Kaiser don't care! SEIU neither! The Kaiser hospitals strike, 1986

An account of the strike against the introduction of a two tier pay system at Kaiser hospitals in California in 1986, including interviews and a discussion with two participants.

Rank & File Activists Talk About the Kaiser Strike

"The strike slogan was 'Kaiser Don't Care' and they don't care about the patients. We care about the patients and that's how they get the work out of us and that builds resentment in us... They [Kaiser] know we'll get in there and work our butt off." --Blanche Bebb, X-ray technician, Committee for a Democratic Union (CDU), negotiating committee member, SEIU Local 250.

"Kaiser is the perfect example of waste because every time a problem comes up, their solution is to hire a new supervisor--I've worked at Merrill Lynch and American Express. They are huge, totally worthless corporations and Kaiser is more top-heavy with supervisors than they were."--Denny Smith, Nurse's Aide, Committee for a Democratic Union (CDU), SEIU Local 250 member.

From October 27 to December 13, 1986, 9,000 Kaiser Hospital workers through-out northern California were on strike. The strike's key issue was Kaiser's goal of imposing a two-tier wage system (i.e. where new hires are paid less than current workers), a goal they ultimately achieved in spite of workers voting it down: at first by a 4-1 margin and then by 55-45% after nearly six weeks on strike. The rank and file members of Local 250 bitterly resisted two-tier, rejecting Kaiser's contention that the company needed it to remain competitive. "If they wanted to do something about their so-called competition, they wouldn't have patients waiting three months to see a doctor," said Bebb.

In late October, after two months of negotiations, SEIU Local 250 struck against a contract proposal that would have imposed a 30% lower wage on new hires in about half of Kaiser hospitals and clinics (those in the suburbs north of the Bay Area and in the Central Valley around Sacramento and Stockton). Striking workers included licensed vocational nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, x-ray techs, clericals, and housekeepers. Another 700 optical workers and medical technologists from two smaller unions were also on strike.

On December 4 these two smaller unions accepted a 20% wage cut for new hires. However, most of these workers stayed off the job until the settlement with the larger Local 250 ten days later, which provided 15% less for new hires. Up to 200 workers from five other unions, as well as several hundred registered nurses, also honored picket lines. Sympathy walkouts by as many as 65% of Kaiser RNs during the first weeks led Kaiser to get a legal injunction to prevent the California Nurses Association from engaging in such actions. In response, CAN members formed an ad hoc group separate from the union, RNs for Quality Care, to organize their support for the strike.

In spite of this support for the strike from other workers, some Kaiser workers blamed the union for not organizing more support.

In a post-strike S.F. Chronicle piece on Dec. 19, a Committee for a Democratic Union activist, John Mehring (a psychiatric technician at another hospital) said: "If the SEIU was involved early on in the negotiations, why was the organization of the strike so haphazard and inconsistent? Why weren't strike benefits extended? If the handwriting was on the wall that two-tier was becoming more prevalent in Local 250 contracts, why wasn't more effort done early so a united front could have been made?"

Many Local 250 members believe the International sabotaged the strike. After collecting some $25 million in union dues over the last six years the International paid back $2.2 million in strike benefits. At the end of six weeks on strike, and two contract rejections by rank and file vote, SEIU announced (about two weeks before Xmas) that strike benefits would be cut from $60 to $45 for that week, and cease altogether the following week. With no prior warning about diminishing strike funds, workers had no chance to develop outside strike funding from the community and other workers and unions. [just as we go to press, SEIU has blamed the exhaustion of strike benefits on a "breakdown" in management of members' dues by Local 250 officials--SF Chron. 3-23-87.]

In a wide-ranging interview with Blanche Bebb and Denny Smith, activists in the rank-and-file Committee for a Democratic Union (CDU), it became clear that the militance of Kaiser workers was very much in spite of the SEIU International. "99% of picket line activities were organized by the rank and file" said Bebb. "The union was only interested in the corporate campaign (i.e. pressuring directors and other companies to withdraw from their normal transactions with the struck firm) which is the New Strategy for Unions'."

The International came in to run the local some weeks before the strike actually began and since the strike's unsuccessful conclusion it has put the Local, which is some $800,000 in debt, into trusteeship. Since late 1986, it has suspended all meetings of the Local executive board and trustees.

Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, by far the largest independent Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) (controlling over 58% of the market compared to its nearest competitor at 9%), is growing nationally and the Kaiser contract is a pacesetter for many of SEIU's other medical contracts. After a lousy settlement three years ago in which part-timers lost extra pay and comp time for holiday work, disgruntled members elected seven rank and file activists on the CDU slate to the executive board of Local 250. The International came in at this time because its officials feared that a bad contract would allow CDU to take over the Local in the elections scheduled for this spring. Now that the International has presided over a bad settlement, it is using its ability to suspend democracy in the union.

The International officials poorly organized the strike. According to Bebb and Smith, officials ineffectually trained new shop stewards and a 49-member bargaining committee. "The training was more like est training--they didn't really talk about negotiations and what we were up against," said Bebb. The people designated by the union to head the negotiations had never negotiated with Kaiser before: an attorney and a representative from the Washington D.C. office of the International.

In spite of its mistrust of union officials, CDU agitated among the workers to support the union and the strike. CDU urged a fight against the two-tier wage structure, while the International tried to make "quality patient care" the main issue. Smarting from past media portrayals of striking hospital workers as callous, uncaring and selfish, the International pushed the idea for a joint labor-management patient care committee to improve quality. The original proposal was for a tripartite Local 250/management/community committee: the negotiators ended up with an annual one-day seminar in which Raiser managers and workers discuss patient care, with no community involvement. The International claimed this as a victory, a foot in the door, but Bebb says she'd rather not have it. She argues that this was an intentional distraction from the importance of resisting the two-tier: "Two-tier is about patient care, because morale will plummet when the two-tier is implemented."

"I feel really proud that we twice rejected the two-tier [during this period]," Smith says. Bebb: "The International had to really get behind it and sell it. They shoved it down our throats. We forced them out of the closet, though." The International accepted a 2-tier proposal from Kaiser and pushed it through the bargaining committee with 'no recommendation,' hoping that the members would accept it, so they could blame the members for not being strong enough. When workers rejected the contract on Dec. 4 by a 55-45% margin, the International was forced to really sell the next proposal, with " "Heavy-duty speakers" at every meeting. It won ratification on Dec. 13 in spite of being voted down by a slim majority in San Francisco and by a 2-1 margin in the East Bay.

At this point our interview digressed beyond the strike. Local 250 members have already been taking direct action to address patient care at SF Kaiser. Two workers circulated a petition to create an AIDS only ward after ongoing difficulties in providing adequate care for AIDS patients. Combined with pressure from the SF City Human Rights Commission (which in turn was being pressured by dissatisfied, Kaiser-insured gay city employees), the workers' initiative succeeded.

Denny Smith: The union, typically, wanted to do it top-down. Our business agent, Sal Roselli, wanted to handle everything himself. He wanted to call the hospital administrator and work things out... Our AIDS-Action committee had to constantly keep him in check so that decisions were made by the rank and file, because it was our idea in the first place. His whole approach, like the union's approach to everything, is to pick up the phone and call some topdog in the hospital, which is probably the way contracts get signed. The AIDS Ward is working now, and because it has pressure from the workers and community, it works pretty well.

Smith is a charter member of CDU, which was formed in 1981 after several years of informal rank and file caucuses in the late 70s. CDU's core consists of 10 - 20 activists, with many more supporters throughout the local. Smith characterized the breakdown of attitudes among CDU's rank and file allies as follows: those who are angry because they didn't get a raise from the strike; those who are angry because they see the union is undemocratic and is going downhill; those who would join CDU but are intimidated by redbaiting; and those who would be activists but for kids at home and/or two-job schedules. I asked Smith and Bebb to describe their fondest fantasies if they were to get rid of the current leadership and change the union. The discussion kept on widening in scope from that point on.

Blanche Bebb: I think the strike has that our members are so full of energy and imagination and ideas that they never any chance to express... We want to see the rank and file get liberated and really see the union as theirs and use it. To some extent that happened during the strike--people were going down there and taking the initiative... The main thing is that we wouldn't be afraid of the rank and file. That's a big difference. We believe in and trust the members, and we're not into having a job in a bureaucracy. We could have creative picket lines and cultural activities at meetings, not just read the minutes from the last meeting.

Denny Smith: These guys make (meetings) as dead as possible. They couldn't be more lethal.

Processed World: In talking about all this stuff it's very easy to get bogged down in all the immediate details--the contract, working conditions. But the longer view is that U.S. health care delivery is being dramatically restructured. Part of that is the concentration of capital in megahospital corporations, and another is a major push by insurance companies, government and these hospital corporations to maintain the private control of health care profits. There are plenty of ideas floating around about how to restructure health care toward not-for-profit, human need. Are there any embryonic committees within CDU which are trying to address this bigger picture? Maybe from the point of view of developing an alternative agenda and based on alternative values?

D.S.: Health care in the U.S. is such a fucked-up system. Any fair-minded person would have to support some kind of national cradle-to-grave health care system that doesn't depend on profits or the greed of some chairmen of the board. We've had some brainstorming sessions about what our caucus might do if we won some powerful position in the union: home care for the homeless; a hiring hall for unemployed health workers; political action to push for a national health plan; political action to push for better care for geriatric and nursing home patients...

B.B.: Unions are tied into the Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) idea. A lot of unions control the trust funds that pay the money and they have a vested interest in the current set-up. It won't be easy to get unions out of HMOs, just like it won't be easy to get unions to take a progressive stand on anything! This is the AFL-CIO: top, top, top. SEIU International is part of that. That's what these Internationals and the AFL-CIO are about: keeping us in line as workers.
But on the other hand, workers need unions-we have to be in unions. I'm scared about three years down the line, depending on when the members are at, if they let it be known that they're not ready to strike, we may lose our seniority, in which case, well hell, we won't have a job.

D.S.: .When it comes to fundamental things like union democracy or strong political action that would change the way health can is delivered in this country, the unions an reactionary. They just take easy positions on things that won't cost them any union dues.

PW: Internationals and most locals associated with the AFL-CIO are so wrapped up in capitalism and such staunch defenders of The Way It Is Now because the officials are making $50-$60,000 a year. Why would they want to fight against that? They get to drive around in big cars, hang out with important people, get talked about in the newspapers. Which raises a difficult question for rank and file activists like yourselves: what's to prevent the next person in charge from being corrupted by that status and privilege and power? If you get elected into that same system, it seems to be quite difficult to abolish that power you finally won after all those years of trying to get it.

B.B.: I don't think you can do it just within one local... I just have to be optimistic. God knows when it'll happen, but there is a movement... Local 1199 in N.Y.C. is a good example. Since a rank and file committee took over they've done a lot--they do theater, they've put people through medical school, even housekeepers. But this is the exception, and anyway, anytime you get anywhere, the International comes in.

PW: And trusteeship is not far behind...What are unions doing essentially but bartering the terms of slavery?that's the old ultra-left line,' which we could argue about to the end of time.

BB: But it is the organization of the working class... You can't just run out and create something else...

PW: Most unions, as you have pointed out in this interview, have very little to do with what the workers they represent are actually doing on a day-to-day basis, and often times, they put themselves in active opposition to what the workers want. The union becomes a different entity with different interests. When workers an trying to find new methods they invariably find their International and/or Local right in the way. It's one of the first obstacles they have to overcome. So to talk about the Local as the organization of those workers isn't really accurate. If those workers are organized, that's their organization, whether it be informal or something like CDU. Whereas the Local is a remnant of an earlier effort that became separate from what gave it its original impetus, and now comes back as an obstacle.

D.S.: As CDU we're definitely pro-union. This has come up because the union has spread rumors that we're anti-union
and want to decertify and we have to tell people: "No, we just want to take back our union, because the union is ours."

B.B.: During the strike we were left on our own on the picket lines, and then people kept saying: 'We are the union'--I heard a lot of that. It's the classic one they're always telling us: "What an you complaining about the union for? You an the union," of course knowing that we're not. But during the strike, we wore, we kept the committees going, we raised the money, we did all the work, we picketed. How do we take that and keep it going?

PW: So that's the living union as opposed to the dead union--the legal entity that has all the money.

B.B.: On the shop floor level, the shop stewards can do a helluva lot. You can organize about anything you want, call meetings about anything, demand to see anyone. They can say 'No,' and then you can organize an action with 20 people--but in order to be protected and not get your activists fired, you need the protection of the union. You know you'd be out the door if you did these things and you weren't a shop steward, or if it weren't a union shop.

PW: That's a good example of how you get some legal protection from the union, but there are also numerous examples of people getting the axe with the complicity of their union, and they're gone, that's the end of it.

B.B./D.S.: Yeah, it's true.

PW: Unless you have that extremely strong rank-and-file movement that will get out there right away and strike or act on behalf of the person who got axed with the union's complicity or whatever the issue may be, then the union is ephemeral, it doesn't really exist. The union is action, living action by the workers, and without that what have you got?

D.S.: Sometimes I feel like if [the unions] are rotten to the core then the whole thing needs to be scrapped and [we need to] start over with some new form of workers' organization. But in the strike, the scabs would always say: 'Look what your union did last time, why would you be out on the sidewalk if that's what they're going to do to you?' And then the people who were really willing to fight would counter that with: This is my union and I'm gonna be out there because I'm the one who's gonna be screwed. It was the vocabulary of the day that we had to deal with. I think other forms may arise, perhaps not in the near future...

B.B.: That's why I say you have to be flexible, ready for any opportunity, to make alliances with everybody you can, and just be there at the time. It's like this strike, we could have said 'SEIU is gonna sell you out anyway, so why bother?' but we said, 'Oh no, jump in there, get involved.' And I think we gained a lot, lost money but gained more.

PW: We have these arguments within the PW collective all the time. Even if you are critical of the existing bureaucratic union, nevertheless (and your case is a good example) the union provides a context in which people can organize and talk to other. Even if they find themselves having to talk about being in opposition to that union, they've already linked up that way. It creates certain channels of communication that are very hard to establish from scratch. Then the problem becomes vocabulary, and finding a language that breaks through the conceptual baggage. For example, putting out the word 'union' as an "association of individuals getting together for their mutual interests in opposition to the labor laws which have been written specifically to prevent them from getting anywhere," might change the whole complexion of that word.

The interview then disintegrated into a general conversation on working class politics around the world. A month after this interview was conducted, Local 250 was put into trusteeship in spite of strenuous efforts by Bebb, Smith and CDU to avert it. CDU will have to wait up to eighteen months before there is a union election. A lot of grassroots organizing will have be maintained and consolidated in order for them to bring a new direction to Local 250 in the future.

--Interview conducted by Lucius Cabins