Major union goes on defense
For years, the powerful Service Employees International Union has played a lead role in the campaign for a landmark federal law that would allow workers to join a labor organization simply by signing petitions.
Now, as part of a high-stakes battle in California, the union is urging federal officials to throw out petitions signed by tens of thousands of its own members who have asked to be represented by a rival upstart group.
The David-vs.-Goliath face-off pits the SEIU, its $300-million annual budget and its legions of staffers, lobbyists and lawyers against a band of about 150 insurgents who are either volunteers or being paid from donations. Most have defected from the SEIU’s 2-million-strong ranks.
In lodging legal challenges to the roughly 80 petitions filed by its fledgling competitor, the SEIU has moved to block organizing elections at hospitals, clinics and nursing homes up and down the state. And it has used some of the same tactics that employers often use to thwart union drives.
One of the giant union’s allegations echoes a key argument that corporate interests make against the proposed law, the Employee Free Choice Act: that labor activists can intimidate or mislead workers during organizing campaigns.
“The SEIU is advocating free choice for every employee in the United States, unless you’re an SEIU member,” said John Borsos, an interim vice president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which says it has enough signatures to represent nearly 100,000 employees. “The only reason the SEIU doesn’t want elections is that they know they would lose.”
SEIU President Andy Stern said his union has a legal responsibility to object to the elections because it believes the leaders of the new group have violated labor laws. He accused them of stalling wage-and-benefit negotiations with employers to keep contracts open and leave the SEIU vulnerable to membership raids.
Stern said his union’s actions have not undermined its position on the free choice act.
“There is a policy question and there’s a legal question,” he said in an interview. “This is a legal proceeding. . . . Ultimately there will be a vote.”
The SEIU has turned for help to an agency that it has frequently scorned and whose ways the free choice act aims to reform: the National Labor Relations Board. The union has filed a welter of unfair-practice charges with the board, alleging in part that the new group has restrained and coerced workers in plotting to launch the breakaway organization.
The healthcare union says that the charges are frivolous. It has successfully petitioned for three elections outside the labor board’s jurisdiction.
Alleging improprieties, the SEIU had sought through the state to block the first vote, to represent employees at a San Pablo hospital, then lost in a rout: 158 to 24. In a second, much-larger election -- for 10,000 home-care workers in the Fresno area -- the SEIU did not ask state officials to halt the balloting. It deployed about 900 people to campaign and won narrowly, 2,938 to 2,705. The new union says it is challenging the Fresno result.
The third election is underway by mail.
Heading the healthcare union are former SEIU officers ousted after their Oakland-based local was removed from their control and placed in the hands of trustees early this year.
The Oakland officers broke with SEIU’s leadership after accusing them of weakening the union through forced mergers of locals and sweetheart deals with employers. The SEIU called those complaints a smoke screen, saying the dissidents had resisted a program to modernize the union to position it for growth.
One of the SEIU’s allegations in the petitions dispute has raised eyebrows in labor and Democratic Party circles. The SEIU contends that the new union is “dominated by employers,” and thus illegal, because former Bay Area political consultant Clint Reilly, who employs janitors as a commercial landlord, had helped its organizers raise money before they formed the group.
He “is trying to destroy our union,” said Dave Regan, an SEIU executive vice president.
Reilly, who once ran for San Francisco mayor and has a decades-long record as a pro-labor Democrat, said he has worked alongside the SEIU in the past. He has managed political campaigns for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both of California. During the 2008 presidential election, Reilly said, he hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Rodham Clinton in a building that he also made available to the new union’s leaders, who at the time were still in the SEIU.
He said the janitors are SEIU members. But the accusation that his status as an employer has tainted the new union is bogus, he said, particularly because he is not in the healthcare field.
“Why the NLRB is even pursuing this as a serious claim is beyond me,” Reilly said.
For its part, the healthcare union, known as NUHW, has filed charges alleging that the SEIU has colluded with employers to defeat the new group.
Starla Rollins, an administrative worker at a San Bernardino hospital, said she began circulating petitions after concluding that the SEIU had become a “top-down” organization that cut members out of contract talks. Rollins said about 400 of 600 workers signed the petitions, and “people are very upset” that the elections have been blocked.
“It is our right as workers to choose who we are represented by,” Rollins said.
The free choice act has been labor’s No. 1 legislative priority, seen as a vehicle for reversing the long slide in union membership nationwide.
Under current law, workers cannot unionize by signing petitions unless their employers agree to that method, known as “card check.” The more common scenario is that unions collect the signatures of a minimum 30% of workers -- the mandatory threshold -- and demand a secret-ballot election.
The SEIU and other backers of the free choice act say employers routinely derail union campaigns by intimidating workers in the run-up to elections, or by engineering delays through the national labor board. The act would permit workers to have union representation as soon as a majority signs petitions.
The SEIU has thrown its financial and political clout behind the measure, although the bill’s prospects are uncertain.
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), the House’s principal sponsor of the act, declined to comment on the California fight and any implications it might have for the proposal. But Miller and two other House Democrats sent a letter to the labor board calling on the agency to process the petitions and SEIU charges in a “timely manner.”
That was 2 1/2 months ago. Labor board representatives say they don’t know when, or if, the elections will be held, because investigators continue to sift through the claims. The board has found that existing SEIU contracts bar elections for the time being at a number of hospitals and clinics.
“This is not your normal situation we’re dealing with here,” said Will Baudler, an attorney for the board’s Oakland region. “This is a massive amount of charges.”
He said the board is handling the case as a “top priority.”
But the interim president of the new union, Sal Rosselli, said the board appears to be dragging its feet because of the SEIU’s influence with the Obama administration. The SEIU was one of President Obama’s biggest supporters during his White House run.
“The average election is scheduled in 60 days, and nothing has been scheduled here,” Rosselli said, noting that many of the signed petitions were filed in February.
Baudler and another NLRB representative said they had felt no political pressure. SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette denied the union has tried to get the administration to intervene with the board.
Meanwhile, in the San Pablo election, the SEIU has alleged misconduct by the new union and the employer.
A state panel issued complaints based on the charges, and a hearing is pending. The other election beyond the labor board’s purview is for a Hollister hospital and two nursing homes. The votes will be counted Thursday.