OAKLAND -- In a move expected to shake up health care labor battles statewide, the powerful California Nurses Association announced Thursday that it will affiliate with the National Union of Healthcare Workers in fights with major health systems over wages, benefits and patient care issues.

CNA also agreed to use its 85,000 members and considerable resources to help NUHW in its campaign to defeat a large rival, the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, in an upcoming election for the right to represent 43,500 Kaiser Permanente service and technical workers.

That election, which may happen this spring, will be a repeat of a 2010 election, which was the largest union election in the private sector in nearly 70 years. At that time, Kaiser workers voted to remain in SEIU.

Nurses, labor organizers and others participate in an informational picketing demonstration at Kaiser Oakland in Oakland, Calif. on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012.
Nurses, labor organizers and others participate in an informational picketing demonstration at Kaiser Oakland in Oakland, Calif. on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff)

"This is an affiliation whose time has come," said NUHW President Sal Rosselli during an Oakland news conference with CNA leaders. "When we win this Kaiser election, it will be a game changer."

The outcome of that election, however, is anything but certain. SEIU won the 2010 election with 62 percent of the vote, but the National Labor Relations Board overturned it after agreeing with NUHW that unfair tactics were used. A second vote will be scheduled sometime within the next few months.

SEIU leaders predicted the affiliation will have little effect on the outcome.

"This really doesn't change much," said SEIU spokesman Steve Trossman. "These two organizations have been working together for four years. It hasn't helped NUHW very much."


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CNA leaders accused SEIU of siding too readily with big employers and agreeing to significant cutbacks in benefits and working conditions, making it harder for others to negotiate good contracts.

CNA leaders were particularly upset when SEIU-UHW President Dave Regan proposed temporarily suspending nurse-to-patient ratios during break times to help offset budget cuts.

And they accused SEIU of letting CNA do its fighting by getting "me too" provisions in its contracts. SEIU agrees to cutbacks, CNA leaders said, but has a provision that the cutbacks will be eliminated if another union gets them taken out.

"We want to make sure we have allies that will stand with us," said Deborah Burger, CNA co-president.

Trossman countered that NUHW, which represents several thousand Kaiser employees, has been unable to negotiate a contract for them in the past three years, while SEIU has won approval of two contracts for its Kaiser workers, granting a total of 18 percent in wage increases over six years.

"We have negotiated the best contract in the entire hospital industry twice, and they can't get a contract," Trossman said.

Rosselli used to be on friendlier terms with SEIU -- for many years, he headed SEIU-UHW, which has nearly 150,000 members.

But in January 2009, SEIU ousted Rosselli and other leaders, and he formed NUHW, which now has about 10,000 members.

In the past few years, NUHW has attempted to persuade SEIU members to switch unions. A series of elections at hospitals throughout the state have had mixed results. But none of the votes has involved as many workers as at Kaiser.

A Kaiser spokesman denied NUHW claims that the company has inappropriately supported SEIU.

"Kaiser Permanente remains supportive of our employees' choice in this matter, and is entirely neutral in the dispute between NUHW and SEIU-UHW," said spokesman John Nelson.

Trossman lamented the fact that unions are fighting each other.

"We're wasting resources trying to organize people who are already in a union," he said.

Sandy Kleffman covers health. Contact her at 510-293-2478. Follow her at Twitter.com/skleffman.