Health workers are organizing against a medical industry that ruins people’s lives for profit, and they are enjoying a higher-than-average rate of success (72 percent in 2007). That’s the good news.
The bad news is that two major health workers’ unions, SEIU and CNA, are at war — a term used by both sides. SEIU accuses the CNA of undermining their efforts to organize, and the CNA accuses the SEIU of making cozy deals with management that hurt workers.
This is a real war. The home page of the CNA posts a sign, “Had it with SEIU? Work for a REAL union.” On April 12, hundreds of SEIU members physically attacked the Labor Notes conference to protest the CNA.
There are several roots to this conflict, including the question of whether to organize medical facilities wall-to-wall (SEIU includes all health workers) or by trade (nurses in one union and support staff in another). Wall-to-wall unions are undoubtedly more effective. In practice, workers organize as best they can in the particular circumstances they face. Another pressing concern is the extent to which management should be included in the process of union certification.
Unfortunately, these issues have been submerged by an increasingly vicious turf war that is dividing and weakening the ability of health workers to fight the real enemy — management.
The conflict is complicated by a sizeable rank-and-file rebellion inside SEIU. United Health Workers-West (UHW) opposes top-down control of SEIU and demands one-member-one-vote democracy. CNA is using this split within SEIU to press its case that SEIU is a business union that doesn’t represent workers’ interests. However, UHW condemns CNA for sabotaging a number of its union drives (see www.seiuvoice.org).
As a newer union, CNA boasts that it is more progressive than the longer-established SEIU. And there is some truth to this. On the other hand, CNA’s war with SEIU shows that it also takes a bureaucratic approach to unionizing, going over the heads of rank-and-file SEIU workers to dictate what it believes is the best way forward.
What’s the solution? During the Labor Notes conference, heated accusations flew between CNA and SEIU members. At one point, Patricia Campbell of the Independent Workers Union of Ireland stated: “You must stop fighting among each other and unite. You need to kick out the bureaucrats in both your unions. That’s the only way you can advance your struggle for patients’ and workers’ rights.”
I agree. The union IS the workers. Union leaders, who act against the rank and file of ANY union, should be replaced.
For a class analysis of unions, see my blog of March 23, 2007, “Class-Divided Unions.”