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Union Triage 

The fight for hospital workers involves two unions against each other – and a health-care giant

Thursday, Sep 25 2003
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Andrea Prebys considers herself a dogged foot soldier in one of the most ambitious, wide-scale union organizing drives in recent Southern California history. So even as the summer-heated asphalt at the Shell station across the street from Monterey Park’s Garfield Medical Center burns through the bottom of her shoes, she waits patiently for her contact to show up. Several minutes late, stout, tattooed Jose Guillen finally arrives for the street corner meeting.

And he’s laden with bad news. “I’m not a charge anymore,” the former G.I. reports to his union organizer. After a year as the top guy in Garfield’s transportation department, he’s been demoted. “They took my position away,” he says glumly.

It’s a major setback for Guillen. After working at Garfield for seven years, he still makes only $10.88 an hour. His department, responsible for moving patients around in wheelchairs and on gurneys, had already been cut from three people to two. Sometimes he’s the only worker on duty. And now he’s lost what little authority, what little upward mobility, he had won.

Prebys is angered by the news. But, then again, she gets paid to get angry. She was deployed to Los Angeles from Oregon last June. Her assignment, along with that of up to 125 organizers of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU, is to recruit and unionize in one, coordinated, fell swoop, literally tens of thousands of hospital workers — from nurses to techs to orderlies — spread out among scores of hospitals statewide. She is backed up by a battery of labor lawyers, a team of Sacramento lobbyists and a sophisticated communications network.

At stake in this battle is much more than the wages or working conditions of the hospital staff. Some time ago the SEIU concluded it was no longer worth it to burn up bundles of union resources trying to organize one “hot shop” or hospital at a time. An increasingly conglomerated economy called for a new union strategy: trying to organize entire sectors of the economy in one big bite. If the SEIU can win its current hospital campaign, it could establish a new model for all of American labor.

But for the moment, Prebys knows she has to proceed worker-by-worker, so she concentrates all her attention on Guillen. For 20 minutes they plot their next move. Prebys reassures Guillen that his demotion is but one more “ridiculous” cost-cutting measure that can be turned back against management. “It’s this kind of thing,” she says, “that you guys are going to be able to use to get people active and really excited about the organizing, because these are the kind of things you can change by having a union.” Prebys asks Guillen to redouble his efforts to sign up new workers from the inside.

“Cool,” says Guillen, at least momentarily heartened by the thought of an organized fight back. “That’ll work,” he says as he trudges back to his post.

Five years ago, the SEIU shook up the sometimes sleepy world of American trade unionism when it began to successfully recruit and organize 120,000 California home health-care workers, winning them representation and higher wages. Now, in its massive hospital worker campaign, the SEIU is attempting to make another dramatic leap forward for California organized labor.

At ground zero in SEIU’s strategy is the giant Tenet Healthcare Corporation, a notoriously anti-union chain that operates 40 California hospitals, including Garfield, and employs 35,000 California workers, making it the second biggest hospital chain in the U.S. In its effort to unionize the Tenet chain, the SEIU — with a half-million members in California alone — is using an innovative and controversial approach that it first pioneered in 1997 when the union signed a sweeping agreement with the Kaiser chain. “This is an enormous effort by employees of the nation’s second largest hospital system to unite on behalf of patients and professionals to make improvements from the bedside up,” SEIU spokesperson Lisa Hubbard says of the current effort.

Much of organized labor is investing many of its hopes in SEIU’s push against Tenet. In the era of Bush, increasing privatization and sliding union representation, the notion that thousands of ordinary workers in one of the country’s fastest growing industries can be organized is tantalizing.

But not everyone is cheering. The much smaller California Nurses Association (which represents about 50,000 nurses statewide) calls SEIU’s strategy with Tenet a sellout and is pushing several legal challenges that have, in turn, blocked organizing efforts in more than 15 local hospitals. The feud between the two unions has turned ugly, each side claiming the other is doing the boss’s bidding. In the meantime, what is potentially Southern California labor’s most crucial campaign in a decade is in danger of slowing down because of the infighting.

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