Sonoma County?s three big hospitals are becoming battlegrounds in a war that has erupted between the powerful Service Employees International Union and a breakaway union that says it has the support of thousands of local health care workers.
The rival union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, commonly referred to as NUHW, was formed by leaders from an Oakland-based healthcare workers? local affiliated with SEIU.
The service employees union has begun sending in representatives from other regions to help stem the tide of defectors taking up the banner of the competing labor group.
Gumecindo Gonzales, a phlebotomist and NUHW supporter who has been part of the organizing effort at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital for five years, said he?s getting ready for an onslaught of SEIU troops.
?They?re at the post right now with all these other union organizers from other states,? said Gonzales, who once supported the Oakland group, the United Healthcare Workers West, SEIU?s second-largest California local.
Gonzales, a member of a statewide committee organizing workers at St. Joseph Health System facilities, said NUHW organizers are seeking to represent 750 non-nursing positions at Memorial that that include medical technicians and cleaning and support staff.
SEIU officials say Gonzales, along with former organizers and current stewards from the Oakland local, is waging a campaign to undermine SEIU?s representation in Sonoma County. The campaign, they say, threatens existing union contracts at Sutter Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente Medical Center and sets back years of organizing efforts at Memorial Hospital.
?The process is in place for stewards who do not support this union to not remain in this union,? said Pete Janhunen, a spokesman for the SEIU local.
?The idea that people want to found a union by destroying a union and preventing workers from negotiating a positive contract is absurd,? he said.
On Wednesday, the SEIU-affiliated UHW got a boost from the National Labor Relations Board, which dismissed a petition by the breakaway union to decertify SEIU?s representation of more than 48,000 caregivers at Kaiser Permanente facilities.
The NUHW released a statement following the decision saying it will appeal the decision. It said the decision demonstrates the need for the Employee Free Choice Act, proposed federal legislation that would make it easier to form unions in the workplace.
In late January, the Oakland local?s president, Sal Rosselli, and other leaders were ousted when SEIU President Andy Stern ended a long-standing power struggle with the local by placing it in trusteeship.
The schism between SEIU and former Oakland leaders surfaced at a time when workers at Memorial Hospital were getting ready to file for union certification with the NLRB. The conflict between Stern and Rosselli stemmed from Stern?s effort to shift 65,000 long-term health care workers out of Rosselli?s UHW to SEIU.
The rift works to the advantage of hospital administrators, Gonzales said.
?We were right in the middle of our movement,? he said. ?Now we?re going to be fighting on two different fronts.?
SEIU-UHW currently represents more than 1,500 workers at both Sutter Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente facilities in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park. The union has been trying to organize health care workers at Memorial Hospital for several years.
Debra Miller, vice president of human resources at St. Joseph Health System-Sonoma County, said St. Joseph Health takes no position in such disputes. But she said St. Joseph supports its ?employees? right to choose? which union, if any, would be right for them.