For years, the powerful Service Employees International Union has played a lead role in the campaign for a landmark federal law that would allow workers to join a labor organization simply by signing petitions.
Now, as part of a high-stakes battle in California, the union is urging federal officials to throw out petitions signed by tens of thousands of its own members who have asked to be represented by a rival upstart group.
The David-vs.-Goliath face-off pits the SEIU, its $300-million annual budget and its legions of staffers, lobbyists and lawyers against a band of about 150 insurgents who are either volunteers or being paid from donations. Most have defected from the SEIU's 2-million-strong ranks.
In lodging legal challenges to the roughly 80 petitions filed by its fledgling competitor, the SEIU has moved to block organizing elections at hospitals, clinics and nursing homes up and down the state. And it has used some of the same tactics that employers often use to thwart union drives.
One of the giant union's allegations echoes a key argument that corporate interests make against the proposed law, the Employee Free Choice Act: that labor activists can intimidate or mislead workers during organizing campaigns.
"The SEIU is advocating free choice for every employee in the United States, unless you're an SEIU member," said John Borsos, an interim vice president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which says it has enough signatures to represent nearly 100,000 employees. "The only reason the SEIU doesn't want elections is that they know they would lose."
SEIU President Andy Stern said his union has a legal responsibility to object to the elections because it believes the leaders of the new group have violated labor laws. He accused them of stalling wage-and-benefit negotiations with employers to keep contracts open and leave the SEIU vulnerable to membership raids.
Stern said his union's actions have not undermined its position on the free choice act.
"There is a policy question and there's a legal question," he said in an interview. "This is a legal proceeding. . . . Ultimately there will be a vote."
The SEIU has turned for help to an agency that it has frequently scorned and whose ways the free choice act aims to reform: the National Labor Relations Board. The union has filed a welter of unfair-practice charges with the board, alleging in part that the new group has restrained and coerced workers in plotting to launch the breakaway organization.
The healthcare union says that the charges are frivolous. It has successfully petitioned for three elections outside the labor board's jurisdiction.
Alleging improprieties, the SEIU had sought through the state to block the first vote, to represent employees at a San Pablo hospital, then lost in a rout: 158 to 24. In a second, much-larger election -- for 10,000 home-care workers in the Fresno area -- the SEIU did not ask state officials to halt the balloting. It deployed about 900 people to campaign and won narrowly, 2,938 to 2,705. The new union says it is challenging the Fresno result.
The third election is underway by mail.
Heading the healthcare union are former SEIU officers ousted after their Oakland-based local was removed from their control and placed in the hands of trustees early this year.
The Oakland officers broke with SEIU's leadership after accusing them of weakening the union through forced mergers of locals and sweetheart deals with employers. The SEIU called those complaints a smoke screen, saying the dissidents had resisted a program to modernize the union to position it for growth.
One of the SEIU's allegations in the petitions dispute has raised eyebrows in labor and Democratic Party circles. The SEIU contends that the new union is "dominated by employers," and thus illegal, because former Bay Area political consultant Clint Reilly, who employs janitors as a commercial landlord, had helped its organizers raise money before they formed the group.
He "is trying to destroy our union," said Dave Regan, an SEIU executive vice president.
Reilly, who once ran for San Francisco mayor and has a decades-long record as a pro-labor Democrat, said he has worked alongside the SEIU in the past. He has managed political campaigns for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both of California. During the 2008 presidential election, Reilly said, he hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Rodham Clinton in a building that he also made available to the new union's leaders, who at the time were still in the SEIU.
He said the janitors are SEIU members. But the accusation that his status as an employer has tainted the new union is bogus, he said, particularly because he is not in the healthcare field.
"Why the NLRB is even pursuing this as a serious claim is beyond me," Reilly said.
For its part, the healthcare union, known as NUHW, has filed charges alleging that the SEIU has colluded with employers to defeat the new group.