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Breakaway Bay Area union could prompt war of attrition

At a time when workers nationwide stand to make big gains under the Obama administration, the newly formed National Union of Healthcare Workers is seeking alliances with rivals of the powerful SEIU.

February 02, 2009|Paul Pringle

OAKLAND — Late into the night, the last of the holdouts stood pressed against the locked glass door, peering into the murky streets of downtown Oakland, waiting to be routed from their building by fellow unionists.

A long standoff between the giant Service Employees International Union and its second-largest California local was nearing an end. But their respective leaders were preparing for what some say could become a war of attrition for the right to represent tens of thousands of healthcare workers -- and perhaps a boon for employers eager to see a sector of organized labor divided.

"If you don't have a court order, you're not getting in!" Angela Glasper, 48, shouted through the door at two men who approached the local's headquarters. The men soon retreated.

Glasper was among 10 or so members of United Healthcare Workers-West who had been sleeping in the building. Last week, the SEIU placed the chapter into trusteeship, ousted its president, Sal Rosselli, and 17 other elected officers and moved to seize control of the premises. A handful like Glasper refused to leave, determined to send SEIU President Andy Stern a defiant message.

The sacked officers have launched a rival union to raid the SEIU's ranks. That rare step has stoked fears that the "Battle by the Bay" could open a broader rift in labor at a time when unity promises big gains under the pro-union Obama administration.

Rosselli's new organization, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, plans to seek alliances with groups such as the California Nurses Assn., a fierce SEIU foe.

"If we have to tear everything down to build it back up again, so be it," said Mell Garcia, 51, who served on the board of the 150,000-member UHW and had been sleeping for a week amid protest signs and takeout cartons.

"This looks like the beginning of trench warfare," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a UC Santa Barbara labor historian who has followed the Stern-Rosselli feud. Lichtenstein said Stern "blundered" by imposing the trusteeship, but Rosselli was wrong to establish the breakaway union.

"I think we'll have a year or two of strife," Lichtenstein said.

Catherine Fisk, a UC Irvine professor of labor law, said employers would probably try to capitalize on the schism, given the opportunity to persuade workers that the best alternative to two clashing unions is no union at all.

"Historically, fights within unions have been used by employers to their advantage," Fisk said. "It's the classic divide and conquer strategy."

Dave Regan, an SEIU executive vice president and one of two trustees appointed to run UHW, discounted the potential for employer exploitation and the chances that Rosselli's start-up would lure away significant numbers of members.

"The so-called new union doesn't have any members, it doesn't have a program, it doesn't have anything," Regan said. "People are going to decide that they are better off in a large and growing healthcare workers union."

The conflict now shifts to hospitals and nursing homes, where the defectors have began circulating petitions to decertify the SEIU in favor of the nascent union. They also are encouraging workers to withhold dues and political fees from the SEIU.

"We think that in days, thousands of members will petition to join this union, maybe tens of thousands," Rosselli said as he walked out of the UHW building for the final time. He had been president of UHW and a predecessor local for 20 years. "This is a movement."

Not that he expects to compete with SEIU's financial might. The SEIU has annual expenditures of about $265 million, its latest financial reports show. The insurgent union has roughly $250,000, collected at a recent fundraiser.

The new group has leased 1,500 square feet of office space a couple of blocks from UHW's 35,000-square-foot building. So far, the staff consists of the 18 former officers and about 40 people who resigned from UHW, Rosselli said. No one is getting paid, he said.

Laura Kurre, 40, one of the former officers, was helping Rosselli move into the leased office. Choking up, Kurre said it was still sinking in that her 10-year relationship with UHW was over and that she and her husband, a stay-at-home dad, would have to find a way to pay the bills.

"But I feel incredibly uplifted," she said. "There's no other place I'd want to be right now."

Under Rosselli, the UHW had been widely viewed as one of the most vibrant and successful locals in the SEIU, with a record of good contracts and an effective legislative program. But Rosselli and his officers went rogue after Stern proposed transferring 65,000 of the local's members into a new chapter as part of a consolidation effort.

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