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2 Health Worker Locals Merge

Times Staff Writer

Seeking to match consolidation in the healthcare industry, the Service Employees International Union has engineered a merger of its own.

Union representatives said Wednesday that they combined two locals to create a single statewide unit to represent hospital and nursing-home workers in California.

The 130,000-member SEIU United Healthcare Workers West will be more effective at bargaining and working on political issues, said Sal Rosselli, president of the merged local. He previously directed the 100,000-member SEIU Local 250 in Oakland, which merged with Los Angeles-based Local 399.

“This will be so much more efficient and effective, to be able to speak with one voice at the bargaining table,” Rosselli said.

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The merger highlights long-standing differences in wages and benefits between the higher-paid workers in Northern California, where the industry is more densely unionized, and lower-paid workers in Southern California.

In addition, he said, the merged local will have more clout and resources to organize healthcare institutions in California and beyond.

“There’s certainly an idea for us to work in other Western states,” Rosselli said. “Our union staff just led a successful election at a Catholic Healthcare West hospital in Las Vegas, and we’d like to do more. We’re certainly interested in Colorado. And we’re looking at other strategic places where we have common employers.”

The three largest employers of the merged local’s members are Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West and Tenet Healthcare Corp. Spokesmen for all three said they had good relations with both locals and didn’t expect the merger to change that.

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Tenet spokesman David Langness said contract negotiations were always complex -- not because of dealing with two locals, but because the contract covers as many as 200 job classifications, from X-ray technicians to cafeteria servers.

The merger “won’t make any difference to us one way or another,” he said. Kaiser and Catholic Healthcare West spokesmen noted that their past contracts with SEIU were statewide.

The merger is a fresh example of the type of union restructuring advocated by SEIU President Andrew Stern, who has threatened to leave the AFL-CIO labor federation if sweeping reforms are not adopted.

Stern argues that unions must be larger to deal effectively with national and multinational corporations.

But if the merger shows the promise of consolidation, it also underscores the difficulties involved in getting there. The SEIU, the nation’s largest union, began formally talking about combining the two locals five years ago, Rosselli said. A year ago, executive boards for both locals voted to formally pursue it. They mailed a new constitution to all members, who then approved the merger by more than 90%.

The SEIU oversaw a similar consolidation with locals representing janitors in California, but it did not go as smoothly. Janitors in San Francisco who did not want to lose their local autonomy voted this year to break away from the SEIU and form an independent union.

Local union leaders conceded they made mistakes in that campaign, perhaps moving too quickly or not sufficiently explaining the reasons for consolidation.

“What’s fundamentally important is that the workers understand and vote,” Rosselli said. “That’s why we took a year to have hundreds of meetings, to get to this point.”

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