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SEIU stops the bleeding at Kaiser

Score one – a really big one – for the purple team. SEIU held on to its 45,000 members at Kaiser in the largest private sector NLRB election since World War Two. It is a huge setback for the red team, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), who until now won nearly every time employees chose between the two unions. The leaders of NUHW, who were ousted from SEIU and formed a breakaway union last year, may have trouble keeping NUHW viable after this result.

SEIU didn’t just win; they won decisively - which is somewhat of a surprise, given their prior string of defeats, including an election conducted among Kaiser professional employees. They garnered over 18,000 votes, while NUHW lagged far behind with roughly 11,000 votes. NUHW will contest the election by filing objections, claiming SEIU teamed up with Kaiser to intimidate and threaten voters. Given the margin, however, NUHW will likely find it difficult to convince the NLRB that a second election is required.

This election was critical to the futures of both unions. SEIU collects approximately $40 million a year in dues from Kaiser employees. Since NUHW was only recently formed, their dues collections are miniscule. NUHW needed the windfall in dues from Kaiser to fund their operations and challenge SEIU on a nationwide basis. SEIU spent millions on the election to prevent losing millions more in dues, but more importantly, to prevent NUHW from becoming a viable competitor. Without the millions from Kaiser, NUHW will have a very difficult time financing any expansion, and may even have trouble continuing operations.

SEIU’s victory is due to a number of factors. They spent heavily on their campaign, bringing in organizers from around the country to pigeonhole members at their work sites and homes. As the incumbent union, SEIU had the huge advantage of access to employees at the work place. Their main campaign theme was uncertainty, particularly the contention that employees could lose the wage increases and other benefits of the current contract if they brought in NUHW. While NUHW argued (correctly) that switching unions would not automatically erase the current contract terms, the message that switching was risky undoubtedly resonated in the current economic climate.

While NUHW may have trouble getting off the mat, all signs indicate they will keep trying to grab members from SEIU, and the fight will continue.

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