Hospital vote pits upstart union against colossus
Hundreds of workers at a Sonoma County hospital are scheduled to go to the polls today in a bitter and closely watched union vote pitting the giant Service Employees International against an upstart rival.
The balloting at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital has drawn intense scrutiny in labor circles nationwide because of the nasty underlying conflict between the SEIU and its breakaway competitor, the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
The NUHW doesn’t yet have a single dues-paying member but is waging a David versus Goliath campaign against the behemoth SEIU, which boasts more than 2 million members nationwide, almost half in the healthcare sector.
The struggle for the allegiance of tens of thousands of health workers in California has divided the labor movement at a time when the healthcare debate dominates the national agenda.
The voting set for Thursday and Friday culminates a more than five-year unionization drive at Santa Rosa Memorial, a Catholic facility that is part of the Orange County-based St. Joseph Health System network, a major provider statewide.
Beyond the vote in Santa Rosa, the upstart union is pushing for dozens of elections that could knock SEIU from its current perch representing more than 100,000 workers at hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and other healthcare facilities throughout the state. More than 2,300 Kaiser-Permanente workers in Southern California are expected to vote next month in a NUHW drive to oust SEIU.
Officials of the two unions have engaged in volleys of mutual vilification since the SEIU placed its Oakland-based healthcare local in trusteeship last January. The SEIU alleged financial misconduct, a charge denied by the local.
That takeover prompted an insurgent faction led by Sal Rosselli, the former SEIU local chief, to break away and form the rival NUHW, which has worked to draw community and political support.
The SEIU labels its opponents a near-bankrupt pack of thieves and vandals intent on destroying the union.
“We think these workers would be much better off with a union that has resources, that has members, that has a track record,” said Steve Trossman, an SEIU spokesman.
The NUHW calls the SEIU an anti-democratic colossus tottering under the flawed direction of a power-hungry leader, Andy Stern, SEIU president and one of the nation’s most powerful labor figures.
Rosselli of NUHW charged that the SEIU was playing “spoiler” in Santa Rosa, aiding management via legal maneuvers and smear tactics demonizing its rival. “It’s reprehensible,” Rosselli said.
SEIU denies any spoiler role. “We got into this thing to win,” Trossman said.
NUHW supporters say there is little evidence of support for the big union at Santa Rosa Memorial. “SEIU appears to be in league with our employer against us,” said Nancy Timberlake, a technician with 24 years at the hospital and a backer of NUHW.
She and others allied with the new union noted that anti-NUHW fliers distributed by the SEIU display photos of many SEIU supporters -- but none from Santa Rosa Memorial. Trossman, the SEIU spokesman, said that’s because SEIU allies at the hospital fear retribution.
NUHW activists have accused hospital management of betraying Catholic social justice teachings by providing workers with misleading, anti-union propaganda. The hospital says it has upheld church standards, conducting voluntary information sessions at workers’ request.
“We are not antagonistic or anti-union,” said Debra Miller, vice president of human resources at St. Joseph Health System-Sonoma County, who noted that two different unions already represent nurses and engineers at Santa Rosa Memorial.
An attorney for the hospital, Gregory W. McClune, sent a letter to the NUHW last week accusing the union of conducting “a campaign of intimidation and coercion,” as well as video “surveillance” of workers attending company-sponsored meetings. The union denies any wrongdoing.
The SEIU refused to meet with the NUHW, management and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich to help set ground rules for the campaign. The lack of such a pre-election accord opened the door for the hospital to employ pressure tactics to beat back the union drive, according to the NUHW.
Dave Regan, a top SEIU official, wrote to Reich saying he had no intention of sitting down “with a virtually member-less group that has dedicated its existence to the destruction of our union.”
More than 670 employees in technical and service positions are eligible to participate in voting at 278-bed Santa Rosa Memorial, the largest hospital in Sonoma County. Ballots are expected to be counted late Friday.
Workers can choose either of the two unions or no union in a vote overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.