A federal labor board decision this week has given a major victory to a breakaway union vying with the giant Service Employees International Union to represent tens of thousands of California healthcare workers.
On Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board called for elections to determine who has the right to represent some 2,300 Kaiser healthcare workers employed at various sites in Southern California.
An SEIU affiliate currently represents the workers, but the breakaway group filed a petition in February challenging the SEIU. The balloting, likely to be held in January, will give employees a chance to choose between the two unions.
The decision is the latest development in a bitter battle that pits the SEIU, the dominant union for healthcare workers in California, against the breakaway National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which is seeking to win workers away from the SEIU. The two sides have exchanged charges of union-busting, financial mismanagement and other wrongdoing.
The fight pits perhaps the nation's most influential labor leader, Andy Stern, president of the SEIU, against a former subordinate, Sal Rosselli, who broke with Stern in January after the SEIU placed the healthcare local that Rosselli headed in trusteeship, alleging that he and his allies were improperly using dues to finance an insurrection. Each leader has accused the other of being power-hungry. The schism is one of a number of divisions in the labor movement that have given labor's foes ammunition despite the ascendancy of a pro-labor president and Democratic control of Congress.
Although Tuesday's decision directly affects only about 2,300 healthcare professionals, the NUHW has dozens of similar challenges pending in its effort to woo tens of thousands of workers from the SEIU affiliate, United Healthcare Workers -- West. This ruling, Rosselli said, could be the first of many allowing elections at SEIU healthcare shops, giving workers a chance to drop the SEIU for the NUHW at Kaiser and other employers statewide.
"This will open the door for tens of thousands more to have a democratic vote," said Rosselli, interim president of the NUHW.
The SEIU labels the challenges in Southern California and elsewhere illegitimate, arguing that contracts now in place bar elections at this time. The SEIU also charged that the NUHW does not qualify as a legal labor organization.
But James P. Small, regional director for the federal labor board in Los Angeles, sided with the NUHW.
The decision calls for elections at the three affected bargaining units to determine who represents the workers, a mix of nurses, social workers and other healthcare professionals. They work at dozens of medical offices, clinics and hospitals scattered throughout Southern California.
The SEIU immediately condemned the long-awaited ruling as faulty and said it would file an appeal with the full labor board in Washington. The SEIU charged that a new election could nullify current contracts that provide for raises and profit sharing, costing each worker as much as $15,000 in guaranteed income and benefits in the next two years.
"We think this puts workers' economic security in jeopardy," said Steve Trossman, an SEIU spokesman.
But officials of the NUHW called SEIU's warnings scare talk. Existing contracts would be guaranteed until new ones were negotiated, Rosselli said.
"This is a huge victory," he said. "It demonstrates that SEIU's charges are frivolous tactics meant to prevent SEIU members from having a free choice."