On May 18, about 2,500 Kaiser workers in Southern California held a one-day strike, its second such action in two months, over the contract impasse. These were the first strikes at the facility in 20 years. Future actions are expected if no bargaining agreement is reached.
Officials at the NUHW say the strikes are necessary to obtain language in contracts on safe staffing ratios and ensure quality patient care and working conditions. “SEIU settles without putting up any fight at all,” says Leighton Woodhouse, spokesman for the NUHW. “It will take more pressure to protect our members.”
Kaiser Permanente officials would not comment on the details of the bargaining sessions, but says negotiations are ongoing. “We exceed state-mandated staffing ratios at all our facilities,” says Jim Anderson, spokesman for Kaiser in Southern California. California law requires hospitals to staff units with a specific number of registered nurses at all times. “Ours are better than the state standards.”
After switching to the NUHW last year, about 2,300 Kaiser Southern California workers were deemed ineligible for a 2% raise and education tuition reimbursement reached under a prior contract. In December, an administrative law judge ruled in favor of the workers, ordering Kaiser to give them the raise, with back pay, and other benefits. The NUHW had successfully argued that all prior agreements cover the workers until they reach a new contract.
The NUHW now has about 8,000 members statewide, while SEIU-UHW claims about 141,000 members.
The NUHW continues to make waves. It has issued a strike notice at 269-bed Salinas (Calif.) Valley Memorial Hospital for June 21. The one-day strike by 850 covered workers aims to protest possible layoffs and wage and benefit cuts. The Salinas hospital has been under fire in recent weeks for paying $4 million in retirement benefits to its former CEO.
And in May, 800 healthcare workers at 798-bed California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, a Sutter Health facility, voted to switch from the SEIU-UHW to the NUHW. At a separate hospital campus, St. Luke's Hospital, workers voted to stay with SEIU-UHW.
That election has not yet been certified, and Kevin McCormack, spokesman for California Pacific Medical Center, says that while a contract remains in place, the NUHW could renegotiate it.
The appeal of the upstart union is the leadership, Woodhouse says. “As far as these workers are concerned, NUHW has been their union all along,” he says. “SEIU is an occupied union.”
SEIU-UHW officials disagree. A trusteeship was imposed in January 2009 after the prior leadership, including former head Sal Rosselli, now president of NUHW, was shown the door by national SEIU leaders under accusations of mishandling funds. Board elections were held this spring and the new board seated in April.
“We feel very good about where this has ended up,” says Steve Trossman, spokesman for the SEIU-UHW. “The fight will be over, and overwhelmingly we will have come out with membership intact.”
Part of the reason workers at California Pacific Medical Center voted to join the NUHW was the SEIU-UHW's support of a $2 billion construction project. The project has been controversial among neighborhood groups and faces fierce opposition from the California Nurses Association because of concerns that some services will shift locations from a lower-income neighborhood.
But Trossman says the larger union's record speaks for itself. “We've settled 100 contracts in the past two years that are as good or better than anything else in the country,” he says. “To say we are not fighting—the facts don't add up.”