Just What Workers Need: More Labor Civil War

As a rule, most merger or affiliation announcements between two organizations tend to the celebratory: Each group brings a proud history and now have joined together to create an even prouder future, yadda yadda. But not last Thursday’s press release from the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United (CNA), which proclaimed its affiliation with the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) in an announcement largely devoted to attacking the presumed perfidy of the Service Employees International Union, with which NUHW has been engaged in a prolonged blood feud that puts the Hatfields and McCoys to shame.

Broadly speaking, SEIU and CNA are the nation’s two pre-eminent health-care worker unions, with CNA the leading organization of registered nurses and SEIU representing close to one million hospital orderlies and nursing home attendants. In 2009, after the two groups had waged a number of bitter organizing campaigns against each other for the right to represent the same groups of workers, they signed a three-year non-aggression pact, in which SEIU pledged to back off organizing RNs while CNA vowed to focus on them exclusively. On New Year’s Day, though, the pact expired, and two days later, CNA hooked up with NUHW.

The leaders of NUHW are all former leaders of one of SEIU’s largest and most successful locals, which represents most of SEIU’s health-care workers in California. Those leaders, headed by Sal Rosselli, once one of SEIU’s rising stars, had a bitter dispute with the national organization’s leadership, then headed by SEIU president Andy Stern, which culminated in a classic “You’re fired/You can’t fire us; we quit” parting of the ways in 2009. Rosselli and his group then formed the NUHW, which has contested SEIU’s representation of their former local’s members in hospitals across California. In the largest such contest, in 2010, SEIU beat back the NUHW’s attempt to win the right to represent the 43,000 members at the state’s Kaiser hospitals. SEIU won by large margin, but the National Labor Relations Board invalidated its victory, ruling that SEIU had engaged in election practices that tainted the outcome.

Thursday’s announcement from CNA concerned itself almost entirely with attacks on SEIU’s alleged concessions to management at Kaiser and other California hospitals where it has members. There are genuine issues dividing the two unions’ approaches on a range of questions. But what the affiliation announcement really makes clear is that the new CNA/NUHW organization will devote its energies to dislodging SEIU from its representation of California health care workers. There’s not one word in the announcement concerning organizing workers not currently in unions—though CNA has an admirable record of organizing nurses in what had been unorganized hospitals. What the CNA/NUHW affiliation portends, however, is a hugely expensive jurisdictional battle for the already unionized employees of Kaiser and other California hospitals, which will probably drain the unions’ treasuries at a time when precious little organizing of unorganized workers is going on anywhere in the country. Indeed, it’s conceivable that more resources will go to this union-vs.-union battle in 2013 than will go to any other organizing campaign in the nation—and just possibly, given the atrophied state of organizing, to all other organizing campaigns in the nation.

Good grief.

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