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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
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It's from studying that internal SEIU struggle that I've discovered new respect for UHW-West under Rosselli's leadership.

That union local recently issued a report analyzing the 2003 lobbying pact from the workers' perspective.

The report, titled "The California Alliance Agreement: Lessons Learned in Moving Forward," suggests that the agreement resulted in subsidies that fattened nursing home profits, and handcuffed workers, while inhibiting the union's chances at ever negotiating legitimate labor contracts that truly enhanced workers' lives.

"Alliance-based template agreements do not allow workers to empower themselves," the UHW-West analysis report says. "Is it any wonder that we have often heard from these workers that 'the boss brought us the union?'"

The report can be read as a repudiation of Stern's brave new path, coming out of the biggest health care workers' union local in the western U.S.

"Clearly this is an internal polemic against the direction coming out of Washington," Fletcher notes.

Indeed, the UHW-West report comes near calling the 2003 agreement a sellout.

For one thing, the union might have been able to expand, while obtaining greater benefits for workers, without any agreement at all. "Many workers at Alliance nursing homes throughout California were precluded from organizing," the UHW-West report says.

Those workers who were assimilated into the SEIU through the lobbying deal were introduced to a paltry version of trade unionism, the report says.

"If the nature of the labor agreement defined in the current Alliance templates — which restrict members' rights and ability to be empowered — is allowed to continue, what effect will this have on the fundamental nature of a union organization? What ultimately happens if we give up the right to strike as the means for workers to level the playing field with employers when needed?" the report says. "We would argue that it would adversely affect our mission and goal to advance and defend the interests of our members, and in fact, may come close to becoming close to what have historically been called 'company' unions."

According to the "Lessons Learned" report, the UHW surveyed 1,600 members who were under these Alliance template contracts. The workers' No. 1 complaint: Short staffing at these nursing homes hampered their ability to provide quality care for patients.

Indeed, short staffing is cited in news stories, in lawsuit complaints, and by public health advocates as the primary cause behind cases of neglect where patients develop bedsores, are left covered in their own feces, or die needlessly of festering illnesses or injuries.

Ironically, the SEIU's 2003 MediCal subsidy bill was touted as a way to help nursing homes afford to hire enough caregivers to adequately provide for patients.

Instead, the Lessons Learned report claims, the nursing home chains used an inordinate amount of the increased state subsidies to fatten profits, rather than increase staffing levels.

According to the UHW-West analysis, nursing homes organized under the agreement received $119 million in added MediCal subsidies during the '06-07 funding year thanks to the 2005 nursing home funding bill the SEIU led the effort to pass. But those same employers will only spend $21 million of that money on personnel in those facilities.

"Did we sell ourselves short?" the UHW-West study asks, leaving the answer implicit: absolutely.


In what some view as payback for UHW-West's role in speaking up for the rights of nursing home workers and patients, the union's Washington headquarters has moved to strip the local of its ability to represent nursing home workers.

During a 2006 statewide reorganization of SEIU locals, in which California union locals merged along industry lines, Stern's representatives recommended that all the state's nursing home workers be reassigned to a new bargaining unit run out of Los Angeles by a Stern ally named Tyrone Freeman.

Freeman is reportedly more amenable than Rosselli to the "collaborate-with-corporate-America" style of worker organizing alluded to in A Country That Works. Freeman did not return calls requesting comment.

"I would be likely to offer up my Southern California buildings first, because the Southern California union reps are simply more pleasant, more cooperative, and more pragmatic," said Greg Stapley, spokesman for California's fifth-largest nursing home chain, the Ensign Group.

Though Ensign is not currently part of the agreement with the SEIU, Stapley has been sitting in on negotiation meetings with a thought to joining.

Indeed, according to a Jan. 13 memo to UHW-West board members from the local's director for nursing home organizing, Freeman's local "literally said that the union should have no say on things like what shifts the workers should work."

This attitude has earned the favor of nursing home owners, the memo said.

"The operators indicated very strongly that they do not want SEIU to 'run' their facilities and that their position on any new agreement meant that the current 'template' contract would remain intact."

Rosselli's UHW, meanwhile, has said in negotiations that "the template must go, that workers as health care providers need a voice and rights on the job," the memo said.

Rosselli has so far struggled to resist efforts by the national union to dilute his power. A recent Stern memo, however, suggests the possibility exists that nursing home workers currently represented by UHW-West could eventually be moved to the Long Term Care Workers' local run by Freeman.


Stern's "corporate collaboration" rhetoric aside, the facts of the California Alliance agreement demonstrate that workers and employers don't have the same interests.

"You can get a condominium of interests that includes the union, but excludes the union member. He doesn't get self-determination, doesn't get the full market value that strong collective bargaining would give him. He doesn't get the right to be a citizen, and be able to complain about a situation where they aren't treating clients properly," says Robert Fitch, author of Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America's Promise.

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Matt Smith

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