By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
But when Vallee asks him directly whether he supports bringing in the union, the man remains frustratingly uncommitted. “If we can work on the pension plan, then I’m interested in the union,” he says. In the meantime, he adds, he’ll still be looking into other options: private pension plans, 401(k)s and other individual solutions.
Vallee, meanwhile, hasn’t written him off. She’ll see to it that the union contacts him again and probably a third time before it goes ahead with elections in his department.
The face-to-face visiting is an unpredictable science. Later that day when Vallee visits another Centinela worker who is thought to be anti-union, she’s handed a pleasant surprise. Longer shifts and short staffing have turned the 47-year-old woman staunchly pro-union.
The house calls are part of an aggressive and tenacious organizing strategy that the SEIU has developed in the past couple decades. At a time when union membership was on the national decline — union density dropped from 16 percent to 13 percent in the period from 1997 to 2002 — a handful of unions including the SEIU, CNA and several others were responsible for reversing that trend in California. (For the same period, union density in the state grew from 16 percent to 18 percent.) From its celebrated Justice for Janitors campaign to the more recent California home care campaign (billed by The New York Times as the largest labor campaign since the 1930s), the SEIU has bucked the national labor trend by winning major victories.
The Tenet campaign itself is the culmination of the SEIU’s broader struggle to take on California hospitals on a “wall-to-wall” basis — trying to organize the entire sector from $75,000-a-year RNs down to $8-an-hour orderlies. For much of the late ’90s, organizers wearing the trademark purple shirts representing “Your Favorite Union” (as the SEIU likes to call itself) could be seen in or around hospitals across the state. They waited in the facility parking lot or approached workers at home, trying to raise support. Since 1998, more than 28,000 hospital workers throughout California joined the SEIU.
The masterminds of the new thinking saw it as a direct response to the increasing concentration of hospital ownership and power in the hands of a few industry giants, with Tenet foremost among them. In the end, they say, this is about the survival — or the continued relevance — of the labor movement. “Well, we could have this fight hospital by hospital, where a corporation of 36 hospitals has the resources to fight their employees, or we could take it on as a system, right?” says Sal Rosselli, president of the SEIU’s Oakland-based Local 250. “The fight isn’t against one individual hospital.”
The fight is also, increasingly, with another union. The California Nurses Association — an independent union not affiliated with the AFL-CIO — is a traditional craft union made up almost exclusively of the best-paid health workers, the registered nurses, a constituency it has nurtured for a century. The SEIU, by contrast, is an industrial-style union that aims at organizing the entirety of a targeted employer’s work force.
These long-standing differences have now boiled over into near open warfare: shouting matches in front of hospital facilities, each side accusing the other of sleeping with the boss. The CNA is fuming over Tenet’s agreement with the SEIU — a deal it calls “bribery” — because it effectively shuts the smaller union out of much of the organizing process.
A section of the CNA Web site, indeed, is titled “SEIU Watch: Enemy of Registered Nurses.” On a recent evening in Culver City, two CNA organizers leafleted outside Tenet’s Brotman Medical Center where the SEIU has been concentrating much of its efforts — and winning elections. The pamphlets contained a cartoon of a sinister-looking man (a Tenet boss) moving an SEIU puppet across a platform marked “Staged Election.” The caption, to the right, reads, “What have you really gained through the Tenet/SEIU backroom deal?”
“The huge irony here is that their [SEIU’s] rap is that ‘We’re so strong, we’re national, we have 40 kazillion members,’ and so on. If they’re that big and strong, why such a mediocre agreement?” says Bill Gallagher, a CNA organizer. He argues that the May agreement between the SEIU and Tenet was reached over the heads of the workers and is an old-fashioned sellout. Gallagher points to the absence of a pension plan and the provision barring workers from striking for seven years.
Aside from challenging the May agreement between the SEIU and Tenet in court, the CNA and a recently created sister union — CHEU — have filed for elections with the National Labor Relations Board at 18 hospitals. The upshot is that because of the lengthy hearing process, some Tenet workers will now have to wait months — maybe even years — until they can vote on unionizing.
SEIU officials scoff at what they claim is the CNA’s hypocrisy. The smaller nurses’ union, they say, signed an agreement of its own a few years back with the Catholic Heathcare West chain. They claim that the CNA also sat in on the original talks with Tenet — only to pull out when the SEIU wouldn’t grant it sole jurisdiction over the nurses. But, in a measure of how controversial even the barest facts can be, the CNA claims it never took part in the talks.
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