Fallout from the union clash

SEIU-UHW fight could have big implications in the Bay Area
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steve@sfbg.com

Fallout from the power struggle between Service Employees International Union and its Oakland-based local, United Healthcare Workers, has been felt particularly strongly in the Bay Area since SEIU took over UHW and ousted its leaders Jan. 27 (see "Union showdown," 1/28/09).

After SEIU replaced UHW head Sal Rosselli and more than 70 elected leaders of that union for defying SEIU demands, Rosselli and his team formally resigned from SEIU Jan. 29 and formed a new union, National Union of Healthcare Workers, hoping to draw thousands of current SEIU members disgruntled with the top-down management style of SEIU head Andy Stern.

It took a few days for SEIU to take physical control of UHW's Oakland offices, where Oakland police officers were called Jan. 30 to mediate a final showdown between UHW loyalists and the new SEIU management team, which is under the direction of two SEIU executive vice presidents that Stern appointed as trustees: Eliseo Medina and David Regan (see "SEIU seizes last holdout: UHW's Oakland headquarters," Guardian Politics blog).

"It's not about the building, it's about the members," Regan told the Guardian Jan. 30, later adding, "At the end of the day, the members of the union get to decide if they want to be in the union or not be in the union."

And after a weekend when Rosselli said SEIU was aggressively trying to close outstanding contracts with many employers, a move that would make it difficult for members to disaffiliate from SEIU and join NUHW, he filed petitions showing that many members do indeed want to leave SEIU.

"We don't trust them with our contracts and we don't trust them with our dues," Shayne Silba, a psychiatric technician with Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, told reporters during a Feb. 2 teleconference announcing that about 9,000 workers at 62 medical facilities have filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board asking to leave SEIU and join NUHW.

Rosselli said that more than 50 percent of workers at most of these facilities signed the petition, and he's asking SEIU to honor the request and let them go.

The list of facilities includes some prominent Bay Area medical centers such as Children's Hospital in Oakland, Alta Bates, and California Pacific Medical Center and other entities run by Sutter Health. Sutter has clashed with union members and community leaders over numerous issues, including the future of St. Luke's Hospital in the Mission District.

"The Sutter Healths of the world are colluding with SEIU just like they did before the trusteeship," Rosselli told reporters, echoing his persistent theme that SEIU is too cozy with employers and doesn't negotiate good contracts.

SEIU spokesperson Michelle Ringuette disputed that characterization and the accusations that the union was trying to quickly sew up outstanding contracts with employers to forestall moves to NUHW. "There were an astonishing number of contracts left incomplete," she said. "It's callous to leave contracts open for whatever purpose."

Regan said SEIU will challenge the NUHW petitions.