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.


The expense of this battle is unfortunate, but it's a battle for the direction and soul of labor that needs to be fought. There's a lot wrong with the way SEIU represents labor.

What the next economic structure (replacing neoliberalism when this systemic crisis finally comes to an end after long struggle over the terms) looks like will have a lot to do with how militant labor is in demanding new and better terms from capital. An expensive civil war may well weaken labor's immediate strength, but this economic crisis has a long way to go.

Those in power are still talking austerity and haven't yet recognized the need for much greater regulation of the financial sector. Those realities must be reversed for this crisis to end, In other words, they're still trying to solve the crisis of neoliberalism within a neoliberal framework.

So we'll be dealing with this economic crisis for a while yet. In the meantime, labor must settle its affairs, hopefully coming out of it not only stronger but with much greater militancy. Having a large war chest only helps so much if you're unwilling to really go to war.

Of course SEIU could make this war unnecessary by negotiating peace with CNA/NUHW under terms that would truly address the grievances California UHW had to begin with and set the movement on the militant path it needs to be on, but that doesn't seem very likely.

The commenter above believes that sacrificing labor's "immediate strength" to assure labor's capacity going forward to be "militant". The downside of this theory is that working people are scene as acceptable collateral damage. Our IMMEDIATE CONCERN must be to build organizations with the structure and capacity to build strength for working people by raising wages, benefits, and working conditions for entire sectors of the working class. A disdain for policies and leaders of SEIU in no way justifies this raid. A civil war that simply satisfies the anti-SEIU lefty lynch mob does not serve our movement.

Hal Meyerson's commentary on the NUHW-CNA affiliation is typically superficial and misleading. Instead of just playing the know-it-all pundit from afar, Hal might want to come back to California and actually talk to a few of the thousands of health care workers involved in what he dismisses as a "jurisdictional battle." I've interviewed workers on all sides of these California health care union wars during the past five years. Not a single one ever mentioned union "jurisdiction" as the reason for their involvement, which for many has been a tragic necessity. Instead, those who were among the 10,000 who have voted to leave SEIU and join NUHW often cited very specific examples of SEIU-negotiated contract concessions that are quite real, not merely "alleged" (and, thus, easily researched and confirmed, even by a journalist suffering from the fact-gathering lassitude displayed by Meyerson).

One relevant fact is that more than 10 percent of NUHW's membership is composed of formerly non-union health care workers. The largest group of workers NUHW has helped organize since its founding four years ago won bargaining rights and a first contract, after a six-year fight at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. This campaign is well-described in former SEIU organizer Adam Reich's new book from Cornell University Press, With God on Our Side: The Struggle for Workers Rights in a Catholic Hospital. SEIU abandoned these 700 unrepresented workers in 2009, after the UHW trusteeship, and then tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent them from joining NUHW or any other union. There was nothing putative about the union "perfidy" involved.

At the joint NUHW and CNA press conference announcing their affiliation (which Meyerson did not attend), organizing of the unorganized on a broader scale was discussed as a longer-term goal of the NUHW-CNA partnership. For a more illuminating history of SEIU, CNA, and NUHW relationships, past and present, American Prospect readers might want to consult:


The California health care contract give-back trend--led by SEIU-UHW, but resisted by NUHW and CNA--is best documented on a regular basis at:

American Prospect readers deserve better, more first-hand reporting on this complex situation than Meyerson has any apparent interest in providing, given his longtime reliance on just reading press
releases and/or talking to a handful of his usual inside-the-Beltway union headquarters sources.

Best wishes,
Steve Early

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I know this is shocking Harold, but labor organizations do not exist to make you feel good, take up a place in the progressive battle line, or for any other reason but to represent their members. Having your local trusteed for political or mercenary reasons is (for the workers involved) akin to being invaded by a foreign power.

I second Steve Early, who wrote a great book on this subject if you are really interested in the facts of the matter. I have good friends in the SEIU, but the organization's activities in California are unconscionable, as is your ill-informed pox-on-both-your-houses approach.

The “You’re fired/You can’t fire us; we quit” shows real ignorance about how the trusteeship was executed. Against all odds, the trusteed workers and their leaders fought back. This was an example of a fighting union being replaced by a company union, pure and simple. The term "fighting" meaning fighting FOR the workers and AGAINST the bosses, just so their is no misunderstanding.

A pathetic piece of work, really.


Steve Early would like you to think that the battle between NUHW and SEIU has nothing to do with jurisdiction. The fact is the battle started over jurisdiction when the President Sal Roselli refused to abide by a resolution passed at SEIU's International convention that took workers out of his local to be in a local with other workers from the same industry. I appreciate Meyerson not going along with the crowd and cutting through the anti-SEIU venom.

I am not even an SEIU member but I wonder if the members who represent the current majority view think about the election ? http://youtu.be/iF1wHVaF6JE

As an addendum Early has a lot of nerve for baiting Meyerson as an "outsider" "armchair" critic when he spends the majority of his time writing for a labor magazine (Labor Notes) that is staffed exclusively by an overwhelming majority of people who have never worked a union job in their lives whose sole purpose seems to be attacking the leadership of 99.9% of the labor movement.

Is "streetheat" referring to the same Labor Notes whose past conference speakers and/or newsletter contributors have included Tony Mazzochi, Bob Wages, Baldemar Velasquez, Ron Carey, Diana Kilmury, Karen Nussbaum, Nancy Wohlforth, Bill Fletcher, Leo Girard, Larry Cohen, Larry Hanley, and other past or present AFL-CIO council members, AFL headquarters staffers, International union presidents and executive board members?
Were they "attacking the leadership of 99.9% of the labor movement" or themselves as the other .1%?
Having heard them speak at Labor Notes conferences or read their contributions to its pages, I would say they were using Labor Notes as the unique forum that it is
to debate and discuss union organizing, bargaining, and strike strategy, plus many other relevant topics.
"streetheat" does not appear to be a very well informed little internet troll. Perhaps that explains his/her affinity for the lazy health care union reporting of Brother Meyerson?
Steve Early


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