California healthcare workers spar over medical facility rallies

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By Rebecca Bowe

Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) is holding a series of rallies today at eight different Bay Area medical facilities to “mark the approval of their new contract and organize to enforce it; and throw out an outside organization that is trying to undermine their progress,” according to a press release.

The “outside organization” refers to the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), a young union formed early last year in the wake of a deep rift created when SEIU brought UHW workers under its representation through a trusteeship. NUHW later decried the move as a “hostile takeover.”

Workers at the hospitals, which include five medical centers in the Daughters of Charity Health System, are expected to vote soon on whether they would rather remain under the SEIU-UHW umbrella or break away to join NUHW. The eight medical centers employ roughly 3,500 SEIU-UHW members. SEIU-UHW also plans to deliver an open letter to NUHW tomorrow, Feb. 19, at NUHW's offices in Emeryville.

In conversations with the Guardian about the events, representatives from SEIU-UHW and NUHW each charged that the other side was engaged in spreading lies.

Richard Gutierrez, a member of SEIU-UHW who has been working as a physical therapy aid at the Seton Coastside facility in Moss Beach for a little more than two years, said the rallies were meant to signal to management and NUHW “that we are a united front … united to work against management.”

Gutierrez said he’d been involved in contract negotiations for 18 months, but worried that the newly secured contract would be undermined by pending votes on union representation. “It’s not as strong, because management can drag their tail, and say that right now we’re not going to deal with it,” he said.

Kathleen Blocher, a union member who has worked in the radiology division at Seton Medical Facility in Daly City for more than 30 years, said she didn’t think much of SEIU-UHW’s rallies. “I don’t understand why we’re spending money on a picket when we already have a contract,” she said. “They’re picketing against NUHW, which is not the union of record -- yet.” Blocher believes there is strong support for NUHW, in part because she said it is more member-driven than SEIU.

Blocher also took a dim view of the contract secured by SEIU-UHW, because she said certain provisions that were previously in place had been given up.

“To hear that is a slap in the face,” Gutierrez said when we shared this viewpoint. “97 percent of our membership voted to ratify the contract.” He said he believed the contract was strong, pointing to a provision that grants part-time workers eligibility for healthcare benefits, a rare perk in this economy and job market.

According to Gutierrez and Adriana Surfas, who handles communications for SEIU-UHW, NUHW has been trying to delay the vote on union representation because they fear a lack of support for transitioning to NUHW. “I hope it’s done soon,” Gutierrez said. “The sooner it is, the sooner it shows that we are actually SEIU-UHW.”

Blocher dismissed this charge as completely false. “That makes absolutely no freaking sense to me,” she said. “We should’ve had our vote more than a year ago. And SEIU has put up roadblocks the whole way.”

For more on local labor shakeups, read this week’s report.

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