Two Weeks in January: the Birth of a Healthcare Workers’ Union

{This blog post originally appeared on the Huffington Post}

January 2009 was a watershed moment in our nation’s history. As we gathered to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama, members of my union felt a powerful sense of accomplishment. Together we had worked long hours and covered many miles to elect a president who would represent working people instead of big corporations.

But those days were also bittersweet for me and thousands of health care workers in California. As President Obama took the oath of office, SEIU’s President Andy Stern had begun a process to remove me and other health care workers from our elected positions, suspend our local union’s constitution, and put his own officials in charge.

Why did Andy Stern take over our union?

Shirley Nelson, Kaiser Redwood City

Our disagreement with SEIU was about democracy, and how friendly a union should be with corporations. We insisted that workers should always have the right to vote on the issues that affect our workplaces, our union, and our future. Stern’s view was that union officials had the final say, and that it was fine to make backroom deals with employers without workers knowing or being involved in the decisions. In January 2009, when Stern moved to split our union in half and weaken our voice with our employers, tens of thousands of us spoke out and said that we would not allow SEIU to divide healthcare workers without a vote of the members.

Despite the fact that our union was a thriving, democratic local, and a model for the rest of the labor movement, Andy Stern and SEIU took it over simply because we disagreed with him.

When SEIU put our union into trusteeship, Andy Stern removed every elected official of our union from office. In response, we formed a new, independent union, and tens of thousands of our co-workers petitioned to join. However, what followed came as no surprise. SEIU filed charges to block our elections and sued our union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, and 28 officers and staff, for $25 million.

Andy Stern’s legacy

There are so many pieces of our story and struggle to reform SEIU that I wish that I could share with you. Videos of more than 6,000 of us marching for democracy. Our local president Sal Rosselli’s passionate speech calling for democratic reforms at SEIU’s 2008 convention. Petitions signed by 80,000 healthcare workers asking Stern to stop his attacks on us. Or the web site we created to share our proposals with other local unions in SEIU.

But in the days after taking over our union, SEIU staff removed our videos from YouTube and erased our website, just like they removed 85 health care workers and elected leaders of our union with the stroke of a pen.

While our country was celebrating our nation’s democratic process, Andy Stern had turned SEIU into a one-party system where health care workers’ voices are silenced and our attempt to reform SEIU erased from the history books. That is Andy Stern’s true legacy and how he will be remembered by workers who know best.

Our response to SEIU’s $25 million lawsuit

Silencing health care workers’ voices is exactly what SEIU has tried to do with their $25 million civil lawsuit against our new union, NUHW.

SEIU’s lawsuit was an attempt to get us to close the doors of our democratic union just as we got started. But despite a jury’s decision to award SEIU a fraction of the damages they sought last week, I can tell you today that NUHW is strong and growing.

SEIU’s lawyers and PR team have tried to smear NUHW. They’ve even called us “guilty” despite the fact that this was a civil lawsuit not a criminal trial. The truth is that their lies fell away in court. None of the outrageous charges SEIU leveled against us were even decided on by the jury. It is significant that the limited damages assessed to our union came down to our decision during those two weeks in January to resist SEIU’s attempt to silence us and take over our union.

We are proud of our decision to disagree with Andy Stern and oppose his efforts to take over our union, and we are proud that our elected leaders had the courage to do what was right, even at great personal cost. Our elected executive board, on which I served, voted not just to authorize our leaders to resist Andy Stern’s attempt to weaken our voice — we demanded that they do so. If we had it to do all over again, we would make the same choice.

Moving forward with NUHW

Andy Stern thought January 2009 would be the end of our struggle. Instead, it was the birth of our new union.

SEIU may have tried to erase all traces of our disagreement, but Andy Stern couldn’t erase the new union we are building together. Thousands of us have already voted to join NUHW, and tens of thousands more will join by the end of the year.

As President Obama said, “Nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.” In response to SEIU’s attempt to silence us, healthcare workers are making history in California

Shirley Nelson, CNA, Kaiser Redwood City

{Shirley Nelson, Certified Nursing Assistant, has been a caregiver at Kaiser Redwood City Hospital for 42 years.  Elected by her co-workers, she served on the Executive Board of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West until she, and 85 other rank and file members of the board who served with her, were removed by SEIU International in January of 2009. She currently serves on the Executive Board of a new, member-led union in California, the National Union of Healthcare Workers.}


{NUHW, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, is a vibrant and democratic movement of healthcare workers, dedicated to dignity, justice, and healthcare for all. NUHW Voice features blog posts by workers from NUHW’s Our Voices page. You can follow NUHW on Facebook and Twitter.}

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