Kaiser Union Election Produces Winner, Legal Battle

Categories: Labor
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Matt Smith
Time to put the signs back in the shed.
​The Service Employees International Union yesterday decisively won an election to represent 43,000 workers at Kaiser medical facilities around California, an occurrence academic observers predict could be the death knell for dissident leader Sal Rosselli's quest to re-make U.S. unionism.

But the National Union of Healthcare Workers, the upstart union that hoped to dislodge the SEIU from its role representing Kaiser's hospital housekeepers, lab technicians, and other workers, claimed the 18,290 to 11,364 defeat was merely a prelude to legal challenges calling for the National Labor Relations Board to toss out the results and call a new election.

The NUHW "will exhaust every opportunity to achieve a fair election for Kaiser workers to choose their union," Rosselli said in a statement. A labor expert contacted by SF Weekly, however, said the challenge would likely fail.

Rosselli was formerly a top SEIU official who for two decades was in charge of negotiating contracts with Kaiser. He was forced out of the union after criticizing secret agreements with nursing home chains. He objected to language designed to prevent workers from reporting to government regulators when patients were neglected and abused.

Kaiser illegally colluded with the SEIU to ensure today's result, NUHW officials said, because the hospital believed the entrenched union would be less demanding during contract talks. Both Kaiser and the SEIU have rejected these claims in the past. For the moment, at least, the SEIU victory seems to be an endorsement of the 2.2 million-member union's decision to devote significant resources and staff to a yearlong effort to discredit the NUHW among Kaiser employees.

In this week's cover story we argued that the election was a referendum on an SEIU style of labor organizing that involved cutting employer-friendly deals. Rosselli had told SF Weekly that, had his union won, he would have swiftly entered negotiations to forge a tougher contract at Kaiser. 

The New York Times reported that the stakes were impossibly high for both unions:
   
The service employees spent millions of dollars in the campaign, fearing that a victory for its rival would give that union the money and momentum to try and take away tens of thousands of other S.E.I.U. members in California.
The San Francisco Chronicle quoted a professor saying the victory was a sour one for the SEIU:

"It's a victory, but the victory was very costly," said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at U.C. Santa Barbara. Lichtenstein, an NUHW supporter, said the election has weakened SEIU. "It's no vindication. They've had two years of struggle. They've had to spend millions of bucks on this and have had to send all their staff out here," he said.

And John Logan, a professor of labor studies at San Francisco State, e-mailed SF Weekly he doubts the NUHW will be successful in contesting the election:

Based on what I know about the election (and there may be things we don't yet know), I would say it's unlikely, especially given the wide margin of victory. I would say that it was virtually inevitable that the result was going to be challenged whatever the outcome, but given the large margin of victory and what we know about the campaign, it seems unlikely that the board would overturn the result, which is a relatively infrequent remedy."

Logan continued:

When the NLRB does overturn an election result it is usually as a result of employer misconduct (or sometimes due to contested votes that would have affected the outcome-- but here the margin of victory is too large), but the amount of misconduct has to be fairly significant. In private, Kaiser may have had a preference for the union that was part of the Coalition of Kaiser Unions, but it did not campaign for it (although, as you know, NUWH claims [Kaiser] illegally paid SEIU supporters to campaign during the election). 

Of course, the board can also overturn the result due to misconduct by a rival union, but despite what is sometime said, the issues are not the same: anti-NUHW comments from SEIU supporters (or anti-SEIU statements from NUWH supporters) do not carry the same weight as anti-union comments from an employer, as supporters of the rival union do not hold economic power over their co-workers. 

Also lingering will be bad blood created at Kaiser workplaces, where employees interviewed by SF Weekly said SEIU organizers were given free reign by Kaiser to spend work-hours electioneering. These types of allegations formed the basis for a lawsuit filed during the union election campaign, and they are the basis for which the NUHW will ask the NLRB to throw out Thursday's election results.
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Matt Smith
Meet the new boss...
As we reported in the aforementioned SF Weekly cover story, the SEIU replaced union shop stewards with loyalists, who colleagues said then worked full-time campaigning against NUHW, rather than performing their salaried job handling worker grievances.

Workers we interviewed said Kaiser didn't allow for a level election playing field.

Kaiser seemed to let SEIU campaigners have the run of the place, despite work rules that limit nonstop campaigning. The NUHW even filed a lawsuit, which in many respects was a microcosm of Rosselli's larger beef with Stern for being too cozy with employers. The complaint said some Kaiser workers campaigned full time against NUHW, rather than doing their real jobs, with knowledge of Kaiser bosses.

Though the suit hasn't been resolved, it's a likely template for legal wrangling to come. The witness list may be a long one, as many workers at Kaiser Permanente Hospital on Geary Boulevard alleged the SEIU went too far in lobbying workers to stay with their old union.

One worker said she had been interrupted so many times by SEIU campaigners that she told co-workers she felt she was being harassed. "So then they go up in employees' faces, and say, 'Am I harassing you?'"

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