Class enemies in union clothing

From the November-December 2011 issue of News & Letters:

Workshop Talks

Class enemies in union clothing

by Htun Lin

The spreading Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has gripped the attention of the country. Some signs in these tent cities say “Occupy Everything!” The police continue to look for leaders while city leaders try to figure out a way to remove the tent cities.

The California Nurses Association (CNA) declared its support for the occupiers with its own slogan, “Tax Wall Street, Not Workers.” In Oakland, CNA set up a health tent for the demonstrators. While the news focuses on the occupations, it is important not to forget other actions of those expressing discontent from below.

In the East Bay there was a one-day strike of healthcare workers, which included Kaiser HMO as well as Summit and Alta-Bates of the Sutter Hospital Chain. In all, 29,000 workers from multiple unions and various locales were involved in one of the largest healthcare strikes ever. (See “Sutter Nurses Strike,” p. 3.)

This strike occurred just before the OWS movement took off in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. We healthcare workers of California took to the streets to protest the attacks against patients and workers alike. At issue was not only healthcare, pension and sick day take-aways demanded by the employers, but standard-of-care issues for patients.

Management wanted to impose a gag order against nurses who advocate for their patients. The Service Employees (SEIU) opposed the strike, even repeating Kaiser’s unlawful threat to discipline employees, including termination, if they honored the picket line.

One of CNA’s flyers declared: “Kaiser–Stop Acting like Wall Street, Side with Main Street.” The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and CNA flyers detailed the multi-million dollar bonuses and salaries Kaiser executives lavish on themselves, while they demand cutbacks from workers and patients, all in the name of cost control. We union workers are offered performance bonuses as an incentive for us to get with their program to restrict care.

Last October, in an historic California statewide Kaiser election, both Kaiser management and SEIU threatened to take away our performance bonuses if workers voted out SEIU in favor of NUHW. (See “Unions battle, workers suffer,” Sept.-Oct. 2010 N&L.) This September, an NLRB judge ruled that SEIU’s campaign of disinformation and fear was so pervasive that she threw out the election results.

SEIU CREATES FEAR AND INTIMIDATION

The NLRB judge said, “SEIU’s tactics created a climate of misplaced fear and intimidation…Kaiser unlawfully withheld benefits of NUHW members after NUHW won three elections in Southern California. SEIU then turned the employer’s illegal actions into threats.”

The judge argued that the “robocalls and flyers were menacing reminders that Kaiser not only could but already had unilaterally withheld benefits when other employees had chosen to be represented by NUHW.” A San Jose Mercury opinion column rightly called this “election fraud and union corruption,” which “puts at risk the integrity of the labor movement, and confidence in union governance.”

Union workers at Kaiser lost confidence in their unions long ago.  We workers realized that Kaiser management preferred SEIU so much during the election that it was willing to do anything, even break the law, in order to get their partner re-elected.

LET’S RE-OCCUPY OUR OWN LABOR

We workers have known what the NUHW officials are only now coming around to articulate and what media pundits have yet to realize: that Kaiser and SEIU are in partnership with each other, not with us. They promote the corporate interests of the two partners: Kaiser’s revenue flow, and SEIU’s union dues flow. The corrupt behavior of Kaiser and SEIU during the election was not an aberration, but only revealed who they really are.

Beyond occupying Wall Street, what is at stake is our own relationships with each other and our own labor. It is high time we “re-occupy” our own labor, not just with our bodies, but with our minds. Everything else then will follow: from the labor movement to union democracy to healthcare to economic justice.  Only when we re-occupy our own concrete laboring activity can we “Occupy Everything!”

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