Two Health-Care Unions Have Ended Their Relationship

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By Michael Rose and Joyce E. Cutler

May 18 — The National Union of Healthcare Workers and the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United have officially ended their affiliation three years after it began, amid various disagreements over relationships with other labor organizations and allegations of raiding another union's members.

Some 93 percent of NUHW members voted to ratify a disaffiliation agreement reached between the two unions in February, according to an e-mail obtained by Bloomberg BNA that NUHW President Sal Rosselli sent to union members the following month.

The e-mail said that “the staff leadership of CNA wanted to end the affiliation” but that the disaffiliation agreement specified that some $7.2 million in loans from the CNA to the NUHW would be forgiven. That figure was confirmed by the NUHW's LM-2 financial disclosure form filed with the Labor Department March 30.

Aim Was Pooling Resources

The disaffiliation between the CNA and the NUHW has gotten little attention, and the two organizations didn't make any public announcements about it. The two unions initially affiliated with each other in January 2013 (02 DLR A-11, 1/3/13).

At the time, officials of both unions said they were pooling their resources to fight common employers, such as Sutter Health and Kaiser Permanente.

Both the CNA and the NUHW also have long-running rivalries with the Service Employees International Union, stemming mostly from different approaches in dealing with employers and various other disagreements.

The alliance of the NUHW with the CNA, however, “has not been the challenge to the SEIU, especially at Kaiser, that people expected it to be. It just didn't happen,” Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California Santa Barbara and director of the university's Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy, told Bloomberg BNA.

NUHW Formed in 2009

The NUHW currently represents about 11,900 workers, according to its most recent filing with the DOL. It was formed in 2009 after Rosselli was ousted as a leader of a large California SEIU local, United Healthcare Workers West, when SEIU leaders placed it in trusteeship (17 DLR A-17, 1/29/09).

Rosselli told Bloomberg BNA that the disaffiliation agreement was reached through mediation, although a California Superior Court judge in July 2015 granted a motion to compel arbitration filed by the CNA. But the parties never entered arbitration, opting for mediation proceedings instead, Rosselli said.

“Our board right to the very end took the position that we did not want the affiliation to end,” Rosselli said. “But the affiliation agreement itself didn't allow disaffiliation unless both organizations agreed. One couldn’t pull out unilaterally.”

A spokesman for the CNA, Chuck Idelson, declined to comment about the disaffiliation. A spokeswoman for the California Hospital Association also declined to comment.

Court Documents Tell Story

Court documents show that CNA officials were displeased when the NUHW expressed dismay at an anti-raiding agreement reached between the AFL-CIO and the SEIU in 2014.

In an affidavit filed in May 2015 in support of the CNA's motion to compel arbitration, Mike Griffing, CNA field director, said the NUHW was “very unhappy” about the no-raiding agreement and “approached CNA about the viability of NUHW's maintaining its affiliation with [CNA], but no longer being affiliated with the AFL-CIO.” The CNA declined this request.

The court filing came after the NUHW in March 2015 filed a petition for a representation election with the National Labor Relations Board, seeking to replace the SEIU as employees' bargaining representative at Enloe Medical Center in Chico, Calif.

Although the petition was later withdrawn, it prompted SEIU President Mary Kay Henry to file a complaint against the CNA under the no-raid agreement. It also led the CNA to advise the NUHW that it wished to disaffiliate.

NUHW Claims No AFL-CIO Affiliation

In an affidavit, however, Rosselli maintained that the NUHW's petition at Enloe didn't violate the agreement between the SEIU and the AFL-CIO because “NUHW is affiliated with CNA and CNA only” and not with the labor federation.

The NUHW also argued in a court filing that “the real reason that [CNA] seeks disaffiliation is that it is no longer happy with the autonomy that it granted the Respondent under the affiliation agreement, and since it cannot change those agreed-upon terms, it now seeks to sever the agreement completely.”

The various court filings contain several references to comments made by Griffing, who allegedly said at a December 2014 meeting between CNA and NUHW officials that the CNA didn't “want an affiliate we can't control.”

Payments, Raiding at Issue

In his written affidavit, Griffing admitted to making the statement, but he said it was due to the NUHW's failure to make per capita payments it owed to the CNA under their affiliation agreement, as well as its “intent to raid an SEIU bargaining unit without regard to the impact of its actions” on the CNA.

In its filing, however, the NUHW argued that “CNA's reason for invoking arbitration (‘we don't want an affiliate we can't control') is not a dispute that the parties have agreed to arbitrate, and certainly would not be grounds to seek disaffiliation under the agreement.”

Judge Evelio Grillo of the Alameda County Superior Court ultimately disagreed and granted the CNA's petition to compel arbitration.

Separation ‘Not Surprising.'

Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who studies labor issues, told Bloomberg BNA that the disaffiliation of the two unions “was not inevitable but it was not surprising, either.”

“These are two unions that have approaches that differ in some important areas,” Shaiken said. “They both have been innovative, but sometimes where you have the kind of fierce pressures against unions more generally it can exacerbate differences.”

Furthermore, Shaiken said, union alliances don't always lend themselves to success, and raiding can tear union alliances apart.

“Bringing unions together is not as easy as it may appear,” Shaiken said. “You’ve got different histories, perspectives, approaches. There’s a real advantage to having unions work together but when they combine, it’s not unexpected that there could be problems.”

As for the alleged union raiding, the practice “has historically been a third rail of union relations” and “puts a premium on all parties to look at the vast majority of workers who are not in unions right now as the prime target versus workers that are in another union,” Shaiken said.

“That’s very easy to say and far more difficult to do,” Shaiken said. When a union raids, it's often because it believes the workers being targeted are “a far better fit,” and it can represent those workers more efficiently, Shaiken said. “Raiding is a really tough issue for unions and all too prevalent, and it can unwind partnerships.”

Other Alliances Noteworthy

Lichtenstein, meanwhile, said it is noteworthy that when the NUHW split from the SEIU and then associated with the CNA, other unions had supported it.

“Lots and lots of times in labor history you have a dissident group break off or challenge the leadership” of a “more dominant” union, he said. “What was remarkable about the fight inside SEIU and then when NUHW was formed, was the extent to which California unions and national unions allied themselves with this dissident group.”

Rosselli told Bloomberg BNA that “NUHW would not have survived without the tremendous assistance of UNITE HERE,” the International Association of Machinists and rank-and-file members of the CNA.

“Our members have great appreciation for those three organizations that use their member resources to help NUHW form a now stable, growing union,” Rosselli said.

Prospects for Survival?

Going forward, Rosselli told NUHW members that the union is “stronger than ever and getting stronger,” thanks largely to recent contract successes and the forgiveness of the CNA's loan.

Lichtenstein, however, is less optimistic about the prospects of the NUHW's survival. Absent any new leadership, it could cease to exist within 10 years, he said.

It might be possible that if Rosselli were to retire or cede his position to other leaders within the NUHW, the union could at some point rejoin the SEIU, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Rose in Washington at mrose@bna.com; Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at jcutler@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the CNA's petition to compel arbitration is available at http://src.bna.com/fa6; the NUHW's response, including Rosselli's affidavit, at http://src.bna.com/fa7; Griffing's affidavit at http://src.bna.com/fa8, and the court's order at http://src.bna.com/fa9.