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Union Disunity 

The secret deal worked out between SEIU bosses and nursing home owners denies union members the right to speak out, strike, or protect patients

Wednesday, Apr 11 2007

Page 2 of 4

The California agreement was set to expire at the end of last year; the union and the nursing homes are currently negotiating a possible extension. Whether, or how, the agreement will be extended may have been thrown in doubt thanks to complaints about the current agreement coming from Rosselli's UHW-West.

On the SEIU's side of the 2003 bargain, the union agreed to use its clout with Democratic legislators in Sacramento to accomplish three goals of interest to nursing home owners:

The SEIU pledged to use its lobbying muscle to pass a 2004 bill increasing MediCal subsidies to nursing homes by more than $2 billion over four years, according to patient advocates. The bill passed, creating a windfall for nursing home owners.

The union also agreed to attempt to pass tort reform legislation that would have limited patients' right to sue in the event they were neglected, raped, abused, or killed. (The union's tort reform lobbying efforts were put on hold, however, after a 2004 SF Weekly story led union members and advocacy groups to complain.)

The SEIU also pledged in the 2003 pact to staunch any efforts by patient advocates to push for legislation or regulations requiring nursing homes to provide enough staff to keep patients safe and healthy, unless the nursing home companies agree to such reforms in advance. The SEIU will "oppose any long-term-care-specific staffing and reimbursement legislation or regulation that fails to meet mutually agreed objectives," the agreement states.

According to lobbyists for nursing home patients, the union has indeed been successful in repressing efforts by nursing home advocates to pass legislation that would have tied increases in state nursing home subsidies to improvements in the quality of care.

In return, the nursing home chain owners agreed to allow the SEIU to recruit workers into their union. Under ordinary circumstances, nursing home owners vigorously resist union organizing drives by occasionally intimidating and firing union-sympathetic workers, and by attempting to convince them that union membership isn't in their interest. Under the lobbying agreement, however, the nursing home chains would refrain from these tactics in a certain number of facilities if the union helped to pass the 2004 funding bill, and in more facilities if the union got tort reform legislation passed.

So far, workers in some 42 nursing homes have joined the SEIU in this way, according to a union report.

This membership gain has allowed the union to publicly characterize the lobbying deal as a means to improve the quality of care for nursing home patients, while improving wages, benefits, and working conditions for people who care for the aged and infirm.

This is the new era of worker-employer collaboration touted in Stern's book, and in articles that characterize him as a bold modernizer. Journalists, however, appear to have been so caught up in Stern's tactic of getting weepy about his deceased daughter during interviews that they've failed to find out exactly what it is he's talking about.

If they had, they would have discovered a monumental catch: workers who joined the union specifically as part of the 2003 agreement with nursing home chains, an agreement that is supposed to be a national model for corporate collaboration, get a severely stripped-down version of union representation. In important ways, the agreement causes workers to lose rights rather than gain them.

Under the 2003 lobbying pact, all nursing home workers entering the union under the auspices of the agreement would work under uniform, employer-friendly labor contracts called "template agreements."

These agreements specify that the union is not allowed to report health care violations to state regulators, to other public officials, or to journalists, except in cases where the employees are required by law to report egregious cases of neglect and abuse to the state. The agreements also prohibit the unionized workers from picketing, and negotiating improvements in health care or other benefits. They prohibit the workers from having a say in their job conditions.

According to the template contract, employers have the "exclusive right to manage the business."

This means the owners set pay rates, pay increases, and incentive plans. They hire, lay off, demote, discipline, and determine benefits for workers without union input. The employers may outsource work performed by union members, and speed up, reassign, or eliminate jobs at will. The employer may eliminate vacations, or any other time off, as the employer sees fit.

The agreement also guarantees that workers' wages will not put an employer at an "economic disadvantage," either through employee pay, benefits, or through staff-per-patient ratios.

To advocates for health care consumers, contract language guaranteeing the union will refrain from reporting poor nursing home conditions to state regulators is particularly appalling.

"This is a sector where caregivers are the eyes and the ears and the witnesses when there is abuse. To tie their hands and to tie their tongues is to let people die. That's immoral and a terrible thing for a nursing home worker to have to live with," says Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, and author of Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom. "I've never seen a labor union except for the SEIU enter into a top-down, industry-friendly agreement that binds the hands of the workers."

The agreement doesn't merely prohibit workers from attempting to complain about their lot once they've signed a union contract. It also puts a halt on any traditional unionizing drive in other nursing homes owned by a chain that is party to the lobbying agreement — even in cases where workers have expressed interest in joining the SEIU.

"There's a struggle going on at the SEIU, and the struggle is, what kind of unionism is being advanced? Are these agreements that lay the ground for voluntary recognition? Or are they in fact straightjackets?" said Bill Fletcher, a visiting professor at City University of New York, who formerly held the SEIU position of assistant to the president for the East and South.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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