Two unions are battling for votes in Fresno County in an election that labor experts say could affect the unionization of health-care workers nationwide.
The local election to win the allegiance -- and paying dues -- of 10,000 in-home health-care workers is the largest thus far in a bitter fight between an established union and an upstart launched earlier this year.
The vote will decide if the Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers-West continues to represent Fresno County workers, or if they instead will be represented by the new National Union of Healthcare Workers.
Workers will receive ballots beginning Tuesday. The election continues through June 15.
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The SEIU plans a rally at 3:45 p.m. today at the Fresno County Fairgrounds. The NUHW held a rally in Fresno on Wednesday.
The election comes during a recession and as those who care for the elderly and disabled face a proposed wage-and-benefit cut of $1 per hour beginning July 1.
The workers -- in many cases including family members of those who receive care -- are paid $10.25 an hour in wages and 85 cents an hour in benefits. Fresno County supervisors voted in April to cut the overall compensation by $1 an hour effective July 1 to reflect cuts in state funding.
Workers doubt either union can preserve wages, but they want a voice in deciding who will try.
The unions intend to fight for their vote. NUHW representatives wearing bright red T-shirts and SEIU union representatives in purple shirts already have knocked on workers' doors, and hundreds more are expected to be campaigning the next two weeks. Both unions have been seeking public support through rallies and advertising.
Both sides take credit for getting Fresno County in-home workers the wages they presently receive. Both say the other is at fault for the wage cuts set to take effect July 1.
Labor experts say the outcome in Fresno County could shape health-care negotiations in years to come.
There are tens of thousands of health-care workers in California, and SEIU and NUHW could be "fighting over that whole pie," said Chris Tilly, director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA.
The NUHW was born in January out of a rift that emerged over the leadership of the 150,000-member United Health Care Workers West, the Oakland-based local of the SEIU. The formation of the NUHW was announced a day after SEIU President Andy Stern took control of the local by removing its 100 officers and placing it under a trustee's care.
Since then, the NUHW has won a few small labor elections in California, picking up several hundred members. But the 2 million-member SEIU has blocked some elections using a variety of legal tactics. The Fresno County election is the first large-scale confrontation between the two.
The crux of the dispute between SEIU and NUHW -- besides a power struggle between unions for members -- is whether workers should be represented by an all-encompassing health-care union, or by large groups that represent specific segments of the health-care work force. The outcome of the election could determine which model prevails, the experts say.
SEIU favors separate locals for bargaining in Sacramento, but NUHW wants a single union for health-care workers, said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
"It's two different strategies for how to raise the wages," he said.
Tilly said the debate also is about which strategy is better for adding members. "In that sense, an important issue is at stake," he said.
Union membership peaked in the 1950s and has decreased rapidly since the 1980s, he said. Unions have struggled to recruit members and retain them, he said, adding that the SEIU has been a powerful union, but the challenge from NUHW has to be a concern.
"If it loses a chunk of its health-care work force, that's going to weaken it," Tilly said.
The election in Fresno County is important for NUHW, said Lichtenstein, who said he has testified on behalf of the union as an outside expert in the labor dispute with SEIU.
A win could help cement NUHW's future, he said: "It would give this new union a solid base of members, dues payers, from which they can go and pay a few staffers and kind of be permanent."
Tilly and Lichtenstein said the gulf between the two unions eventually will close.
"In one year or five years, they'll be working together," Tilly said. "Because that's what needs to happen -- they need to find ways to keep working together even as they fight over turf."
Until then, the campaign is on for voters in Fresno County.
Sal Rosselli, president of the new union, told workers at a Fresno rally Wednesday: "SEIU is trying to take credit for all we accomplished over all these years."
Rosselli was part of the SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West that organized and negotiated for in-home workers in Fresno County beginning in 2002.
Elesio Medina, executive vice president of SEIU and a trustee of the UHW-West, said that loopholes in negotiations by the former UHW-West leaders allowed Fresno County to cut wages. "The previous leaders did a horrible job of writing a contract," he said.
But in the next two weeks, it's left to in-home workers to sort things out and decide whom they want to represent them.
Carlos Martinez, 34, is backing the SEIU. He and three other in-home workers care for his wife, Mikesha Martinez, 29, who suffered brain damage during a diabetic coma. She is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by SEIU to stop wage cuts.
The NUHW "has nothing to offer me," Martinez said. "I don't think they have the power to negotiate with the county."
But Maria Sandhu, 65, said the SEIU "doesn't care for us," and she supports the new NUHW. She cares for an elderly couple and would have to look for a different job if her salary is cut, she said.
"We want a union to help us," Sandhu said.