Biggest labor fight since the 1940s ends for Kaiser

October 08, 2010
by Heather Mayer, DOTmed News Reporter
Kaiser Permanente workers voted in favor of their incumbent union, Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers-West (SEIU-UHW) over the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), concluding one of the biggest labor spats since the 1940s.

The two-day count of mail-in ballots showed 61 percent of employees supported SEIU-UHW, with 37.8 percent voting for NUHW and 1.2 percent in favor of no union. The results were announced Thursday.

The election results come after months and months of heated debate between SEIU-UHW and NUHW, which was created after officials in SEIU-UHW were ousted for allegedly "misusing the union's dues," SEIU-UHW spokesman Steve Trossman told DOTmed News in August. But NUHW said those elected officials were using the funds to protect union members from SEIU attacks, in what has become a he-said-she-said dispute.

NUHW and its members say the election was unfair and are calling for a new one. The group argues that SEIU-UHW threatened members' livelihood if they didn't vote for the incumbent union, in part by withholding raises from workers who had already joined NUHW.

But SEIU-UHW said it had no part in withholding the raises, that it was the employer, Kaiser Permanente's decision. The employer took the position that those in NUHW were not eligible for those raises, Trossman told DOTmed News on Friday.

"[NUHW] pulled people in when they organized during the campaign in January and said that nothing would change, and that's not true," he said. "When you vote to change unions, the contract becomes null and void, and it has to be re-bargained."

"It's a risk you take when you switch unions because you have to re-negotiate the contract," he added. "That's exactly what we told people, which is the law and the truth. You can make up your mind whether to take that risk. An overwhelming number [of employees] were happy with their contract and didn't want to risk it."

In fact, said Trossman, Kaiser made the decision to withhold raises to NUHW members two months before the election was filed.

NUHW filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, but results may not come for months or even years, said Trossman.

An NUHW spokeswoman told DOTmed News by e-mail that SEIU changed its language slightly regarding raises and re-negotiating the contract once the NLRB began taking action on the issue.

"But for months, SEIU consistently told workers that if they vote NUHW...their contract becomes instantly null and void, that Kaiser would not have to pay them their scheduled raises, which is required by federal law, and that their benefits would not be protected," the spokeswoman said.

The election, SEIU-UHW hopes, will end the long battle between the unions and let the employees get on with their work.

Currently, there is an NUHW-filed lawsuit pending that says Kaiser illegally funded campaigning for the election, favoring SEIU-UHW. In August, a Kaiser spokesman told DOTmed News the company remains neutral, and that the "lawsuit appears to relate to the ongoing election dispute between NUHW and SEIU-UHW."

"We continue to respect both the terms of our labor agreements and the rights of our employees to choose whether they want to be represented by a union and which union will represent them," the spokesman, John Nelson, told DOTmed News.

NLRB filed a federal suit against Kaiser on Monday, arguing that the employer wrongfully withheld raises and other benefits without giving NUHW the opportunity to bargain concerning the withholding conduct and its effects.

NLRB has asked for a temporary injunction for Kaiser to start bargaining collectively in good faith and to grant the discontinued benefits.

"All this other nonsense about the charges, that's sour grapes from a group resoundingly rejected by the workers," said Trossman. "No amount of whining or complaining is going to change the fact that they performed poorly in the election. The workers made up their mind in the election, and [NUHW] should accept that and move on."

While SEIU-UHW questions whether NUHW will be able to survive as a viable union with an ability to raise standards for workers, NUHW said it has a number of upcoming campaigns that it is funding and it continues to grow its revenues, the spokeswoman told DOTmed News by e-mail.

Sal Rosselli, NUHW's interim president, said in prepared remarks that "NUHW will exhaust every opportunity to achieve a fair election for Kaiser workers to choose their union, free of fear and intimidation."

According to a statement from NUHW, labor law experts say Kaiser's alleged support for SEIU-UHW will "likely lead the NLRB to throw out the results of the election and schedule a re-vote."

But SEIU-UHW isn't concerned in the least that that will happen, said Trossman.

"This is what you do to try to save face when you get dumped," he said.

Astrid Fiano contributed to this report.