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43,000 Kaiser workers set to vote in bitter union faceoff

Huge, politically powerful SEIU battles a small breakaway group, NUHW, in the biggest private-sector labor election since 1941. The two have traded allegations of fiscal misconduct and intimidation.

September 13, 2010|By Paul Pringle, Los Angeles Times

Kaiser spokesman Jim Anderson said 1,600 positions have been cut, but nearly all workers were offered other jobs, took early retirement or left voluntarily. In a statement, another company spokesman, John Nelson, declined to discuss the pension and health insurance matters because "anything we say at this point would put us in a position where we could be accused of favoring one union or the other."

In the buildup to the showdown, the two unions have traded allegations of financial misconduct and illegal intimidation of employees. SEIU has obtained a $1.57-million civil judgment against NUHW and its officers for improperly using union money and property to stage their insurrection. The judgment is under appeal.

Meanwhile, SEIU has been the subject of a federal corruption probe that grew out of Times reports in 2008 on its largest California local, according to court records and people familiar with the investigation. Separately, the former president of another California chapter has been sentenced to federal prison for defrauding a nonprofit organization.

NUHW has invoked those scandals in the Kaiser campaign, alleging that SEIU has yet to clean house. The larger union denies that.

Nine Kaiser workers sympathetic to NUHW have filed a lawsuit accusing the company of colluding with SEIU by paying workers to campaign against the smaller union. Nelson said the company "is entirely neutral in this dispute." He said Kaiser "can't respond to specific questions about the lawsuit at this time, because it might be perceived to have an influence on the election."

Many of the charges and countercharges have been lodged with the slow-moving National Labor Relations Board, causing lengthy delays in elections between the two unions and prompting NUHW to allege that the panel has favored the politically influential SEIU. The breakaway group has won elections to represent 2,300 other Kaiser employees, and has about 5,700 members altogether. Among its losses was a narrow defeat for about 10,000 Fresno-area homecare workers.

The new union also has withdrawn from about 30 elections in which SEIU appeared strong. SEIU has pulled out of three elections. More votes are awaiting the labor board's go-ahead.

The Kaiser ballot count begins the first week of October.

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