Strategic Alliance Undermines Healthcare Workers Solidarity
By Charles Walker
Some pro-union California healthcare workers undoubtedly cheered, while others were taken aback, to learn that Tenet Corp., a major hospital chain, had agreed not to fight a unionization drive by a major California union, the Service Employees International Unions Local 250 (SEIU), a 50,000-strong powerhouse in the states healthcare industry. Not that any of the pro-union workers wanted the national 114-hospital chain that Tenet owns to remain non-union. But some of the workers, namely many registered nurses, wanted the chance to have a choice of unions. They objected to their ballot choices being limited to SEIU or no union. They wanted a third choice on the ballot, the California Nurses Assn. (CNA), an independent union of 50,000 registered nurses with some ties to the steelworkers union.
The up-to-then blatantly anti-union corporation not only agreed not to oppose the SEIU unions organization drive, it seemed to encourage its employees to sign-up. With Tenets blessings, SEIU organizers set up booths inside hospitals, passing out pamphlets with salary schedules and dues and offering free food to prospective members. On a recent afternoon in a conference room at Monterey Park Hospital, registered nurses were invited to a SEIU welcoming over a spread of grilled chicken, rice, corn and beans (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 3, 2003). But once the CNA filed objections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) about the prospective elections at Tenet, the firm forced the unions to hand out information to nurses in the streets during shift changes.
Its clear why the two unions would be jousting over jurisdiction; but why has Tenet turned 180 degrees from its decidedly anti-union stance, forming what the corporation and SEIU call a strategic alliance. In other words, whats in it for Tenet? Wall Street analysts, reported the LA Times, viewed the deal as a shrewd move by the company under severe pressure from multiple government investigations of its business practices to buy labor peace and quell criticism from a union with deep resources and strong political connections in Sacramento, the states capital. In August, Tenet agreed to pay $54 million dollars to settle a federal investigation, but that payment will likely pale in comparison to penalties the company faces from other probes (Sacramento Bee, Aug. 7, 2003).
The Wall Street analysts may be right in thinking that Tenet wants labor peace, while Tenet confronts regulators allegations, which if sustained, could cost Tenet hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and court costs. But that labor peace pact with the SEIU clearly seems designed to leave the CNA off the representation ballot and out in the cold. The CNA says it had filed for union elections at some Tenet hospitals, the day before word of the strategic alliance was made public. Tenet and SEIU deny that their deal was aimed at the CNA.
But some observers arent so sure. Labor writer Jane Slaughter wrote a Labor Notes editorial in which she seems to accuse the SEIU of indulging in a labor tradition best left in the past. What Slaughter meant is the signing by a union of a sweetheart contract that protects the employer from a less compliant union. Its not definitely clear how much Slaughter faults the SEIU local union, since she only concludes that the SEIU actions have raised serious questions.
There was a time when the CNA and SEIU Local 250 got along, cooperated and showed one another a commendable degree of solidarity. But in 1997, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Kaisers CEO announced they had concluded an historic agreement for labor-management cooperation, David Bacon, a labor writer, wrote at the time. In return for gaining major wage increases and benefits for its members, the union cooperated with Kaisers controversial cost-cutting campaign to replace registered nurses with lesser-licensed hospital staff. As Bacon noted, the CNA greeted the pact with predictable outrage. CNA claimed Kaiser and SEIU were intentionally trying to drive nurses out of the medical profession. From that time to this, the two unions have been bitter opponents.
Some patients advocates have also criticized the Kaiser/SEIU labor-management pact. Jamie Court, executive director of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, told the Orange County Weekly of May 16, 2003, Kaiser and SEIU cut deals over the years that basically speeded up the de-skilling of the nurses profession, he said. They allowed unlicensed personnel, housekeepers, to answer patient call buttons. They stepped up the role of unlicensed professionals in the delivery of medical care at hospitals. It was cheaper for Kaiser, and it was good for SEIU because they represented the less-skilled workers, but it was bad for registered nurses and bad for patients.
Earlier, the patient advocates group charged that Los Angeles County Federation of Labor Chief Miguel Contreras lobbied heavily for two weeks side-by-side with Kaiser, the states largest HMO, to stop legislation meant to ease mandatory arbitration of patients most serious allegations of malpractice, despite the fact that it would have given workers more choices and labor has been working to stop mandatory arbitration in employment contracts.
The only known motivation for Contreras to take a position counter to workers interests is the fact that the union that put him in power, SEIU, has a partnership with Kaiser in which each helps the other quietly. For example, it was an SEIU local that cut a recent deal with Kaiser that paid unlicensed telephone call center clerks financial bonuses for not scheduling doctors appointments, not transferring calls to nurses and hanging up.
While some Local 250 partisans have called the CNA elitist and narrowly craft-oriented, theres no clear evidence to back up the allegation. In fact, the CNA has a sister union, the Caregivers and Healthcare Employees Union that organizes ancillary healthcare workers, including technical and service workers.
The history of the dispute indicates that theres more to the clash than merely a jurisdictional dispute, even though the SEIUs Nurse Alliance, claiming 110,000 nurses nationwide, competes for representation of nurses. That history shows that the dispute originated with President Sweeneys labor-management pact with Kaiser. That indicates a basic difference, a principled difference, between the two unions. While the SEIU seeks shortcuts to the admittedly tough job of organizing health care workers, the CNA asked, organize to what end? Speaking about the SEIU-Kaiser strategic alliance, the CNAs principal spokesperson, Rose Ann DeMoro, rightly declared six years ago, You cant be on the side of the public and the side of the corporation at the same time. The agreement places the union in the position of being a special interest, while we should be the strongest to be advocates for patient care.
To date, there hasnt been much discussion about the CNA/SEIU feud in the left labor press. Thats understandable, since both unions have progressive reputations. For example, the SEIU local union has spoken out in opposition to the war against Iraq, and the CNA was an early endorser of the Labor Party, where it has a leadership role. The Labor Party has endorsed US Labor Against War, the primary organized opposition to the Iraq war within the U.S. labor movement. Despite all of that, the labor left should speak out on the dispute, perhaps in hopes of influencing a settlement. But certainly to warn labor leaders that alliances with corporate management, all too common these days, are wrong, must be fought and defeated.