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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.

Gonzales claims that support for NUHW is significant among workers at Memorial Hospital.

But Susana Villanueva, a lead organizer for SEIU-UHW, said NUHW supporters have used ?intimidation tactics? and ?peer pressure? to generate support.

At Sutter Medical Center, about 350 of the hospital?s 996 employees are represented by SEIU-UHW. They?ve been working under an expired labor contract since last summer.

Sherrie Pepper, a certified sterile processing technician in Sutter Medical Center?s surgery department, said a majority of these workers now support NUHW.

Pepper, a steward for the Oakland local, said she suspects she?ll be removed by the SEIU from her union position because of the work she?s done on behalf of NUHW. More than 170 workers represented by the local have signed a petition to ?decertify? their union so they could join the NUHW, she said.

The petitions were filed with the NLRB in February, she said.

Like Gonzales, Pepper said the conflict with SEIU only weakens the ability to negotiate with Sutter Health, which has taken a hard stance against union organizing at the Santa Rosa facility.

?We already have a fight with Sutter every day,? Pepper said. She pointed to a March 30 flier sent out by Sutter Health administration officials that encouraged employees to dump union representation should there be a vote.

In a Feb. 24 letter from Sutter Medical Center CEO Mike Cohill to workers represented by SEIU-UHW, Cohill states that workers are ?better off? without a union.

?Both unions have shown that they put their own interests first,? Cohill states. ?Your needs and the needs of our hospital are lost in the shuffle of their internal struggles for power and your union dues. It is time to vote for real change that will move all of us in a positive direction.?

A similar move is under way to decertify SEIU-UHW at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center.

Bob Prince, a medical assistant at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Rohnert Park, said that about a month ago he and others gathered signatures for the decertification petition. He said that within a couple of days, they were able to get support from 900 of the 1,206 employees represented by SEIU-UHW at Kaiser?s facilities in Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@

pressdemocrat.com.