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

Freeman is reportedly more amenable than Rosselli to the "collaborate-with-corporate-America" style of worker organizing alluded to in A Country That Works. Freeman did not return calls requesting comment.

"I would be likely to offer up my Southern California buildings first, because the Southern California union reps are simply more pleasant, more cooperative, and more pragmatic," said Greg Stapley, spokesman for California's fifth-largest nursing home chain, the Ensign Group.

Though Ensign is not currently part of the agreement with the SEIU, Stapley has been sitting in on negotiation meetings with a thought to joining.

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.

Indeed, according to a Jan. 13 memo to UHW-West board members from the local's director for nursing home organizing, Freeman's local "literally said that the union should have no say on things like what shifts the workers should work."

This attitude has earned the favor of nursing home owners, the memo said.

"The operators indicated very strongly that they do not want SEIU to 'run' their facilities and that their position on any new agreement meant that the current 'template' contract would remain intact."

Rosselli's UHW, meanwhile, has said in negotiations that "the template must go, that workers as health care providers need a voice and rights on the job," the memo said.

Rosselli has so far struggled to resist efforts by the national union to dilute his power. A recent Stern memo, however, suggests the possibility exists that nursing home workers currently represented by UHW-West could eventually be moved to the Long Term Care Workers' local run by Freeman.

Stern's "corporate collaboration" rhetoric aside, the facts of the California Alliance agreement demonstrate that workers and employers don't have the same interests.

"You can get a condominium of interests that includes the union, but excludes the union member. He doesn't get self-determination, doesn't get the full market value that strong collective bargaining would give him. He doesn't get the right to be a citizen, and be able to complain about a situation where they aren't treating clients properly," says Robert Fitch, author of Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America's Promise.

Somehow, though, Stern has managed to get journalists to look past possible downsides of his new labor paradigm by offering up a compelling story line, where a labor leader is impelled by the death of his daughter to become courageous, and to make a real stamp on the world.

Though American newspapers, magazines, radio stations, and television stations don't employ labor reporters anymore, they've got plenty of business writers. And if those journalists know anything, it's that there's truth in numbers. The union's membership numbers are up every year — "1.8 million members and growing" is www.seiu.org's homepage tagline.

Making Stern's ideas even more attractive, the man is constantly doing things that are just plain newsy. In February he appeared with the head of Wal-Mart giving lip service to the idea of universal health care. Before that, he was meeting with leaders of China's government-controlled national labor union — the one with the reputation for worker suppression. And in 2004 he was quoted saying that his union might be better off if George Bush beat John Kerry. And then there's the intriguing underlying story line: the anti-intuitive idea that workers and the boss are actually on the same team. For story-hungry hacks, what's not to like about all that?

Stern "does things that are very provocative. Unless you dig into it, you say, hey, the guy is full of good ideas," says Fletcher, the former SEIU organizer who teaches at CUNY. "The fact is, workers and employers are going to clash. And they have contradictory interests. Andy obscures that question, and that helps explain the attraction he has for Fortune,for Business Week."

Buoyed by a cushion of flattering press, the SEIU and nursing home owners are now in talks to extend the cynically named "Agreement to Advance the Future of Nursing Home Care in California."

If the pact is extended as a result of current negotiations, the SEIU would lobby for a new piece of California legislation adding hundreds of millions of dollars of enhanced state Medical subsidies to nursing home companies. In return, the SEIU would be allowed to gain members in additional nursing homes, according to a version of the agreement currently under discussion.

However, a Bay Area union local that's party to those negotiations has pointed out that the reality behind SEIU's policy of joining hands with corporate America is far worse than the hype.

I urge UHW-West leader Sal Rosselli, along with any other SEIU members with a conscience, to work toward the next logical step. It's time to scuttle this pact before it causes the waste of more tax dollars, diminishes the rights of more workers, and helps endanger the lives of more elderly and disabled nursing home patients.

Somehow, I believe Cassie might have wanted it that way.

To read the report from the United Healthcare Workers West on the agreement between nursing home owners and the SEIU, click here.

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