War in the House of Labor

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.”

Susan Rosenthal is a life-long socialist, retired physician, union member, and the author of POWER and Powerlessness (2006). Sick and Sicker: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care (2010), and Rebel Minds: Class War, Mass Suffering, and the Urgent Need for Socialism (2019). She can be reached at: susan@susanrosenthal.com. Read other articles by Susan.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. D.R. Munro said on April 15th, 2008 at 5:03am #

    This is America. Big Unions are Big Business with a different face, using the influence of workers to pad their own pockets.

  2. Susan Rosenthal said on April 15th, 2008 at 5:38am #

    Many people believe that unions are corrupt and useless and not worth defending. This is a big mistake. Employers, politicians, and the media continue to attack unions because even weak and corrupt unions prevent bosses from having complete control over the workplace.

    Workers need unions. Only by banding together can workers counter the relentless assaults of big business.

    Unionized workers are more likely to have medical coverage, pension benefits, and protection from sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal. Unions raise living standards. Areas with more unions offer higher wages, higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality, better education, and less poverty.

    American unions were so strong in the 1930s that Washington helped employers to crush them. By 2005, the percentage of private-sector workers in unions had dropped to less than eight percent, the lowest rate in more than a century. Most of the remaining unions have been transformed from fighting organizations controlled by workers to bureaucratic organizations dominated by middle-class professionals.

    Today’s unions are cross-class organizations, that is, they are working-class organizations of self-defense and part of the management system of capitalism. While most ordinary union members are working-class (the rank and file), most union officials are middle-class professionals who help employers to manage the workforce.

    Current battles to democratize the unions are extremely important and must be fully supported. They are our only hope for reversing the grotesque inequalities that dominate America.

    Workers ARE the union. To build strong unions we must take collective control of them. Moreover workers in all unions must come together, as a class, to fight for all workers’ rights.

  3. Shannon said on April 15th, 2008 at 6:08am #

    A couple of pointes here…The California Nurses Association has been around since 1903, making it far older than SEIU.

    A blanket statement that “wall to wall unions are more effective” is rather simplistic. You must understand the underlying philosophies that are the basis for this “war”.

    CNA has a long history and reputation for militance against employers, long oppoising labor-management partnerships that Andy Stern/SEIU and many others in the labor movement have embraced.

    In that context, to say that a wall to wall “partnership” union is more effective at representing employees is a disservice to RNs (and workers in general) who organize with a clear understanding that employers will stab us in the back any chance they get.

    “Partnerships” breed complacency and an organizational startegy of preserving the status-quo as opposed to pushing the envelope. If I’m in a union, I want it to be a union that fights with the employer and is not a subsidiary of it.

  4. Susan Rosenthal said on April 15th, 2008 at 7:50am #

    You distort my words. I did not say that “a wall to wall “partnership” union is more effective at representing employees.”

    Industrial-based unions have more power to fight management than craft-based unions. However, as I stated, “In practice, workers organize as best they can in the particular circumstances they face. ”

    I oppose labor-management collaboration, because it favors management. However, in real life, every union contract is a form of labor-management collaboration. Where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable degrees of collaboration isn’t always clear.

    My point is that rank-and-file workers in any particular workplace must decide how they organize, as they are the ones who have to live with the consequences.

    Right or wrong, and regardless of their intentions, no union official has the right to IMPOSE labor solutions on rank and file workers without their consent. That is just as true for CNA as it is for SEIU.

  5. Jerry D. Rose said on April 16th, 2008 at 1:04pm #

    In case you missed it, you might want to check out Steve Early’s post on the same Labor Notes conference mentioned in this article in Counterpunch: http://www.counterpunch.org/early04152008.html. LN is described as a kind of meeting of dissidents or “trouble-makers” within the unions and their meeting, as described by Early, was disrupted and picketed by what he calls a rent-a-mob of SEIU who were bussed there by Stern after the meeting was underway, in apparent protest of a plan to have a CNA speaker (which never materialized). This might give a little perspective to the discussion between Susan and Shannon about the viability of “partnerships” between warring union factions.

  6. Jerry D. Rose said on April 16th, 2008 at 1:11pm #


    This is the link to Steve Early’s article. Seems to have been broken from what I just posted. If it doesn’t work, you can look it up on counterpunch.org for April 15; it’s work the effort if you’re interested in this topic.

  7. Jerry D. Rose said on April 16th, 2008 at 1:11pm #


    This is the link to Steve Early’s article. Seems to have been broken from what I just posted. If it doesn’t work, you can look it up on counterpunch.org for April 15; it’s work the effort if you’re interested in this topic.

  8. Susan Rosenthal said on April 17th, 2008 at 6:06am #

    Bmployers rule by dividing the workforce. Therefore, when workers begin to organize, disagreements are inevitable.

    Instead of debating the issues in a way that will benefit all workers, the leaders of SEIU and CNA have launched a divisive turf war. If the war is not stopped, one or both unions will be destroyed, and only management will win. Taking sides keeps the war going. Stopping it requires a different strategy.

    Steve Early opens his CounterPunch article by calling SEIU protestors a “rowdy, punch-throwing, rent-a-mob.” Such inflammatory language fuels the war by inviting contempt for SEIU and sympathy for CNA.

    I was inside (and later outside) the Labor Notes banquet hall when SEIU members tried to break through the doors, and such tactics must be condemned. However, this was no “rent-a-mob.” Most were ordinary union members, including families with small children, most looking poor and many of them Black. I have no doubt that they boarded those busses to defend their union. If they knew they were going to be in a fight, they would have left the kids at home. One of them died, and another union militant was injured.

    Let’s be clear. This tragedy was created by the leaders of SEIU and CNA, who are pitting their members against one another. Who could possibly benefit from such tactics?

    Union turf wars involve more than principle. For salaried union bureaucrats, more members means more money and more power. We have seen too often how the concerns of workers (internal democracy, the ability to defend grievances and win concessions from management) are manipulated by union bureaucrats to serve their own interests.

    I attended three meetings at the conference, where activists from SEIU and CNA aired their grievances against one another. I concluded that both sides have legitimate concerns. At the end of his article, Early acknowledges the same. He quotes, “Many participants, who can fairly be described as members of the labor left and generally suspicious of top union leaders, were actually very sympathetic to the SEIU’s grievance against CNA surrounding the events in Ohio.” Early then returns to his condemnation of SEIU, making no distinction between the actions of the leadership and the rank-and-file, and subordinating the concerns of workers on both sides.

    We can stop this war only by recognizing the real class division that exists inside the union movement. To move forward, we must build on-the-ground unity between workers in both unions, based on common workplace concerns.