Union Disunity

The secret deal worked out between SEIU bosses and nursing home owners denies union members the right to speak out, strike, or protect patients

The agreement also guarantees that workers' wages will not put an employer at an "economic disadvantage," either through employee pay, benefits, or through staff-per-patient ratios.

To advocates for health care consumers, contract language guaranteeing the union will refrain from reporting poor nursing home conditions to state regulators is particularly appalling.

"This is a sector where caregivers are the eyes and the ears and the witnesses when there is abuse. To tie their hands and to tie their tongues is to let people die. That's immoral and a terrible thing for a nursing home worker to have to live with," says Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, and author of Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom. "I've never seen a labor union except for the SEIU enter into a top-down, industry-friendly agreement that binds the hands of the workers."

Sal Rosselli, leader of United Healthcare Workers West, has taken a stand for union members' rights, to the apparent dismay of the SEIU leadership.
Sal Rosselli, leader of United Healthcare Workers West, has taken a stand for union members' rights, to the apparent dismay of the SEIU leadership.
SEIU president Andy Stern photographed with civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.
SEIU president Andy Stern photographed with civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.

The agreement doesn't merely prohibit workers from attempting to complain about their lot once they've signed a union contract. It also puts a halt on any traditional unionizing drive in other nursing homes owned by a chain that is party to the lobbying agreement — even in cases where workers have expressed interest in joining the SEIU.

"There's a struggle going on at the SEIU, and the struggle is, what kind of unionism is being advanced? Are these agreements that lay the ground for voluntary recognition? Or are they in fact straightjackets?" said Bill Fletcher, a visiting professor at City University of New York, who formerly held the SEIU position of assistant to the president for the East and South.

It's from studying that internal SEIU struggle that I've discovered new respect for UHW-West under Rosselli's leadership.

That union local recently issued a report analyzing the 2003 lobbying pact from the workers' perspective.

The report, titled "The California Alliance Agreement: Lessons Learned in Moving Forward," suggests that the agreement resulted in subsidies that fattened nursing home profits, and handcuffed workers, while inhibiting the union's chances at ever negotiating legitimate labor contracts that truly enhanced workers' lives.

"Alliance-based template agreements do not allow workers to empower themselves," the UHW-West analysis report says. "Is it any wonder that we have often heard from these workers that 'the boss brought us the union?'"

The report can be read as a repudiation of Stern's brave new path, coming out of the biggest health care workers' union local in the western U.S.

"Clearly this is an internal polemic against the direction coming out of Washington," Fletcher notes.

Indeed, the UHW-West report comes near calling the 2003 agreement a sellout.

For one thing, the union might have been able to expand, while obtaining greater benefits for workers, without any agreement at all. "Many workers at Alliance nursing homes throughout California were precluded from organizing," the UHW-West report says.

Those workers who were assimilated into the SEIU through the lobbying deal were introduced to a paltry version of trade unionism, the report says.

"If the nature of the labor agreement defined in the current Alliance templates — which restrict members' rights and ability to be empowered — is allowed to continue, what effect will this have on the fundamental nature of a union organization? What ultimately happens if we give up the right to strike as the means for workers to level the playing field with employers when needed?" the report says. "We would argue that it would adversely affect our mission and goal to advance and defend the interests of our members, and in fact, may come close to becoming close to what have historically been called 'company' unions."

According to the "Lessons Learned" report, the UHW surveyed 1,600 members who were under these Alliance template contracts. The workers' No. 1 complaint: Short staffing at these nursing homes hampered their ability to provide quality care for patients.

Indeed, short staffing is cited in news stories, in lawsuit complaints, and by public health advocates as the primary cause behind cases of neglect where patients develop bedsores, are left covered in their own feces, or die needlessly of festering illnesses or injuries.

Ironically, the SEIU's 2003 MediCal subsidy bill was touted as a way to help nursing homes afford to hire enough caregivers to adequately provide for patients.

Instead, the Lessons Learned report claims, the nursing home chains used an inordinate amount of the increased state subsidies to fatten profits, rather than increase staffing levels.

According to the UHW-West analysis, nursing homes organized under the agreement received $119 million in added MediCal subsidies during the '06-07 funding year thanks to the 2005 nursing home funding bill the SEIU led the effort to pass. But those same employers will only spend $21 million of that money on personnel in those facilities.

"Did we sell ourselves short?" the UHW-West study asks, leaving the answer implicit: absolutely.

In what some view as payback for UHW-West's role in speaking up for the rights of nursing home workers and patients, the union's Washington headquarters has moved to strip the local of its ability to represent nursing home workers.

During a 2006 statewide reorganization of SEIU locals, in which California union locals merged along industry lines, Stern's representatives recommended that all the state's nursing home workers be reassigned to a new bargaining unit run out of Los Angeles by a Stern ally named Tyrone Freeman.

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