T he union, now shut out from the hospital, was engulfed in its own problems. In San Diego, workers approached a life-or-death vote on the union presence in the facility and simultaneously, SEIU resources were being consumed by controversies across California.
Hospital administrators recruited employees to sign a petition for what is called a decertification election, which in union parlance is when workers may throw the union out through a majority vote. Decertifications have become a staple for anti-union employers to pressure their employees to vote out the union, labor observers say.
“A straight out decertification vote is often a battle royale,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, Director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara. “Usually the union will mobilize all of its organizers and flood the facility to stop the decertification.”
After their employees’ successful campaign to vote in SEIU in 2004, hospital management had promoted and lost two decertification elections. Workers voted in support of the union each time. This was the fourth time these workers faced a make-or-break vote.
Against this backdrop, Mike Wilzoch served as SEIU’s lone organizer in San Diego working against Children’s Hospital management. He was basically an army of one from August through December, when a few organizers, with limited San Diego experience, joined him.
After three failures, hospital management brought in consultants and escalated their efforts “to ensure that they finally succeeded in ridding themselves of SEIU with this vote,” Wilzoch said. “It’s about an institution using its full weight to wear down and pressure their own employees over months and, in this case, five long years, to undo their pro-union election.”
For a group of 750 workers, these campaigns ordinarily require at least four or five disciplined staff for the three months leading up to a decertification election. A union usually brings in even more organizers if it’s facing escalation from an employer’s anti-union campaign, and Children’s Hospital was pouring in resources to defeat the union.
Outside San Diego, Wilzoch’s chain of command was staring down the barrel of a gun. Washington D.C.-based SEIU President Andy Stern, considered the most influential individual in the labor movement, had committed to a massive escalation of what had been a behind the scenes and years-long internal jockeying over byzantine jurisdiction and authority differences. He threatened to remove Wilzoch’s superiors from leadership positions at SEIU’s Oakland-based health care division, accusing them of stealing union money to fund a secession campaign, charges and descriptions that the local union leaders denied. However, there would be no peace between Washington D.C. and Oakland. One week after Barack Obama took the oath of office in January, Wilzoch’s superiors were fired and replaced.
A few aftershocks and SEIU resignations ensued, and were magnified by critics and distraught allies throughout the labor movement. By the springtime, Harold Meyerson was announcing in the Los Angeles Times, “Labor on the brink.”
The leadership change touched down in San Diego “like a tsunami,” Wilzoch said.
Instead of mobilizing Children’s Hospital workers in support of the union in the upcoming election, Wilzoch was ordered to drive up to Los Angeles for a loyalty test in January. Every staffer in the Oakland-based SEIU affiliate went through something similar, he said.
“After I got back, they changed the locks to keep me out of the office because they said they suspected me of being an undercover agent” for the ousted ex-leaders, he said. “I told them that I didn’t like what was going on, but…we were in the home stretch of a brutal six year fight. I was reinstated after I explained I was committed to winning the election.”
He had to compete for attention. The newly appointed leaders of the Oakland health care outfit were fending off criticism from the right and left. Bill O’Reilly fill-in and conservative blogger Michelle Malkin had a field day watching the union descend into chaos, and Republican groups allied against labor-friendly legislative proposals leveraged SEIU’s problems into a smear campaign.
The level of turnover across the state was a wrench in the whole operation in San Diego and elsewhere, Wilzoch said.
“Right during the time we’d be hitting the gas, there was all this crazy stuff going on in different parts of the state,” he said. “We were starved for oxygen because of a mass exodus of strong, principled, and smart organizers… who were fired or resigned because they could not or would not carry out the directives of SEIU, which they believed to be dishonest and against the members’ interests.”
Wilzoch made desperate and multiple pleas for help between January and February 2009 to vice presidents in Washington D.C. and superiors in Los Angeles and Oakland. “We are getting killed by these…‘SEIU on fire’ raps including…the scandals, the allegations back and forth, which is backed up by tons of materials and websites and op-eds,” he wrote to new bosses in February.
SEIU staff “didn’t want us to lose because of the workers, and not to mention, that it’d be bad for the SEIU brand,” Wilzoch said after. “I said, ‘This is the highest profile campaign in the county and if you care about that you better get some cavalry down here and save it.’”
More reinforcements began trickling into San Diego in 2009, but Alex Espinoza, SEIU’s new quarterback for the Children’s Hospital campaign, was deeply unpopular. He released a gangster rap album in 2007 that endorsed homophobia, regular drug use and prostitution in its lyrics, and quickly became a target of progressive elements in SEIU.
Conde penned a letter to Eliseo Medina, a senior vice president with SEIU and a legendary labor leader for his history with Cesar Chavez and farm worker’s union. The union had taken a nosedive with Espinoza at the helm and he was pushing workers further away from the union.
“The numbers kept creeping downwards by the minute,” Conde wrote. “The only staff rep we had that actually knew the history and what was going on at the hospital was treated with contempt by your appointed leadership until he was forced to resign.”
That referred to Wilzoch, who resigned after Espinoza removed him of his responsibilities roughly a month before the decertification election, he said. “Getting honest, consistent and coherent direction here has been nearly impossible lately,” Wilzoch wrote to Espinoza and SEIU leaders in Los Angeles and Oakland.
The union drifted towards an all but certain defeat. And instead of taking the loss, the union abruptly withdrew two days before the election. The life-or-death vote never took place and the achievements the workers and union had fought for since 2003 were erased. Adding insult to injury, Conde had to hear about it not from her union friends, but from her triumphant hospital managers.
SEIU confirmed the withdraw rumors with a few notices around the cafeteria that informed readers, SEIU “is hereby ceasing, completely and absolutely, in every respect whatsoever, its representation of any worker at Rady Children’s Hospital – San Diego.” Conde remembers seeing a flier in the cafeteria that was defaced by big bold black letters, “LOSERS.”
“I agree,” Conde said, recapping the incident in her letter to Medina. “Shame… for the harm you have done to us at Children’s and to the San Diego labor movement as a whole.”
These days, hospital administrators might point to Q & A sessions with CEO Kathleen Sellick as proof that workers have a democratic workplace. Conde laughed at the “Cookies with Kathleen” sessions when she noticed, like a Got Milk? advertisement, there was nothing to drink.
Wilzoch maintained the union could have won the March election if the civil war never happened.
“We fought for so long, we had to keep the union,” he said. “I felt that if we could make enough contacts with enough people, we can say… ‘You have a contract with rights and benefits and you can negotiate, or would you rather trust management to decide your future for you?’ A solid majority did not trust them. It was a winning message.”
Barrera, the former SEIU organizer, said that by 2006 and 2007, it was only a matter of time until Children’s Hospital would break the union.
“If you have an employer who’s not going to move, they’re not going to move,” he said. The hospital “should be seen as an example of why we need the Employee Free Choice Act, because the rules are stacked against workers.”
“Card check” as the act is sometimes known, has been labor’s key legislative goal, which would make it easier for unions to organize and win contracts. Obama said he would sign it into law over some Democratic critics who say it is a radical change as it is currently proposed.
Conde said she had spoken to a few unions about coming to Children’s Hospital, but they do not want to trespass on what they still consider SEIU turf, she said. She wants no part of SEIU now. She liked many of the people, but the brand is too toxic, she said. It was over. “I’d be doing a disservice to my coworkers by bringing them in again.”
The withdrawal “should [have been] our decision,” she continued. “I thought we are the union, the mighty, mighty union. Let us make that decision. Call a meeting, present the facts, show us the numbers that we already know and ask us, ‘what do you think we should do?’ We probably would’ve come to the same conclusion.”
Conde’s sour experience is a bad sign for SEIU, which has mobilized its resources, skills and know-how away from hostile employers and upon other unions.
Children’s Hospital is not an isolated case for SEIU, which has gone from the most dynamic force for good to bordering on pariah status in the labor movement. Its on-going statewide civil war is compounded by the international leadership’s intervention among formerly like-minded unions like UNITE-HERE, a union of hospitality and garment workers. The end result is great disillusionment and disappointment among those who were most hopeful for labor’s fortunes.
“There have been lots of fights and divisions in the labor movement going back 100 years,” said Lichtenstein, author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business. “A lot of the best people in the movement are in SEIU, but the current situation is demoralizing and deleterious. It will erode the legitimacy and morale of the labor movement at a crucial moment.”
The episode was a missed opportunity for working San Diegans, Barrera said.
“What should be happening in San Diego right now, every hospital in this region should be targeted,” he said. “There should be organizers everywhere getting bargaining units and new contracts. But there’s nothing going on in San Diego.”
There are no major campaigns underway in the private health care industry. “The way SEIU left and their continued battles with other unions has hurt the labor movement in San Diego,” Wilzoch said. “[It] must come to an end so we can better focus on expanding justice and prosperity to working families.”