Unity or betrayal
by Htun Lin
Two major health-care workers’ unions in California, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 250 and the California Nurses’ Association (C.N.A.) announced on Dec. 15 that they have established a "mutual cooperation agreement that will unite 330,000 members behind a shared objective of improving working conditions for healthcare workers and the quality of care for patients in California.”
Formerly rival unions competing for the membership of healthcare workers in California, both union bureaucracies finally came to their senses and realized that union workers everywhere have a major battle to confront as more and more corporate employers are declaring war on workers’ health benefits by demanding major concessions.
This union-to-union solidarity comes in the middle of a major strike in Southern California by workers at Safeway and Von’s who are members of the United Food and Commercial Worker’s Union against management demands for health and benefit concessions and two-tier wages. It is critical that labor takes a stand in solidarity with each other and other workers in other unions.
Employers have negotiated as a bloc with UFCW over healthcare cutbacks. They locked out workers at Albertson’s, Kroger, Ralph’s and other stores who were not even involved in the labor dispute.
Striking workers at Safeway for the first ten weeks had been supported by the solidarity of 8,000 Teamsters, big rig drivers and warehouse employees, who refused to cross the grocery workers’ picket lines. Despite the chains hiring replacement workers, many stores had noticeably fewer items in stock, particularly perishables such as vegetables.
But then the Teamsters union said its members would return to work at the grocery chains’ warehouses. No doubt, this move emboldened the company executives in their effort to break the spirit and determination of the striking workers.
COST OF RETREAT
The Teamsters withdrawal of picket support couldn’t have come at a worse moment. If we lose this crucial battle, many workers would begin to ask what is the point of having a union, if it can’t protect the Health and Welfare Funds that have come about as a result of years of struggle and sacrifice by previous labor activists.
Nearly 20 years ago, in 1986, a SEIU Local 250 strike against two-tier wage demands at Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s oldest and largest HMO, lasted eight weeks with the support and solidarity from our colleagues in the California Nurses’ Association. But Kaiser won a 15% two-tier wage reduction, because our own union leaders decided to end the strike. They announced that strike benefits would cease, and that the International was threatening receivership.
Later on, none other than the president of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney, cut a deal with the CEO of Kaiser and pulled the rug out from under nurses strikes which many of us non-RN healthcare workers had joined. Since then, SEIU and CNA have been rival unions as both union bureaucracies have been competing over who should organize which shop.
SEIU and CNA leaders have seldom been seen on shop floors, as both unions emphasized lobbying Congress and State Assembly politicians. Both unions have been instrumental in passing legislation mandating minimum nurse to patient ratios, recommending safety-needles with self-locking devices, and other regulatory agency related measures. However these laws are mere band-aid approaches to remedy a healthcare system which has been systematically dismembered from head to toe.
HMO CHIEFS WRITE THE LAWS
Anyone with faith in the power of legislation only has to look at the current Medicare Prescription bill sponsored by Bush, practically written by the HMO industry to destroy Medicare as we know it. Laws they can’t sabotage, capitalists spend huge amounts of corporate capital to overturn. The recent law in California which requires employers with more than 50 employees to provide health insurance is an example.
There are laws mandating safe work conditions. But it’s an open secret that many employers willfully violate those laws. The jobs of politicians who act as industry watchdogs are dependent on the very same capital which they are supposed to regulate.
By carrot or by stick, employers know it takes the cooperation of us workers to restructure so they can boost their profits. The “teamwork” concept is particularly effective in a union shop when it is the union itself which encourages workers to sacrifice to keep the company “healthy.” That’s why the labor-management partnership exists--to discipline us.
It’s a positive development that two rival unions are now uniting with each other. But it’s high time that unions begin to unite with us--the workers. The union must remember that it takes us workers to make anything work.
Published by News and Letters Committees