Nearly 43,000 Kaiser Permanente workers are voting in a bitter showdown between two unions that is being closely watched in labor circles nationwide.
The mail-in balloting, which takes place now through Oct. 4, is expected to have ripple effects among health care workers throughout California.
The Kaiser employees are members of the powerful Service Employees International Union -- United Healthcare Workers West.
They will decide whether to remain with SEIU or join a breakaway group, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, founded by longtime labor chief Sal Rosselli after he was ousted from the SEIU.
The battle is drawing attention in part because it is the largest union election in the private sector in nearly 70 years, since United Auto Workers organized Ford Motor Co. in 1941.
The voters include respiratory therapists, dietitians, housekeepers, physician assistants, pharmacy technicians, clerical employees, radiologic technicians and other workers.
The feud has confused some Kaiser workers and created angst among those in the labor movement who worry about the deep rifts and diversion of energy it has caused.
"There have been a number of labor leaders who have supported (Rosselli) and other leaders who have supported SEIU," said Katie Quan, associate chairwoman of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. "It's made people uncomfortable to be put in the position of having to take sides. There have been heated discussions
The outcome is expected to influence upcoming votes at Catholic Healthcare West, another large health system, and other California hospitals.
"A lot is riding on this Kaiser vote," Quan said.
With 2.2 million members, SEIU is considered one of the nation's most influential unions. It has been a potent force in presidential, congressional and gubernatorial elections.
For many years, Rosselli headed its California health care chapter, SEIU-UHW, with nearly 150,000 members.
In January 2009, SEIU ousted Rosselli and other leaders, accusing them of misusing union funds. The union sued the ousted leaders in federal court, seeking $25 million in damages.
Rosselli and other leaders denied any wrongdoing. A jury concluded that they improperly used members dues to form a breakaway union and ordered them to pay $1.57 million to SEIU, a decision they are appealing.
With both sides trading accusations of lying and impropriety, Rosselli has a different viewpoint about what led to the split.
"The reason for this fight is that SEIU changed over 2007-08 and went in a different direction," he said. "It started consolidating resources and decision-making authority in Washington, D.C., as opposed to in the hands of their members."
Rosselli said that in January 2009, the SEIU national leadership took control of local contract negotiations and appointing bargaining committee members.
"That's what caused the fight," he said. "Our members voted to oppose that order."
Since their ouster, Rosselli and his supporters have sought to supplant SEIU by organizing elections at hospitals and clinics. At some facilities, workers have opted to switch to the fledgling NUHW; at others, employees chose to remain with SEIU. The Kaiser election will be by far the largest to date. NUHW now has about 5,600 members. Rosselli portrays the conflict as a David vs. Goliath battle in which workers are seeking to "get back the power and responsibility to control their union."
Catherine Kessler, a registered dietitian at Kaiser Oakland, agrees. She supports a switch to NUHW and maintains that there is a philosophy difference between the two unions, with SEIU dealing mainly with management, not workers.
"We have essentially lost having a democratic union that represents us very well," Kessler said. "The current leaders of NUHW are our former union leaders. They helped us get an excellent contract. They represented us day in and day out and were always available to us if we had a problem. They return our phone calls and e-mails."
By contrast, she said, SEIU leaders are difficult to reach and "don't really care about the day-to-day running of the workplace."
SEIU leaders dispute such assertions. They have warned Kaiser employees that they could jeopardize their current contract if they vote to leave SEIU.
The two-year agreement guarantees a total of 9 percent in wage increases, job security protections and other benefits.
"People would be taking an enormous risk," SEIU spokesman Steve Trossman said. "It was a great contract in the middle of an economic crisis. The contract would become null and void, and they would have to renegotiate and hope to get it back."
Concern about losing the contract convinced Renee Williams, a pharmacy technician at Kaiser Martinez, to support staying with SEIU.
"In this economy, not too many people are getting wage increases," she said. "(NUHW) would have to re-bargain and get us back everything that we had. Just from past history, I don't think they'd be able to do that. If you go with them, you're not guaranteed any of this."
Such statements are in dispute, however, which adds to the confusion for Kaiser employees. NUHW leaders maintain that federal law guarantees the existing contract would remain in effect until a new one is negotiated.
Trossman disagrees, noting that after 2,300 Kaiser employees in Southern California voted to switch to NUHW in January, Kaiser declined to give them the 2 percent April wage increase their SEIU co-workers received. They also will not receive a scheduled 3 percent raise in October, he said.
Kaiser maintains that the raises are part of a national contract negotiated with labor unions and since NUHW is not part of that coalition, its members are not eligible for the raises.
"Those workers, as of October, will be 5 percent behind the SEIU workers," Trossman said. "Those workers have lost their contracts and don't have a new one yet. We've been trying to make the choice as clear as we can to people."
NUHW leaders counter that, during an Oct. 18 administrative law hearing to decide the issue, Kaiser may be ordered to provide the raises.
Regardless of the election outcome, some observers have voiced regrets about the effect of the bitter feud among longtime labor leaders.
"Splits do happen," said Quan of the Berkeley Labor Center. "This is a fact of life. However, at a time when labor is under such heavy attack in the political world, as well as in the budget and financial and economic world, it's just too bad that some important, strong actors are distracted from some of the bigger issues."
Contact Sandy Kleffman at 925-943-8249.