Monday, March 19, 2012

Labor's New Odd Couple, Or A Match Made In Heaven?

There is the familiar old adage, politics makes strange bedfellows.  The recent announcement that the NationalUnion of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and the International Association of Machinistsand Aerospace Workers (IAM) are discussing a possible affiliation may have some people reworking that statement to include the labor movement.   

Like many in the labor community, I have to admit I was puzzled when I first heard of this possible partnership.  Why would an independent union of healthcare workers who are locked in an epic struggle against what is arguably the most undemocratic union in modern labor history consider teaming up with a union that has no history of representing healthcare workers, and frankly, has had its own issues in the past with internal democracy?

            According to John Borsos (Vice-President of NUHW), “IAM shares NUHW’s vision to build a national healthcare union.”  The fact that IAM is not involved in healthcare is seen as something of a plus to NUHW, as Borsos believes this will afford his organization a greater level of autonomy.  Of course, all of these issues are yet to be hammered out by the two unions, and any affiliation would be subject to approval by the respective memberships. 

So why would NUHW choose IAM over another independent union, such as the United ElectricalWorkers (UE) or another healthcare union like the California Nurses Association(CNA)?  While Borsos confirmed that there were other suitors who showed interest in NUHW, he declined to confirm specific organizations who expressed interest. 

While detractors will likely speculate that the NUHW-IAM alliance is based solely on the fact that NUHW needs resources for the upcoming rerun of the Kaiser Permanente elections, it is important to point out that if there were the case, why wouldn’t NUHW just affiliate with Unite Here, who, according to the Department of Labor, gave NUHW $4.8 million in 2010?  When asked about what kind of support IAM would be giving NUHW in the upcoming elections, Borsos would only say that IAM would be offering assistance – “Both financial and otherwise.” 

While there is no question that NUHW will benefit greatly from this alliance, it should be pointed out that IAM will also benefit from its willingness to consider an affiliation with this upstart democratic union.  If they are committed to making their union more democratic, then this affiliation could be a step in the right direction.  While some may view this as the labor movement’s current version of the odd couple, skeptics should at the very least applaud the willingness of IAM to take on the purple monster, which is something that most unions have not had the intestinal fortitude to do thus far.   

(SEIU did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story)

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