In what ACORN founder Wade Rathke called an "old foot-stomping, ass-whipping blowout," two weeks ago the California affiliate of the Service Employees International Union decisively defeated the locally based National United Healthcare Workers for the right to represent 43,000 employees of Kaiser Permanente in California. In the largest private-sector union election since workers at Ford Motor Company voted to join the United Automobile Workers in 1941, the NUHW failed to decertify the SEIU, which has represented Kaiser workers for many years.
Now that the workers have spoken, it is time for this country's labor left to listen — including the ingrown left of the Bay Area.
Eighteen months ago, the former leadership of the SEIU California hospital division left its union to start the NUHW. While the leadership of the new union had been firmly ensconced in the SEIU for many years, it was uncomfortable with the direction of the national union. In a calculated gamble, these former leaders thought they would quickly be welcomed as the bargaining representative for their former members. Strapped for cash, they solicited and received help from a number of major unions that had issues with the SEIU. San Francisco political activist Clint Reilly set up a foundation to funnel money to the upstart union. According to a June 2010 National Labor Relations Board memorandum, Reilly's foundation paid more than $100,000 in printing expenses, rent, and legal expenses for the NUHW.
These darlings of the labor left lobbied politicians and intellectuals to come to their aid. A "who's who" of San Francisco progressives pledged money and support in their fight against the SEIU. Democratic Party Chair John Burton, as well as professors at UC Berkeley and other campuses, eagerly signed on. Academic supporters solicited help from their pals, and intellectuals wrote and circulated letters in support of the NUHW. Some educators and writers worked as a PR operation for the NUHW. Due to their efforts, superlatives in favor of the NUHW flew through cyberspace. They claimed that this election would be a turning point in the labor movement, and fretted that American workers would be doomed if the SEIU won.
The battle was well played by each side. SEIU did not become a two-million-member union without organizing prowess, and it played to win, spending millions of dollars and hiring professional organizers to be sure that every worker was contacted. The SEIU also played the election rules smartly, knowing that workers would respect it for securing a good contract in advance of the election.
The NUHW's strategy combined worker activism with support from the outside left. The passion of its on-the-job supporters was inspirational. They put their heart and soul into fighting for what they believed in. No one who cares about the conditions of those who labor for a living can help but feel empathetic for the workers who voted for the NUHW.
But alongside this magnificent display by NUHW worker supporters, the union's active non-worker allies were not so pristine. Snarky web sites with names like Perez Stern and Stern Burger with Fries, parodied the former leaders of the SEIU, Andy Stern and Ana Burger, ridiculed SEIU staffers by name, and produced a constant flow of unpleasant but clever cartoon images. These web sites lauded every bump and bruise that the SEIU suffered anywhere, even cheering when a hostile employer would frustrate workers' attempts to stage a successful SEIU organizing drive.
When the results of the vote were announced, these NUHW allies had been punched in the face by the Kaiser workers. The National Labor Relations Board announced that the SEIU had received 18,290 votes, or 61 percent, compared with just 11,364 for the NUHW. In a union election, this is a gigantic margin.
Now the NUHW's academic supporters are boxed in. How can they rationalize this debacle? They have begun by blaming the workers. Randy Shaw, the editor of Beyond Chron and a rabid NUHW supporter, wrote that "If workers find their way to the truth, NUHW can prevail." This implies that these Kaiser workers are just not as smart as NUHW supporters such as himself. And the good folks at Labor Notes, a stalwart union journal that preaches a gospel of "militancy," claim that the workers fell prey to "fear."
According to these militants, these poor workers — who have secured some of the best healthcare wages and benefits anywhere — were so timid that they could not even check the right box in a mail election. But if the workers were so scared, they could have voted with management. After all, frightened workers usually vote for the boss, and in this election, there were three choices: SEIU, NUHW, and no union. But, Kaiser workers want a union; they understand the importance of collective action. Only 365 of nearly 30,000 voters chose "No Union."
The workers at Kaiser were not cowed and they are not stupid, no matter what the ingrown left thinks. As Rathke has detailed on his blog, ChiefOrganizer.org, the SEIU simply ran a better campaign, with better resources.
Labor's intellectuals claim that Kaiser workers chose fear, not hope. But if there is one thing that we have learned under President Obama, it's that hope without effective action is worse than no hope at all. Just saying you are the most militant or pure will not do it.