The New Threat to
the Progressive Labor Movement
By Zenei Cortez Beyond Chron April 25, 2008
The controversial and failed effort by Catholic Healthcare Partners in Ohio to hand-pick a union to represent their employees is not a new problem for the labor movement - but a very old one. It's unfortunate that SEIU's resort to using violence in the wake of this defeat has distracted from the real danger in this situation, which is the new rise of company unions. The California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee commits to working against company unions any time they threaten healthcare workers.
After the 1914 Ludlow mine massacre, John D. Rockefeller hit upon this perfect strategy for labor "peace": a union either controlled directly by the employer or which at least would agree to further the employer's interests-the company union. His maneuver undercut miner solidarity in the aftermath of the massacre and turned national attention away from the company's disgraceful record. Within just a few years, more than one million workers were represented by these phony unions, putting the entire labor movement at risk.
What Rockefeller proposed last century is being eyed today by hospital and HMO chains. We are entering an era of heightened healthcare unionization, which will result in either a progressive, democratic, movement of workers committed to better patient care or in a new wave of unions that don't stand up to employers so much as cuddle up to them.
That is exactly the scenario that Catholic Healthcare Partners faced in Ohio. They were in talks with both the AFL-CIO and SEIU, a stark contrast. The AFL-CIO remains America's House of Labor, and has become a more progressive and effective force in recent years. SEIU under Andy Stern, on the other hand, has embarked on a strategy of growth built on corporate agreements. Stern's deals with nursing home operators, hospital chains, insurance corporations, and the pharmaceutical industry have consistently placed the wants of his corporate allies ahead of the needs of workers.
Faced with this choice, Catholic Healthcare Partners dropped talks with the AFL-CIO, and made a back-room deal for a snap election with SEIU. It is noteworthy that CHP themselves filed for the election, most likely because of a distinct lack of worker support. Not only does Andy Stern's SEIU have a poor reputation among RNs nationally, but at this very chain, three years of organizing at five hospitals had only led to fourteen nurses supporting SEIU.
That's a failed organizing drive. By contrast, most union elections require a showing of interest of at least 30 percent of the employees.
This lack of worker support forced CHP to run its election in a nearly-unprecedented manner. Both hospital and union officials were gagged from answering questions from workers ... they were literally blocked from giving out the most basic information. Other unions, including CNA/NNOC, which has members at the facilities, were barred from the ballot. The snap elections were held with just two weeks' notice.
RN's from across the country saw this as a threat not only to their labor rights, but also to their professional practice, which SEIU has a poor record of defending. About a dozen of these RNs from California and Ohio traveled throughout the state, and after a few days of campaigning at the hospitals, were able defeat a deal that the Ohio Hospital Association, the lobbying group, called "refreshing."
In a humiliating defeat not only for themselves, but for all employers looking to hand-pick a union, Catholic Healthcare Partners was forced to withdraw its petition to hold a vote. While its collapse was not mourned by employees ,the employer made its feelings clear to the Associated Press: "We believe in the process we developed, and we hope to use it in the future."
CHP and all other hospital chains should be on notice: any time an employer files for an election to determine representation of Registered Nurses, that employer will have to face the RNs of the California Nurses Association and National Nurses Organizing Committee. We are a progressive, democratic, feminist social movement trade union and we will not allow you to undermine our work with a new wave of company unionism.
As at Ludlow, the stakes are too high.
Zenei Cortez is President of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA/NNOC.) In our April 22nd edition, Beyond Chron published the opinion of an SEIU member regarding this controversy.
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