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Upstart union asks for vote; about 4,700 in North Bay impactedNORTH BAY -- The National Union of Healthcare Workers has petitioned for elections that would determine whether thousands of employees at Kaiser Permanente facilities could vote to join the upstart union or remain with the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West.

The request has set the stage for a potentially heated labor battle across the North Bay, with the NUHW seeking approval from the National Labor Relations Board to permit elections that could change the union of about 4,700 employees in the region.

Medical assistants, respiratory therapists, medical records clerks and housekeepers throughout the region would take part in the vote should the NLRB determine that now is the proper window of opportunity for such elections, which the SEIU-UHW has disputed.

At Kaiser in Santa Rosa, about 1,250 employees would be included; in San Rafael, about 800; in Napa, about 120; in Fairfield, 113; in Vacaville, 550; and 1,917 in Vallejo. More than 45,000 workers throughout the state could change unions. If the elections are allowed to proceed, it will be the largest-ever election for a private-sector union in California history.

The NLRB needs 30 percent of all employee signatures in favor of a vote, a number NUHW said it expects to meet.

The two unions have traded sharp words over the issue.

“Voting for NUHW would risk all the gains SEIU-UHW members made in a hard-fought, four-month contract campaign against takeaways by Kaiser,” SEIU-UHW said in statement.

NUHW countered, “SEIU has failed to represent Kaiser employees in the workplace, focusing instead on securing their own control of the union.”

Representatives with NUHW said the window to seek a vote is now because of when the original local contract was signed between SEIU-UHW and Kaiser. A national Kaiser contract was signed just two weeks ago, but a local contract expires in October 2011.

The NLRB will determine when that window is within the next 45 days.

Tony Benson, an orthopedic technologist at Kaiser Medical Center Santa Rosa and a NUHW board member, said because leaders of NUHW are former members of SEIU-UHW who split to form their own union, employees would have better representation and possibly a better contract.

“Leaders of NUHW are the old leadership that was in place that negotiated the existing contract,” he said.

SEIU-UHW proponents, such as Julie Adams, a medical assistant at Kaiser in Napa for more than 30 years, said the prospect of starting over again with another union would undermine the existing contract as well as hinder future negotiations. Ms. Adams said the recently negotiated 9 percent pay raise over the course of three years for Kaiser workers speaks to SEIU-UHW’s bargaining power.

“We have a really good contract, and in this economy, to get a wonderful contract is great,” she said. “I really feel this is a desperate effort on their part.”

Ms. Adams was one of the original members of a bargaining team that helped finalize the current contract.

Mr. Benson disagreed, saying "anyone who says [NUHW officials] don’t know how to bargain is wrong.”

Kaiser, for its part, said it was remaining neutral in the dispute.

“We respect the rights of our unions and employees,” it said in a statement that added it “will honor the choice of its employees determined by a National Labor Relations Board election."

At St. Joseph Health System's Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa about 700 employees recently voted to join NUHW over SEIU-UHW in a December vote. Because NUHW narrowly won over employees who did not want any union, Memorial is challenging the result.