SEIU preaches unity while trying to divide and conquer CNA

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By Steven T. Jones

Service Employees International Union is caught in the position of decrying efforts by breakaway leaders of the new National Union of Healthcare Workers to steal away SEIU members during a critical moment for the labor movement, while at the same time SEIU is meddling in the internal affairs of another union, California Nurses Association.

On Thursday, CNA blasted SEIU for “impersonating nurses in a multimillion dollar campaign” to topple current CNA leaders and replace them with candidates closer to SEIU and its incremental approach to health care reform. The charges echoed those by Sal Rosselli and other NUHW leaders, who say SEIU under President Andy Stern has sacrificed member interests and rights in its drive become a national powerhouse that works closely with elected officials and large corporate employers.

SEIU spokesperson Michelle Ringuette responded dismissively: “CNA has made wild and untrue charges against SEIU members before. This release is more of the same…It is true that there are CNA members that are unhappy with the direction their union is taking. We have spoken with a number of them, and we support the CNA nurses who want to hold their union’s leaders accountable.”

But the next day, after the Guardian identified SEIU members from other states who have been contacting CNA members in an aggressive campaign to unseat CNA leadership, Ringuette admitted to the campaign, defiantly saying SEIU would do everything in its power to protect its interests.

CNA’s leaders say SEIU’s campaign is illegal. And it certainly belies claims that SEIU leaders have made about the NUHW situation, in which Ringuette and others have repeatedly said union infighting now is major distraction from efforts to pass the landmark Employee Free Choice Act and stave off deep cuts threatened by the dire budget situation in California and its cities and counties.

Barb Savitz, a CNA member and nurse at California Pacific Medical Center’s California Street campus in San Francisco, yesterday told the Guardian about a call she received last week from Jessica Volmer (who has a Denver phone number), identifying herself only as a nurse with Nurses Alliance. “She said, ‘We’re calling up CNA members to ask how they feel about CNA and its leaders,” Savitz said. She said Volmer went on to accuse CNA of squandering union dues on out-of-state campaigns and urging Savitz to run for a leadership post.

When the Guardian contacted Volmer, her voicemail message identified her as a member of SEIU, and she did not return our call to discuss the situation. Another SEIU campaigner identified by CNA, Stacy Manuel from Washington state, refused to state her affiliation when contacted by the Guardian and hung up when we tried to ask her a few questions.

“These tactics are deplorable and should have no place in something called a labor movement,” CNA spokesperson Chuck Idelson told the Guardian, decrying the “strong arm tactics and unethical behavior of SEIU.”

When confronted with the actions by Volmer, Manuel and other SEIU organizers, Ringuette said, “That totally doesn’t surprise me. SEIU members are really frustrated with CNA,” while denying the campaign was orchestrated by SEIU itself or using SEIU resources. But then should took a defiant tone and said SEIU is within its rights to attack CNA.

“We have absolutely been talking to them about their internal process and urging people to run for the board, which is perfectly legal,” she said, something Idelson disputes, citing federal laws that prohibit unions from using dues money to interfere with other unions.

But Ringuette said they were simply responding to CNA efforts last year to challenge an SEIU election in Ohio, where CNA members distributed fliers criticizing SEIU for cutting a back room deal with the employer who called the election. “Yes, we’ve had organizers in California since they screwed with our election in Ohio,” Ringuette said. “We are unable to ignore things that represent direct threats to our members.”

Idelson defended the Ohio action as informing health care employees of a secret deal that was against their interests and part of SEIU’s larger strategy of expanding its membership by working with employers to diminish patient advocacy protections and other health care standards.

“We’re out there trying to raise standards at the moment that SEIU is trying to lower them,” Idelson said, adding that in Ohio, “We didn’t create a phony front group. We said it was us. We don’t think employers should be calling elections.”

Beyond taking a generally more adversarial approach to large health care employers, CNA is also an advocate of a single-payer health care system and opposed last year’s effort by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to require all Californians to buy health insurance, which SEIU strongly supported.

Ironically, the SEIU head in Ohio during that battle was David Regan, who SEIU has now sent to California to act as trustee of its Oakland-based Union of Healthcare Workers local, from which Rosselli and his leadership team was removed last week after battling with Stern over a plan to divide UHW members.

Rosselli’s new union, NUHW, has been moving rapidly to build a union from disaffected SEIU members. NUHW spokesperson John Borsos told the Guardian on Thursday that, “We have filed petitions for 101 facilities and 25,000 workers in just seven days. It is a social movement!”

Ringuette and Regan have criticized Rosselli for creating divisions at a sensitive time and said SEIU has contacted tens of thousands of UHW members to hear their concerns and urge unity. “They want to know why the union has been focused on this other stuff,” Regan said of the UHW-SEIU battle. “We have to show people that we’re on their side and we care about the work that we have to do together.”

But those loyal to Rosselli say SEIU should respect its members’ right of self-determination and to elect leaders rather than have Stern impose them. Shayne Silba, a psychiatric technician at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, said SEIU should let go of units where a majority of workers have asked to join NUHW: “We hope Andy Stern and SEIU will walk away and leave us alone.”