Socialism is the Best Medicine

Socialism is the Best Medicine

War in the House of Labor

April 20, 2008


Union organizing drives in the U.S. medical industry are enjoying a higher-than-average rate of success. Unfortunately, two major health-workers’ unions, the California Nurses Association (CNA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are at war – a term used by both sides.

CNA accuses SEIU of making deals with management that hurt workers. SEIU accuses CNA of sabotaging its union drives. The CNA website posts a sign on its home page, “Had it with SEIU? Work for a REAL union.” The SEIU website posts a sign on its home page, “Hurting Nurses. Silencing Workers. Shame on” This battle has penetrated union ranks on both sides, dividing CNA and SEIU members in the same workplace.

Cynics view this conflict as reason to dismiss all unions. That’s a huge mistake. Workers need unions to counter the relentless greed of business. Employers, politicians and the mainstream media consistently attack unions because even the worst ones block bosses from having complete control of the workplace.

Statistics show that unionized workers are more likely to have medical coverage, pension benefits and protection from sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal. Areas with more unions enjoy higher wages, longer life spans, lower infant death rates, better education and less poverty.

The Issues

American unions were so powerful in the 1930s that employers needed Washington’s help to crush them. Today, after decades of union busting, fewer than eight percent of private-sector workers are in unions, the lowest rate in over a century. Moreover, the remaining unions have been transformed from fighting organizations controlled by workers to bureaucratic organizations dominated by middle-class professionals. For most Americans, the result has been a steady decline in working and living standards.

The battle between SEIU and CNA arose in the context of renewed efforts to defend workers’ rights and centers on three disputes over how to organize:

Should medical facilities be organized wall-to-wall (SEIU includes all health workers) or by trade (nurses in one union and support staff in another)? Wall-to-wall or industrial unions have more power to fight management than craft-based unions. However, in practice, workers organize as best they can in the particular circumstances they face.

Another concern is whether management should be involved in the process of union certification. Labor-management collaboration is generally opposed because it favors management. However, every union contract is a form of labor-management collaboration. SEIU and CNA differ in where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable degrees of collaboration.

The third issue is the extent to which unions should be controlled from the top-down or the bottom-up. A rank-and-file rebellion inside SEIU, United Health Workers-West (UHW) is pushing for more democracy through one-member-one-vote. CNA is using this split to press its case that SEIU is a business union that doesn’t represent workers’ interests. However, UHW also condemns CNA for its top-down sabotage of SEIU union drives.

Instead of debating these issues in a way that would benefit all workers, the leaders of SEIU and CNA are conducting a divisive turf war that is hurting workers.

Taking Sides

In any conflict, there is pressure to take sides. Supporters of CNA insist that it is a more progressive and democratic union than SEIU. The leaders of CNA talk left and have taken a public role in fighting for national medicare. However, in Ohio and on other occasions, CNA leaders have gone over the heads of SEIU rank-and-file workers to dictate what should happen in a particular workplace. That’s not democratic.

Those who favor SEIU point to its proud history of organizing immigrant workers (Janitors for Justice) and supporting social reforms. However, top leaders in SEIU have also functioned undemocratically. The split inside SEIU was provoked when head office moved to silence debate within the union.

Recent labor coverage has favored CNA, especially after busloads of SEIU members stormed the Detroit Labor Notes conference on April 12. A good example is Steve Early’s article on Counterpunch. Early begins by calling SEIU protestors a “rowdy, punch-throwing, rent-a-mob.”

I was inside (and later outside) the Labor Notes banquet hall when SEIU members tried to break through the doors. 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 am certain they boarded those buses to defend their union. If they knew they were going to be in a fight, they would have left the kids at home. One SEIU member died of a heart attack, and another union militant suffered a head wound.

This tragedy was created by the leaders of both unions, who are pitting their members against one another.

I attended several meetings at Labor Notes, where activists from SEIU and CNA expressed their grievances against each other’s unions. I concluded that both sides have legitimate concerns. At the end of his article, Early acknowledges the same, by favorably quoting a member of UHW,

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.”

Sadly, Early concludes by returning to his condemnation of SEIU as the moral loser of the latest round in a continuing battle. However, he never mentions why the Labor Notes conference was attacked.

Labor Notes invited the President of CNA to be the keynote speaker at its conference banquet. Promoting CNA in this way invited the rage of SEIU.

To preserve relations with both unions, Labor Notes should have invited representatives from CNA and SEIU to address the issues in an organized debate. Instead, Labor Notes took the liberal position of choosing between right and left bureaucrats. Most progressives are making the same mistake.

In any union, leaders should be supported ONLY so far as they represent the interests of the rank-and-file. By this measure, the leaders of SEIU and CNA both fail because their ongoing battle has crippled organizing efforts at several sites, to the benefit of management. Moreover, their conflict is undermining democratic forces in both unions who are accused of being “on the other side.” The only real alternative is to stand up for rank and file unity, for class solidarity.

Class-Divided Unions

Today’s labor unions are cross-class organizations, being both working-class organizations of self-defense and part of the management system of capitalism. Most union members are working-class (the rank and file), while most union officials are salaried managers who negotiate with employers to set the terms of exploitation. Turf wars for union recognition arise from this class conflict.

Because most unions are run like businesses, from the top down, more members means more money and more power for union bureaucrats. They want this power to gain more leverage at the negotiating table. That’s why leaders of different unions compete to represent a workplace or group of workers instead of pooling resources and cooperating. Inter-union rivalry is usually justified by claims that one union is better at representing workers than the other. However, inter-union conflict only weakens the ability of workers to stand up to management.

Over the past few decades, rank-and-file workers in different industries have pushed for more militant and democratic unions controlled by members, from the bottom up. Such worker self-organization is opposed by bureaucrats because their power to negotiate with management rests on their ability to control the ranks.

Struggles for rank-and-file control of unions offer a different kind of power, one that rests on the ability of workers to stop production. Because all workers have similar concerns, worker-controlled organizations have the potential to unite workers across divisions of union, workplace and industry and do what bureaucrats have never been able to achieve: build a labor movement strong enough to reverse decades of defeats and concessions.

Rank-and-File Unity

During the Labor Notes conference, as accusations flew between CNA and SEIU, Patricia Campbell of the Independent Workers Union of Ireland (IWE) 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.”

She is right. In each workplace, rank-and-file workers must decide how they organize: whether in wall-to-wall groupings or by trade; and the extent to which they collaborate with management and with other unions. Free and full debate must be encouraged, with votes binding on all. Such self-organization is critical to build workers’ confidence and create unions powerful enough to win real gains.

Right or wrong, and regardless of their intentions, no union official has the right to IMPOSE policy on rank-and-file workers without their consent. This is just as true for CNA as it is for SEIU. To move forward, workers in SEIU and CNA must build on-the-ground unity, based on common class concerns.


The March, 2009 merger between CNA and SEIU must be a bitter pill to swallow for activists of both unions who were convinced by their respective leaderships that the deep antagonism between them was based solely on principles (see comments below).

Now that DeMoro and Stern have buried their hatchet (in the skull of NUHW?), the issue of principled differences has vanished in favor of a larger turf war between the 70,000-strong National Federation of Nurses (NFN) and the 150,000-member United American Nurses-National Nurses Organizing Committee (UAN-NNOC) that includes CNA. (See “Two National Nurses Unions are Born, as Bitter SEIU-California Nurse Rivalry Ends“)

Larger unions do have more power to bargain with employers and agitate for labor and health-care reform. That’s a good thing.

However, as long as rank-and-file workers do not have democratic control of their unions, corruption at the top is inevitable. The rise and fall of the Teamsters Union is a prime example (see the Farrell Dobbs trilogy: Teamster Rebellion, Teamster Power and Teamster Bureaucracy).

The power of any union lies in the collective strength of its members. No matter how the bureaucrats organize and reorganize at the top, our focus must be to strengthen the ability of rank-and-file workers to defend their rights at work and to ensure that their unions represent their interests.

WE are the union, and that can message must never be lost.



  1. April 21/08

    Thanks for the thoughtful post on the CNA/SEIU conflict.

    I do think the basis of the conflict is more fundamental, more ideological and less about mere turf than you would indicate.

    The Stern model of unionisation, taken to its logical conclusion would effectively destroy the ability of all unions to organize based on real worker power and would make collusion with the employer the only useable strategy for organizing.

    Given the recent past history in which SEIU international has chosen to give up nearly every possible worker right and public good in return for organizing rights, one has to assume that the sudden turnaround of the employer in Ohio had been bought at a similarly high price – a price in which the workers had no choice and of which they had no knowledge.

    We have seen multiple instances in which organizing rights have been bought by giving up the right to bargain for a pension, to bargain for healthcare benefits, in which management has been pre-guaranteed control over salary levels and in which SEIU has agreed to use its political power to reduce public health and safety regulation on the employer.

    The Ohio arrangement raised the bar to a new level by inducing management to file for the election. It is my firm belief that the success and future spread of this model of “organizing” would spell the effective end of the labor movement as we know it.

    CNA’s action in stopping this deal was not an attempt to impose anything on the workers there, but was essential to save the labor movement from destruction.

    Note: I am a registered nurse and a volunteer board member of CNA/NNOC

  2. April 21/08

    I completely agree with your rejection of Andy Stern’s let’s-get-cozy-with-management strategy for building SEIU. However, CNA is not innocent in this regard. Four years ago, CNA signed a union election agreement with Tenet Healthcare that traded restrictions, like agreeing not to strike until 2010, for organizing jurisdiction of Tenet nurses.

    CNA did impose its view on the workers in Ohio, by “stopping the deal.” By mailing “VOTE NO” literature to nurses in the hospitals seeking SEIU certification, it broke the union drive. CNA may have thought it was attacking Stern and his strategy, but it severely hurt SEIU activists who had struggled for three years to build that union.

    Instead of “saving the labor movement from destruction” (how patronizing is that?), CNA destroyed a union and generated intense hostility between workers in both unions. How does this benefit the labor movement?

    CNA’s turf war with SEIU is not based on ideology, it is being justified by ideology. If you really believe in worker-controlled unions, then invite SEIU activists to a series of discussions on how best to organize in any particular area. Apologize for what CNA did in Ohio, and make it clear that you have learned your lesson – that workers have the right to make their own decisions and to learn from their own mistakes.

    Such a process would be slower than swooping in to “rescue” workers from a bad deal, but it’s the only way to generate the rank-and-file solidarity that we sorely need to rebuild the labor movement.

  3. April 22/08

    The Tenet situation was more complex than you are likely aware.

    SEIU had made that agreement with Tenet. We were in a competitive situation with them in which we ran each other to a sort of stalemate. A very complex 3-way negotiation among CNA, SEIU and Tenet took place, mediated by a senior AFL official. The end result was that – for California – SEIU agreed not to organize RNs, CNA agreed not to organize other hospital workers, we agreed to support each other’s organizing within our respective spheres and CNA took over the terms of the agreement that SEIU had negotiated with Tenet. Not an agreement we would ever have made on our own, but accepting it was a part of the path to ending that conflict.

    Re: the Ohio situation, the SEIU narrative is that their long fight had finally forced the employer to give them this organizing agreement.

    An alternate view, which I think is supported by some evidence, is that their long fight had failed and had largely been abandoned. This quote, from a recent Labor Notes article, would tend to support that view: “At some of the hospitals no organizing committee existed, and no contact with workers had taken place in years, according to Colleen Gresham, an Ohio nurse and top supporter of SEIU. She discovered that SEIU was formally seeking to represent her when her employer, Cincinnati’s Mercy Mt. Airy hospital, sent her the election notice. “We were actually surprised by the secret vote,” Gresham said. “We didn’t know it was coming.”

    In our view, it is more likely that the increased level of activity in Ohio in the last few months by CNA/NNOC had made the employer re-think their fight with SEIU and consider there might be advantages for them in a deal with a more compliant union.

    As you know, SEIU has been willing to give up an extraordinary amount of worker rights and the public good in order to win organizing rights in other places. Based on past performance, it seems highly likely that was a part of the deal here, and surely not a part in which the workers involved were consulted.

  4. April 22/08

    Your account of the Tenet situation is very revealing.

    By your own admission, because CNA and SEIU were in “a competitive situation” that lead to “a sort of stalemate,” both unions were forced to compromise with the employer. This proves my point. By competing instead of cooperating, both unions lost ground that management was only too happy to claim.

    While you plead extenuating circumstances for CNA in the Tenet situation, you permit no such wiggle room for SEIU in Ohio.

    I don’t know for sure what happened in Ohio, and it seems that you don’t either. Your account is based on third hand information (a Labor Notes interview) followed by speculation “it is more likely,” “based on past performance” and “it seems highly likely.” I expect more solid evidence from a union that launched an assault on another union to “save the labor movement from destruction”!

    Your comments confirm that CNA and SEIU are locked in competition for members and dues. Instead of cooperating to build the strongest possible unions, they are carving up the labor force: As you state, “SEIU agreed not to organize RNs, CNA agreed not to organize other hospital workers, we agreed to support each other’s organizing within our respective spheres.”

    That’s turf-building, whether it takes place cooperatively (Tenet) or antagonistically (Ohio).



  1. WE are the Union | - Solidarity is the Best Medicine - [...] an acute care hospital in San Francisco. This article was first published in PEOPLE FIRST! See also War in…
  2. Union Democracy On Trial | - Solidarity is the Best Medicine - [...] War in the House of Labor and Class-Divided Unions AKPC_IDS += "1202,";Popularity: unranked [?] Share and [...]

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