Some of the strangest bedfellows in this political season are right here in the Bay Area, and they’re making whoopee over Proposition 45.
It’s clear enough why Oakland-based Kaiser Permanente wants Prop. 45 to fail. The measure would require Kaiser and other health insurers to publicly justify their rate increases and would grant the California insurance commissioner the authority to approve or reject those increases.
The health insurance industry has spent more than $57 million to kill the ballot measure to protect their huge profits and lavish executive compensation packages, outspending proponents 14-1. More than $20 million of that war chest came directly from the deep coffers of “nonprofit” Kaiser, which has made more than $13 billion in profit since 2009, including more than $2.1 billion in the first half of 2014.
What is less clear, at least on the surface, is why the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, the state’s largest health care workers union, would oppose the ballot measure. Prop. 45 would protect working families from skyrocketing health care premiums and help ensure affordable coverage for all Californians. So why would the SEIU-UHW — which represents 150,000 California health care workers, including 1,500 Kaiser employees in San Francisco as well as 15,000 low-wage home-care workers in The City — side with giant HMOs instead of working families?
The answer has profound ramifications for all Californians. A few months ago, the SEIU-UHW signed a corrupt deal with California health care corporations in which the union promised that in return for the opportunity to unionize 60,000 California health care workers, the SEIU-UHW would not criticize these corporations or support legislation they dislike. Under the terms of the deal, the SEIU-UHW explicitly agreed to prohibit its members from participating in “communications that degrade or attack a signatory hospital or health system or the hospital industry as a whole includ[ing] communications raising concerns about hospital pricing and executive compensation in health care.”
Even while trying mightily to keep the details secret, SEIU-UHW President Dave Regan touted the deal as “revolutionary.” And he may be right. A defining principle of the labor movement is that unions represent workers. With a few strokes of the pen, the SEIU-UHW has silenced its members and is actively campaigning in support of the political goals of their multibillion-dollar employers. This is the very definition of a company union.
The effects reach far beyond health care workers. Again, take Kaiser as an example. For four years, Kaiser mental health clinicians represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers have raised concerns about illegally lengthy wait times for appointments at Kaiser psychiatry clinics. Based on the clinicians’ well documented allegations, the California Department of Managed Health Care levied a $4 million fine against Kaiser and continues to monitor the HMO’s ongoing violations of state and federal law. The SEIU-UHW represents the clerical workers who schedule those appointments, but its partnership with Kaiser and other health care corporations has essentially gagged those workers, preventing them from blowing the whistle on the HMO’s illegal and unethical practices. Without another union to counter the conspiracy of silence, Kaiser’s systemic understaffing of its mental health services, which has often led to tragic outcomes, even suicides, would not have been brought to the attention of state regulators and the public.
When unions abdicate their watchdog role in favor of collaboration with health care corporations, patients lose, health care workers lose and democracy loses.
Sal Rosselli is president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, a democratic, member-led union that represents more than 10,000 health care workers throughout California.