Labor Pains

A fight between two unions here could set the course of the U.S. labor movement.

Or they can opt for a brand pioneered by former SEIU president Andy Stern, who preached that labor's greatest hope lay in striking deals with employers that might mean reduced benefits, pay, and workplace rights in the short run, but would mean a larger, and therefore stronger, labor movement in the future. Call it the Work-with-the-Power model.

Some would prefer that labor stop squabbling over tactics. "There are bad times, and there are extremely bad times," Logan says. "This is an extremely bad time to have a dispute like this. It's bad for unions. It's bad for employees. It's bad in reputational terms for organized labor."

Wearing a blue medical smock over her red NUHW T-shirt, catheter technician Deborah Jones stands in front of the Kaiser Permanente hospital on Geary Boulevard on a late September Wednesday at lunchtime, when farmers' market vendors crowd the plaza in front of the main entrance.

Plain-spoken and stout, Jones doesn't look like royalty. But in the workaday world, she is. Taking overtime pay into account, she says she earns around $100,000 per year. Her health care, and that of her two children, is completely taken care of. No copays. Prescription medicine, no matter how dear, is hers for $5. In her opinion, well-paying jobs at Kaiser exist thanks to contracts negotiated by the SEIU team led for two decades by Rosselli.

"I'd like to see our old leadership return," she says. "I'd like to see our voices heard, and see the union back under local control."

Until recently, Jones was a contract specialist, overseeing shop stewards who ensure that contractually negotiated workplace rules are followed by the employer. But when SEIU overseers learned she sympathized with Rosselli's breakaway NUHW, she said she was removed from her position. "They took away all of our local leadership with the exception of two people," she says.

She says their replacements, appointed by the national SEIU headquarters, are slow to respond to worker grievances because they spend all their time campaigning for the SEIU. During much of the past year, Jones says, 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. NUHW wanted the courts to intervene and halt the alleged collusion between Kaiser and SEIU, and to stop paying employees who spent work hours campaigning.

Kaiser has asked a judge to dismiss the suit. A decision on that motion is pending. Because the case hasn't been resolved, the union election has proceeded without judicial intervention. However, if NUHW loses, the union could challenge the validity of the election based on the allegations made in the lawsuit.

The NUHW claims that the SEIU has spent $40 million fighting the Kaiser campaign. Regan says the accurate figure is $4 million. Rosselli says the union has sent more than 2,000 paid staff members to preach to Kaiser workers. Regan says the union has simply protected what is theirs. "We have mobilized members of this organization to defend ourselves. That's what we've done," Regan says.

Whatever the case, the union campaign seems to have turned Kaiser's hospital on Geary Boulevard into something of a European-league soccer stadium, except that aggressive partisans aren't split onto opposite sides. Santiago says 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?'" she recalls.

The message from the SEIU has been that the union has negotiated strong wage and benefit packages, despite meddling from the NUHW, and that workers will lose those comforts, including recent 9 percent raises, if they choose a new union.

Jones says that's false; the existing contract remains in force after the election, when leaders of the new union sit down and bargain a new agreement.

NUHW leaders, meanwhile, tell workers that the SEIU negotiated into the current agreement the creation of a "benefits committee." The committee's real purpose, they warn, is to increase the amount workers pay for health care. This, Rosselli says, is one of numerous examples of how the SEIU under current leadership has been giving ground: "As a patient, you want employees with longevity in health care, not a revolving door."

Rosselli was supposed to be a doctor, not a labor organizer. He worked his way through San Francisco City College, completing premed requirements with plans for medical school, cleaning city office buildings as a member of an SEIU janitors' union. He liked what he saw of organizing, and put his medical school plans on hold to plunge in. During the early 1980s, he became staff leader for the SEIU's Theater and Amusement Janitors Union, mentored by eventual SEIU president George Hardy. "He instilled me with the idea that the work we do can change workers' lives," Rosselli recalls, "by establishing a proper balance between the rights of workers and of private capital."

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