The National Union of Healthcare Workers Shows Orange County How to Get Organized

NUHW members at Kindred Brea during a rally

Dozens of healthcare workers marched in front of Kindred Hospital in Brea last Friday with signs in hand reading “We deserve a living wage” and “A hospital should not be an assembly line.” The spirited informational picket drew elected officials to the picket line and continued for hours, undeterred by the relentless summer sun.

In the past year, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) has taken on Orange County with a fury with a series of actions, from info pickets to strikes, at local hospitals in Fountain Valley, West Anaheim, Los Alamitos and Brea. When it comes to new union members, OC is NUHW’s fastest growing region in the state. The stories on every line are all too familiar–low wages, long hours, and chronic understaffing. In a county where many hospital workers have had to recycle cans to make ends meet, NUHW has fought to raise them out of working poverty by winning substantial raises.

Kindred Brea is familiar terrain to the union, which unionized the hospital in 2014. An unusually high turnover rate continues to plague Kindred Brea and 80 percent of workers report their units are understaffed. Kindred representatives reportedly told negotiators that they could find a second job if they wanted more money. “At the last bargaining meeting, we actually had a representative tell us that some of our jobs are not as important as others,” says LouElla Crow, a NUHW member. Many of the workers at Kindred, who make, on average, $10 less than other hospital workers, are already working multiple jobs. This despite the fact that Kindred Brea reported a profit of $1.8 million last year. During Friday’s picket, workers voted unanimously to authorize a one-day strike not far from the oil field labor wars of a century ago. 

But that’s the fighting reputation NUHW has carved out for itself since 2009 when it formed out of a split with Service Employees International Union-United Health Workers (SEIU-UHW). Since then, they’ve already won contracts in multiple hospitals in the county. Most notably,  NUHW ended a five-year war with Kaiser Permanente on in 2015 on behalf of mental health clinicians.

Mental health clinicians on strike at Kaiser Permenente

More recently, Sodexo housekeeping and cafeteria staff at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center won a contract that will increase wages 42 percent by 2020, as well as a similar contract for housekeepers at Los Alamitos Medical Center. NUHW called for a five day strike at West Anaheim Medical Center with similar action looming at Kindred Brea should negotiations fall through.

OC’s been tough terrain for the labor movement since the days of the Citrus Strike of 1936, but NUHW President Sal Rosselli cities that as a reason for their success. “Historically, it’s been the largest anti-union difficult red county to organize just because of the politics,” Rosselli said in a phone interview with Weekly. “We’re putting our resources into it, we’ve won a number of good contracts and people are responding to that and we’re getting a lot of calls.” The democratic structure of the union especially appeals to workers in the county. “Members run the union, there’s no limits to democracy. Our culture is extraordinary in that way,” Rosselli adds. “People are very involved. They appreciate having power, decision making power, so they put time into that.” With 1,500 members, OC is the fastest growing region for NUHW.

NUHW workers at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital

The union is also trying to translate its picket line actions into political clout in the county. “Organizations like ours and others are changing the politics in the county from red to blue,” says Rosselli. Before candidates get an endorsement from the union, they’re put through a rigorous vetting process. “Once [the candidates] fill out a very comprehensive questionnaire, we invite them to an in person meeting,” says Rosselli. “Our members interview them and then vote at that meeting. They vote for that union’s endorsement or recommendations on contributions, all very bottom up. I don’t know of a union that does more of that.”

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