Health care workers at Kaiser Permanente's SoCal facilities drop SEIU, join upstart union

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Kaiser Permanente in Panorama City, Calif.

Health care workers at Kaiser Permanente facilities in Southern California have voted to give their union the boot. The massive Service Employees International Union is out, and the small upstart National Union of Healthcare Workers is in.

More than 2,000 nurses and other health care professionals at Kaiser facilities in the Southland took part in the vote. They favored joining the National Union of Healthcare Workers by a margin of six to one.

"We’re gonna have autonomy," said Leila Valdivia, a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at Kaiser’s Los Angeles Medical Center on Sunset Boulevard.

At that facility, the margin was closer to 20 to one. Valdivia says she and her colleagues began losing their autonomy more than a decade ago, but it was all lost last year. That’s when the Service Employees International Union took over its California local — United Healthcare Workers West.

"This to me is a culmination," Validivia said. "It’s finally the day when we are able to free ourselves of this exploitative relationship "

The SEIU put the California local into emergency trusteeship in late January of 2009. It accused some leaders of the local of corporate malfeasance. The ousted leaders split off the next day and formed the National Union of Healthcare Workers, or NUHW.

The two unions have fought ever since for the allegiance of California’s health care worker rank and file. The NUHW accuses the SEIU of undemocratic practices like cutting deals with management with no say from its membership.

The SEIU denies that, and accuses the ousted leaders of sabotaging the union on its way out the door. The SEIU represents about 150,000 health care workers in California. The NUHW represents just a couple of thousand now and has yet to negotiate a contract.

SEIU spokesman Steve Trossman says size does matter, and the NUHW is putting its members at risk in upcoming contract talks with Kaiser.

"When management looks over the shoulders of the bargaining committee and sees a hundred thousand people standing there, that has a lot more impact than when they look over and see maybe 2,000 people standing there," says Trossman

UC Berkeley labor scholar Harley Shaiken says the numerical strength of a union can be an issue, but that this vote proves it’s not the only issue.

"Size can be important, it gives you more clout," says Shaiken. "What these workers are saying, is “hearts and minds can be equally important if you’ve got a group that you know and trust.”

The National Union of Healthcare Workers wants to attract another 50,000 California health care workers into its fold. Shaiken says the labor fight for Kaiser workers in the Southland is just a prelude to future battles in this state, and the national labor movement will be watching.

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