Tuesday, April 1, 2008 | 2 a.m.
A California-based nurses union is seeking to exploit a national rift in the country’s largest and fastest-growing union by poaching nurses at three local St. Rose Dominican hospitals, according to state labor leaders and national experts.
The California Nurses Association last week submitted several hundred signatures of nurses at St. Rose who want to ditch their current union, the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU is fighting back with a complaint to the AFL–CIO accusing the CNA of violating the labor federation’s anti-raiding rules.
The federal labor board is reviewing the CNA’s filing. Elections are usually held within 38 days of a petition being filed.
CNA leaders say it’s likely only the beginning of a campaign to win over nurses at Nevada hospitals.
“This seems like a nasty vendetta that will have repercussions for health care workers across the country,” said Janice Fine, a professor of labor relations at Rutgers University.
“There are some instances where having competition in the labor movement is a good thing. This is not one of them.”
The showdown comes amid a public fight between the SEIU’s international president, Andy Stern, and the leader of one of its largest locals, Sal Rosselli of California.
The leaders are battling over how to best grow the union. Rosselli has accused Stern of promoting a “growth at any cost” strategy, which he says has included backroom deals with companies at the expense of higher contract standards. Stern and his allies counter that short-term sacrifices at the bargaining table will yield membership gains — and more clout in the long run.
As the debate rages on the national stage, so have the CNA’s battles with the SEIU, both in Nevada and elsewhere.
“CNA is making hay out of this,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
The timing of CNA’s efforts is no coincidence, experts say.
“I think CNA is positioning itself as the savior,” Fine said.
In December the CNA bested the SEIU in a battle to represent 500 unorganized nurses at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Reno. And last month the CNA sent organizers into eight Catholic hospitals in Ohio to undercut a deal that SEIU leaders had struck with hospital managers to allow the SEIU to organize without interference.
The CNA, regarded as a somewhat militant labor organization, is taking a similar tack here, sending California nurses dressed in scrubs into cafeterias and lobbies of St. Rose hospitals to organize nurses. CNA leaders say the recent criticism of Stern from within his own union shows the need for an alternative.
The attempt here is more pitched, however, because the nurses already have representation.
That’s an important distinction, said Danny Thompson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada AFL-CIO.
The CNA is essentially trying to piggyback on the SEIU’s work, Thompson said. “That was a long, hard-fought battle to get those (hospital) contracts,” he said. “We are going to do everything in our power to stand behind the SEIU.”
The move here surprised labor experts, given that the CNA last year joined the national AFL-CIO, which has taken strong stances against raiding and forged some state alliances with the rival labor federation Change to Win. The CNA, they said, should concentrate its organizing efforts on nurses elsewhere in the vastly nonunion health care industry.
Some nurses, however, thought the SEIU, despite winning strong contracts, had failed to represent them and enforce those contracts in the workplace. As a result, nurses said they reached out to the CNA.
“I have felt for over a year that our current union is going in a different direction,” said Toni Walsh, former chief nursing steward at St. Rose and a current ICU nurse at the Siena campus. “CNA is a professional union that will address the issues in the way we need them addressed.”
The CNA challenge is the most recent sign of dissension in the local. Some members have raised concerns about a lack of internal union democracy. Among other examples, they point to the overturning of an election in which several candidates opposed to SEIU Nevada Executive Director Jane McAlevey won, leading to a second contest in which McAlevey and her top lieutenants — whose job it is to represent all members — actively campaigned for favored candidates.
CNA supporters also point to what they call contract failings, including a recent increase in health care premiums for some St. Rose nurses as a result of changes negotiated by an SEIU local in California.
But the California local represents only ancillary staff such as housekeepers, technicians and dietary aides. Thus the SEIU’s contract with St. Rose, which is owned by Catholic Healthcare West, essentially forced an agreement between ancillary staff and Catholic hospitals in California on registered nurses at St. Rose.
“The nurses are furious about it,” said Jill Furillo, director of CNA’s Catholic health care division. She said nurses at St. Rose also are upset that staffing ratios in some units aren’t being enforced.
But McAlevey said the SEIU is fighting hard on both issues.
When the premiums increased, McAlevey said the SEIU organized a petition campaign and marched on management to display its dissatisfaction. The union is renegotiating the health plan in its current contract talks with St. Rose, she said.
McAlevey emphasized that since 2004 the SEIU has won enforceable staffing ratios, a fully employer-paid health plan option and retiree health care benefits in contracts with St. Rose.
The contracts, she said, set the standard for private hospitals in right-to-work states.
She called the CNA petition drive a sideshow and said she was confident the SEIU would triumph in an election — if it comes to that. McAlevey says that, if anything, the union has become more democratic as a result of her actions, noting that she has empowered the union by dramatically increasing the size of its negotiating teams and scrapping management-favored gag rules during bargaining.
As for the national debate in the SEIU, McAlevey says the Nevada local, which represents 17,500 health care and public-sector workers, is an example of how the union can achieve both growth and higher standards.
“I reject the entire debate,” she said. “There’s a lot of white, a lot of black and I see a lot of gray.”