Capitol Alert

Rival union says SEIU deal with hospitals threatens patient care

Medical workers represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers are joined on apicket line by California Nurses Association nurses in a one-day strike outside a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Sacramento in 2012.
Medical workers represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers are joined on apicket line by California Nurses Association nurses in a one-day strike outside a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Sacramento in 2012. Sacramento Bee file

Editor’s note, June 19, 2015: An earlier version of this story reported that Kaiser Permanente had signed a “code of conduct” agreement with SEIU-United Healthcare Workers that forbade the parties from publicly criticizing each other. Kaiser officials agreed to cooperate with the union on legislative and political matters, but Kaiser and SEIU say Kaiser did not sign a code of conduct agreement.

The ongoing tussle between rival hospital employee unions and Kaiser Permanente has taken a new turn with allegations that an agreement between the managed-care system and Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers forbids employees from reporting patient-care violations.

The upstart National Union of Healthcare Workers said by the end of Thursday it will file a complaint with state officials, including Attorney General Kamala Harris, that claims a “code of conduct” signed by Kaiser and SEIU-UHW last year contains what amounts to an illegal gag provision.

SEIU-UHW and Kaiser both said the Oakland-based HMO had not signed the code of conduct. SEIU spokesman Steve Trossman dismissed the complaint “as just another attempt to smear UHW” by its smaller 6-year-old opponent and brushed aside the claim that the arrangement hampers patient care.

“The agreement that we have in no way gags members from speaking out on any issue that they were to see in a hospital or hospital system that signed the agreement with us,” Trossman said.

SEIU-UHW President Dave Regan last year called the agreement “a set of reciprocal commitments,” but offered few details.

NUHW, which has fought with the much-larger SEIU over which organization should cover medical workers, provided to The Bee what it claims to be an unsigned copy of the agreement.

The code of conduct section aims to spur collegiality between the union and hospitals. It prohibits personal attacks, for example, and bars each side from “instigating or supporting ... adverse action by any branch of government” against the other. Policy criticism is fair game, “as long as such communication does not identify a signatory.”

Those provisions and others, NUHW claims in its complaint letter, go too far and add up to “a far-reaching gag clause that prohibits caregivers and their union from reporting patient-care violations and from criticizing hospitals and their executives, among other restrictions.”

The letter does not specify any instances in which the agreement has had a chilling effect on patient-care reports.

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