SEIU Civil War Puts â€œPartnershipâ€ In New Light
Review of: Healing Together: The Labor-Management Partnership at Kaiser Permanente, by Tom Kochan, Robert McKersie, Adrienne Eaton, and Paul Adler (Cornell ILR Press, 2009).
During his uncontested campaign for AFL-CIO president this year, Rich Trumka offered the olive branch to corporate
One notable exception is Kaiser Permanente (KP), the giant California-based hospital chain and health maintenance organization. Kaiser was founded as a pioneering pre-paid medical plan. It was embraced by
As described in Healing Together, their goal was to “exchange information about particular local struggles” and begin “developing a joint strategy and structure” for more effective bargaining and strike activity. At the time KP was losing $250 million a year and facing pressure “to better match the cost structures of competing HMOs.” So labor and management ended up trying to create a less adversarial relationship that would, as a by-product, expand worker influence in the administration of Kaiser and improve its delivery of care. The resulting “partnership”—which according to the authors has produced more than “a decade of labor peace”—was not “the product of an ideological conversion to labor-management cooperation.” Rather, it evolved “out of a pragmatic judgment” that the parties “would have more to lose separately and jointly by going further down the road of escalating conflict.”
Advocates of this approach point to subsequent gains for workers in job security, pension coverage, and standardized wage rates, plus opportunities to participate in decision-making about issues beyond the scope of normal contract bargaining, a process which required strong, union involvement. Critics, such as the California Nurses Association (CNA), which represents thousands of Kaiser nurses, contend that “jointness” in health care can lead to compromising of patient care standards.
The four labor relations experts who produced this book were hired, in 2001, as paid consultants to the Kaiser-financed trust fund set up to administer the “Labor-Management Partnership” (LMP), which the CNA has boycotted, Several are well-known advocates of greater labor-management cooperation. So, notwithstanding their claim to “independence as outside researchers,” they would appear to have a vested interest in proclaiming the LMP to be a great success. The authors believe it “has implications for two of the greatest challenges facing the nation today: how to improve, if not fix, a broken health care system” and how to revive a system of collective bargaining “that has collapsed.”
The AFL-CIO likewise remains quite bullish about this experiment. At a
Unfortunately, neither Sweeney’s upbeat account nor Healing Together –because of the timing of its publication—address the latest developments at Kaiser: a bitter shop-floor struggle in which management has sided with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) against the latter’s own rebellious California members. That conflict began last winter when the LMP’s largest local union participant, 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers (UHW), was put under trusteeship by SEIU President Andy Stern, following a major challenge to his leadership by UHW officers and rank-and-filers.
Although supportive of the Kaiser partnership and a key player in building it, UHW had, in 2007-8, resisted pressure from Stern to make continuing contract concessions to
Soon after UHW’s treasury and offices were seized, a majority of the 48,000 UHW-represented employees at Kaiser petitioned to leave SEIU and join the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), a rival union created by former UHW-president Sal Rosselli and other ousted activists. Unfortunately, the National Labor Relations Board is not a great protector of “employee free choice” among already unionized workers seeking to change unions. The Board upheld SEIU’s legal claim that no representation vote should be held at Kaiser until next year, when the current five-year contract expires. Until then, NUHW must survive on voluntary contributions from its workplace supporters, plus re-sign KP workers on new election petitions or cards.
Since last January, more than 700 UHW stewards have quit in disgust or been removed by SEIU after they refused to sign the ”loyalty oath” required by Stern’s trustees. Kaiser has eagerly exploited the International union’s dismantling of the shop floor organization created by UHW for the purposes of strong contract enforcement and defending workers’ rights. At Kaiser today, rank-and-file confidence in the value of partnering and management’s commitment to that process is very low, in bargaining units controlled by SEIU. Kaiser’s “unit-based teams”—the basic building blocks of worker participation much lauded by the authors—are in complete disarray, SEIU opponents report.
“I’ve never seen this many terminations without just cause,” says Lisa Tomasian, who works at Kaiser’s
In August, with no membership participation in bargaining, International union reps then undermined past job security protections by giving Kaiser the green light to eliminate as many as 1,350 jobs. KP claimed the downsizing was necessary because of recession-related “enrollment losses and declining margins.” As NUHW noted Sept. 25, even larger lay-offs were threatened five years when KP introduced a new system of electronic record-keeping. Yet, under the old leadership of UHW, “a large committee of elected rank-and-file members met with Kaiser management to implement the contract’s employment security provisions” and insure that “workers would be redeployed throughout the company without any lay-offs.” This time, with no worker-input or bargaining table resistance to management’s plans, “SEIU leaders’ top-down concessionary style” led to the signing of “a massive layoff deal at the same time Kaiser posted $1.1 billion profits during the first six months of 2009”
“Kaiser is truly in bed with SEIU,” says former UHW leader Ralph Cornejo, now an organizer for NUHW. “Relationships that our stewards had built with the administration ended from one day to the next, when the trusteeship was imposed last January. Kaiser is feeling like they can do just about anything now, and get away with it. Many members feel the union is irrelevant. The other unions know that partnership is doomed if this continues.”
In Healing Together, Kaiser is nevertheless lauded for its exemplary pre-trusteeship agreement on union recognition. KP’s pledge of non-interference with new organizing has led to a success rate of 80 percent, in 29 recruitment campaigns involving 7,400 workers. Overall, between 1997 and 2006, LMP unions grew from about 55,000 to 86,000 members, via card check recognition, bargaining unit accretion, and additional hiring. Yet, when workers opted to join a labor organization outside the partnership, managers behaved very differently: they reacted like any other anti-union bosses. In 2004, for example, several hundred workers at a Kaiser call center in
KP’s union-busting behavior—which no LMP participant protested at the time—prefigured what is now widespread management hostility toward workers allied with NUHW rather than Kaiser’s much preferred partner, SEIU. As 17-year Kaiser worker Richard Schofield from
“Requiring stewards to ‘bow down’ and sign a pledge of allegiance to SEIU-UHW is in direct conflict with all that we accomplished through partnership activities. Where is the collaborative spirit that the LMP was founded on? Does anyone really think that directing stewards to sign such a document will not contaminate the more democratic environment that has been created?”
For Schofield and many other longtime KP union members, next year’s representation contest between NUHW and SEIU-UHW can’t come soon enough. “You don't need a weather man to see which way the wind is blowing,” he says. “SEIU is on the wrong side of this storm” because, “without trust and honesty, there will never be a relationship between leadership and rank and file. The eventual outcome is always with the majority no matter how long and hard the fight.”
(Steve Early spent 27 years as a Boston-based staffer for the Communications Workers of America and was involved in telecom organizing, bargaining, and strike activity. He is the author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home, published this summer by Monthly Review Press. The article above appeared in different form, in Dollars & Sense, Sept/Oct, 2009 and as a chapter in Real World Labor: A Reader in Economics, Politics, and Policy (August, 2009) available at www.dollarsandsense.org. Early can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com