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Latest News - September 2010

September 17, 2010
Kaiser Permanente workers, including those in Vallejo and Napa, must pick between 2 unions
Source: Times-Herald
By: Sandy Kleffman / MediaNews Group

Nearly 43,000 Kaiser Permanente workers are voting in a bitter showdown between two unions that is being closely watched in labor circles nationwide.

The mail-in balloting, now through Oct. 4, is expected to have ripple effects among health care workers throughout California.

The Kaiser employees belong to the powerful Service Employees International Union -- United Healthcare Workers West.

They will decide whether to remain with SEIU or join a breakaway group, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, founded by longtime labor chief Sal Rosselli after he was ousted from SEIU.

The battle is drawing attention in part because it is the largest union election in the private sector in nearly 70 years, since the United Auto Workers organized Ford Motor Co. in 1941.

The voters include respiratory therapists, dietitians, housekeepers, physician assistants, pharmacy technicians, clerical employees, radiologic technicians and other workers.

The SEIU-UHW represents 1,600 healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente Vallejo

Medical Center and 150 at the Napa Kaiser facility, union spokesman Steve Trossman said. The union members will have to decide "if they will continue to be represented by the union that's represented them for 65 years," or go with the break-away union, he said.

"They also have the option of voting for no union, but that is virtually certain not to happen," Trossman said.

The feud has confused some Kaiser workers and created angst

among those in the labor movement who worry about the deep rifts and diversion of energy it has caused.

"There have been a number of labor leaders who have supported (Rosselli) and other leaders who have supported SEIU," said Katie Quan, associate chairwoman of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. "It's made people uncomfortable to be put in the position of having to take sides. There have been heated discussions inside local labor councils."

The outcome is expected to influence upcoming votes at Catholic Healthcare West, another large health system, and other California hospitals.

"A lot is riding on this Kaiser vote," Quan said.

For many years, Rosselli headed its California health care chapter, SEIU-UHW, with nearly 150,000 members.

In January 2009, SEIU ousted Rosselli and other leaders, accusing them of misusing union funds. The union sued the ousted leaders in federal court, seeking $25 million in damages.

Rosselli and other leaders denied any wrongdoing. A jury concluded that they improperly used members' dues to form a breakaway union and ordered them to pay $1.57 million to SEIU, a decision they are appealing.

With both sides trading accusations of lying and impropriety, Rosselli has a different viewpoint about what led to the split.

"The reason for this fight is that SEIU changed over 2007-08 and went in a different direction," he said. "It started consolidating resources and decision-making authority in Washington, D.C., as opposed to (leaving it) in the hands of their members."

Since their ouster, Rosselli and his supporters have sought to supplant SEIU by organizing elections at hospitals and clinics. At some facilities, workers have opted to switch to the fledgling NUHW; at others, employees chose to remain with SEIU. The Kaiser election will be by far the largest to date. NUHW now has about 5,600 members. Rosselli portrays the conflict as a David vs. Goliath battle in which workers are seeking to "get back the power and responsibility to control their union."

Confusion exists over whether leaving SEIU might lead to a voiding of a current employee contract. The two-year agreement guarantees a total of 9 percent in wage increases, job security protections and other benefits.

"People would be taking an enormous risk," SEIU spokesman Trossman said. "It was a great contract in the middle of an economic crisis. The contract would become null and void, and they would have to renegotiate and hope to get it back."

NUHW leaders maintain, however, that federal law guarantees the existing contract would remain in effect until a new one is negotiated.

Kaiser maintains that the raises are part of a national contract negotiated with labor unions and since NUHW is not part of that coalition, its members are not eligible for the raises.

Times-Herald staff writer Rachel Raskin-Zrihen contributed to this article.



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