Health Care Workers Fight for Union Democracy

On Wednesday, May 27th, a small but diverse group of labor and community organizers, concerned citizens, union workers and retirees gathered at the Center for Theology and Social Analysis in St. Louis, MO to meet Laura Kurre, one of the organizers of the new National United Healthcare Workers union (NUHW) in California. Ms. Kurre spoke at length about the recent dispute between the NUHW and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), born of the contested trusteeship imposed by SEIU on their third largest affiliate, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW).

The United Healthcare Workers-West was a powerful union, 150,000 strong, which had won some of the best contracts and management concessions in the country by using a democratic “organizing model,” empowering elected, recallable shop stewards and rank & file committees to ensure that the union was participatory and accountable to the membership. The members of UHW-W had the final say in all proposals of the bargaining committees, which were also elected by the membership. Many of the victories of the UHW had been won through mass actions; rallies, strikes, sit-ins and solidarity with other local workers. The controversy began when UHW refused to follow SEIU President Andy Stern’s plan to split off 65,000 home care and nursing home workers into separate, statewide mega-locals controlled by Stern-appointees, without first holding a vote of the rank and file members who would be affected by the split. SEIU leaders retaliated by taking over the UHW-West treasury, locking members and officials out of union offices, removing union representatives, officers and shop stewards, and replacing them with appointed officials.

In the course of the trusteeship, UHW-W members were angered by SEIU’s plan to allow hospitals to subcontract out thousands of UHW-West workers’ jobs without any input from elected UHW bargaining units – who had been locked out – or a democratic vote by the membership. Many of the workers were shocked by a contract proposal, introduced by SEIU, to include a “management rights” clause in the new contract. On January 28th, angry UHW-W members who had seen enough announced the formation of a new, independent union, the NUHW. To say that the members of the for-all-intents-and-purposes “zombified” UHW rallied around the banner of NUHW is an understatement. Only a few short weeks after the new union was announced, nearly 100,000 UHW members had filed representation petitions to join the NUHW. With only volunteers and no dues-base to speak of, the NUHW has organized demonstrations of hundreds of health care workers across California, demanding the right to union democracy, to chose who will represent them and how they will be represented.

While SEIU has tied up the dispute in the National Labor Relations Board and in the courts with frivolous lawsuits, one cannot help but admire the courage and example set by California’s NUHW health care workers, who are fighting for basic trade union democracy and rank and file control against tremendous odds and an opponent that seems intent on winning its battles in court, rather than in the hearts and minds of the workers themselves. Laura Kurre’s report on the conflict between NUHW and SEIU highlighted the need for unions to serve their members and be under the control of the rank and file, not unaccountable bureaucracies which all too often become more than a bit too cozy with management.

Ms. Kurre finished up her presentation by opening up a conversation and Q&A with attendees, and the discussion quickly focused on the failures of Corporate Unionism (Labor/Management partnerships, “Jointness,” “team concept,” etc.) and of concession bargaining, and the need for rank and file, democratic control and mass action, the strike, etc. Generally, those participating in the conversation were very positive and receptive when one attendee raised the idea that what workers need most are strong, democratic and accountable unions with leaders willing to lead and organize mass actions and solidarity around a fighting program. And why not? After all we, the workers, are the union!

Unfortunately, due to the strong-arm tactics and trusteeship, the NUHW were unable to stay in the SEIU and fight to change the entire union at this time. However, they should work to link up with the broader labor movement, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, in order to fight against isolation of their union and to extend their struggle throughout the labor movement. Laura Kurre’s visit to St. Louis brought us a much appreciated reminder of the real power of the working class; and a hint of what our unions – the traditional mass organizations of the working class – can and will achieve once we are united and rallied to action around a fighting program of class independence.

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