There is no greater blow to the moral authority of the labor movement than a fraudulent union election, especially when the union is large and wealthy. The right to organize and bargain collectively and the right of employees to choose the union that represents them are intertwined.
On July 14, National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Administrative Law Judge Lana Parke found Service Employees International Union (SEIU) guilty of coercion and unlawful threats in the historic California statewide Kaiser election that took place October 2010.
The match between SEIU and the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) included 43,000 employees, the largest private-sector vote in 70 years. SEIU's campaign of disinformation and fear was so pervasive that Parke threw out the results. The NLRB does not lightly set elections aside. Parke rendered the election null and void not because of minor technicalities but because SEIU tactics created a climate of misplaced fear and intimidation.
Two destructive practices undermined the integrity of the contest. First, Kaiser unlawfully withheld benefits of NUHW members after NUHW won three elections in Southern California. SEIU then turned the employer's illegal actions into threats.
Parke argued that the robocalls and flyers “were menacing reminders that Kaiser not only could but already had unilaterally withheld benefits when other employees had chosen to be represented by NUHW. SEIU references were to unlawfully executed and continuing behavior, not to speculative future behavior.” SEIU “stoked unwarranted and coercive fears.” SEIU interfered with “employees' free and uncoerced choice in the election to such an extent it materially affected the results.”
The battle between SEIU and NUHW is not a mere turf war, as often claimed in the press. Matters of principle were at stake in this trial.
The gravity of SEIU misconduct and the implications of Parke's cogent ruling are still largely ignored by U.S. labor leaders. Even some of my close friends, dedicated unionists, believe that public discussion of SEIU corruption undermines the labor movement as a whole. Labor is fighting for its survival as a countervailing force to corporate power.
I disagree with that approach. Yes, the unity of labor is profoundly important. But it's the corruption itself, not the recognition of it, that divides workers and spreads disillusionment. While the labor movement is hardly at fault for the unethical and unlawful tactics of SEIU strategists, the failure of labor leaders to respond to known and proven misconduct — and the failure of the press to provide insight and perspective — is conducive to more corruption, more stained elections.
Herman Benson, the legendary publicist for the Association for Union Democracy, wrote years ago: “Election fraud in unions debases the integrity of the labor movement as surely as counterfeiting debases the nation's coinage. Stealing elections does more than cheat one individual candidate to the advantage of another. It destroys the confidence in union government: it undermines the basis of free democratic trade unionism; it destroys the right of workers to control their own unions and imposes an officialdom on them. By defending honest elections we defend the labor movement and uphold the character of unions as genuine workers' institutions.”
In the wake of Labor Day, let us remind ourselves that the solidarity of labor depends on the integrity of its leaders, who oversee and run election campaigns.
And let us commend NUHW, the union that took a stand against SEIU misconduct—while others slept.
© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Truthout has licensed this content. It may not be reproduced by any other source and is not covered by our Creative Commons license