introduce union members to hospital administrators in exchange for the union dropping its support of two election ballot items that targeted hospitals. SEIU officials tout that as a way they are willing to work with hospitals to make working conditions better for their constituents—Borsos said it “demonstrates that SEIU is in bed with hospital management.”

A spokeswoman for the CHA said the agreement was about improving the health of Californians and not about hospitals taking sides with a particular union. She declined to comment on the new CNA-NUHW alliance or the Kaiser election. “This is an inter-union battle,” she said.

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