OLYMPIA — State lawmakers are used to seeing big budget requests from the Service Employees International Union, Washington's fastest-growing labor organization.
But few legislators realize what's really behind SEIU Local 775's push this year for a $60 million state-funding increase for nursing homes.
Under a confidential written agreement with several operators of for-profit nursing homes, Local 775 has promised to help push for more money, and in exchange, the companies have pledged to bless the union's organizing efforts.
Although the main goal of the agreement is to pursue public money, its details have been kept secret. The Seattle Times recently obtained a draft copy of the agreement.
As part of the 10-year agreement, SEIU Local 775 promises no strikes and agrees to let the nursing-home operators — not the union or workers — decide which homes are offered up for organizing. The union also agreed not to try organizing more than half of a particular company's nonunion homes.
The draft agreement also includes a "negative rhetoric" clause in which both the union and the operators agree to not speak ill of each other.
SEIU leaders and some nursing-home executives say their "labor-management partnership," modeled after similar pacts in other states, has given them a stronger voice in Olympia. That added clout, they say, will help them win higher wages for workers, better care for patients and bigger profits for nursing homes.
"Wouldn't it be something if people thought unions weren't about creating problems but they were actually about working with management to solve problems?" said David Rolf, president of Local 775. "Where is it written that the thing we need to do most is have fights?"
But critics, including some within the SEIU, say the union is conceding far too much.
"This a terrible abrogation of a union's duty," said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights, a California-based consumer-advocacy group that has criticized similar alliances the SEIU has formed elsewhere.
"These types of agreements are unions becoming wholly owned subsidiaries of the health-care corporation that they are supposed to have an adversary relationship with."
Much of the SEIU's rapid growth statewide and nationally has come by organizing workers in publicly funded health care.
Five years ago, the union doubled its membership in Washington by successfully organizing nearly 25,000 state-paid home health-care workers. The union then began targeting nursing homes.
Of the 240 nursing homes — nearly three-fourths owned by for-profit operators — only a handful were unionized as of a few years ago.
In other states, the SEIU has long been at war with nursing-home operators. SEIU leaders say the decades of conflict — from bruising organizing fights to bitter strikes — have done little to improve things for nursing homes or their workers.
"Nobody's really won," said Adam Glickman, spokesman for SEIU Local 775.
Glickman said union leaders here recognized that nursing homes have been chronically underfunded, so they began talking to the operators about teaming up. "It doesn't do workers a lot of good to form a union in a nursing home if there's no money to negotiate over."
Statewide, about two-thirds of all nursing-home residents are covered by Medicaid, a program funded jointly by the state and federal governments. But nursing-home operators say the Medicaid payment rates set by the Legislature fall far short of actual costs.
"We've been very unsuccessful in getting adequate reimbursement from the Legislature," said Jeff Marshall, CEO of Eagle Healthcare, a Kenmore-based company that operates a dozen nursing homes.
Marshall said when SEIU approached him about an alliance, his initial reaction was, "No way, I don't need those guys."
But he eventually became convinced that joining forces made sense — especially given SEIU's growing political prominence. During the past five years, the union has poured more than $5 million into state and local elections, and the union frequently flexes its grass-roots muscle.
The tactics work. Since SEIU began representing home health-care workers, the Legislature has approved more than $250 million in increased wages and benefits.
In late 2005, Eagle Healthcare and five other nursing-home companies signed an agreement with SEIU Local 775 to establish a labor-management alliance called Washington United for Quality Nursing Home Care.
Two more companies have since signed on, and the alliance now includes 66 homes in Washington — about 40 percent of all for-profit homes.
Though the existence of the agreement has been publicized, it includes a strict confidentiality clause that bars either side from disclosing details to the media. Rolf, Local 775's president, declined to discuss it or say how closely the draft obtained by The Times resembles the final agreement.
Last spring, the new alliance hired state Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, as a legal consultant. Williams, a private attorney, used to run the Washington Health Care Association, a lobbying group for the state's for-profit nursing homes.
Williams, who since 2004 has received more than $15,000 in campaign donations from the companies in the alliance, would not say how much he is being paid for the work. But he supplied an e-mail to The Times indicating he had cleared the job with the House's ethics counsel.
Williams also wouldn't discuss specifics of the agreement, citing attorney-client privilege. He said his job with the alliance is strictly administrative and that he won't be involved in its political efforts.
"My role really is internal, not external," he said.
SEIU leaders and nursing-home executives say their alliance is already paying off.
During last year's legislative session, before Williams was hired by the alliance, SEIU allies in the state House won a $10 million Medicaid reimbursement increase for nursing homes.
The $10 million, plus a federal match, was exactly what the union and operators had set as their "Phase I" goal in the agreement.
In exchange, SEIU Local 775 last summer got to organize 10 nursing homes, with management's blessing. The 750 new workers doubled the union's nursing-home membership.
In those 10 homes, Glickman said, the union won pay raises ranging from 6 to 13.4 percent, compared with statewide average pay increases of 3.1 percent in other nursing homes.
This year, the SEIU has been leading the push in Olympia for a $60 million Medicaid increase in the next two-year budget, which would be matched by federal money. Much of the money would go toward worker wages and benefits and patient care.
But, as called for in the agreement, the union also has been lobbying to put money toward things that wouldn't necessarily be of direct benefit to workers or patients.
For instance, about a quarter of the new money in the alliance's proposal would reimburse for-profit nursing homes for the business and property taxes they pay.
SEIU is typically a vocal critic of tax breaks for businesses, but Rolf said it makes sense for the union to help nursing homes solve their "business operations problems."
If lawmakers approve the $60 million, SEIU could get to begin organizing up to half the homes in the alliance.
If the Legislature approves a lesser amount, the union and nursing-home owners will negotiate how many homes are offered up for organizing.
As of last week, it was unclear how much money the nursing homes would get. Gov. Christine Gregoire has proposed an additional $15 million, and legislative leaders indicated they probably would not go much higher.
SEIU's efforts to forge peace pacts with management have been praised by the union's national president, Andy Stern.
But the strategy has drawn sharp criticism from consumer advocates and other unions. It also has sparked debate inside the SEIU.
In a letter last December to SEIU's national executive board, Jerome Brown, a former board member who served 27 years as president of a major SEIU local in New England, warned that such agreements could alienate workers and create "the very antithesis of true rank-and-file unionism."
Brown, in a recent interview, acknowledged that heavily regulated nursing homes are a tough place to organize.
"Working with the industry to improve the fundamentals of the industry is a smart strategy," Brown said.
But Brown said the Local 775 agreement, which he has read, "goes significantly further" than other labor-management pacts he has seen. He said he is especially troubled by provisions that take key organizing and bargaining decisions out of the hands of workers.
For instance, the draft agreement says nursing-home operators get to make the "final unilateral decision" on which homes the union can try to organize.
If workers at any other homes seek to organize with the SEIU, the union is required to disclaim the effort.
The agreement also includes a template of a "model" contract that spells out ahead of time many of the things normally left to the collective-bargaining process.
"I strongly disagree with letting the employer decide who can be organized and what issues can be bargained," said Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council. "We want to empower workers."
Local 775 used to be a part of the council, but left in 2005 when the national SEIU split from the AFL-CIO.
Brown and others also worry that workers will be muzzled by the "negative rhetoric" provision.
Under the draft agreement, workers would abide by laws that mandate reporting of abuse and neglect. But the union promises to not try to put pressure on management "through voluntary adverse reporting to any regulatory or other oversight agency."
"There are some terrible conditions in some of those places," said Will Johnson, co-editor of Labor Notes, a magazine that focuses on union activism. "To sign a contract that says you won't speak out about those kinds of conditions, you essentially forfeit one of the union's basic functions."
Glickman, Local 775's spokesman, said what the union is promising is to curtail an organizing tactic known as "corporate campaigning," where the union tries to pressure employers by publicizing past regulatory violations.
"We would certainly never discourage our members from reporting violations," he said.
Pushing the comfort zone
With union membership declining in most states, SEIU leaders argue that unions have to try new approaches.
"We don't want to have a labor movement in this country that's primarily about protecting the forklift operator who fell asleep on the job," Glickman said.
But Brown said agreements like the one in Washington "skirt on the edge of a very cynical bargain: We're for better patient care, we're for more money for patients, but only if we get organizing rights. And we'll stop pushing for more money for these facilities if we don't get organizing rights."
Other critics accuse the union of being too focused on adding new dues-paying members, and too willing to forsake workers and consumers.
In California, where SEIU has formed alliances with health-care corporations, the union angered the AARP and others by pushing employer causes. For instance, the union supported limits on liability lawsuits and helped block a so-called nursing-home residents' bill of rights.
Rolf said "there have been some learning experiences," and he said Local 775 would end the agreement if he finds the nursing homes are "not interested in a true partnership."
But Rolf said he believes the alliance with management fits well with the union's mission to improve workers' lives.
"Part of what we owe ourselves and our partners and our members is to sometimes push our own comfort zone a little bit and experiment and take risks to see if we can accomplish good things," he said.
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
Who gets what
• Gets lobbying help that could improve pay and working conditions.
• Gets management's blessing for a negotiated level of labor organizing.
• Get lobbying help that could improve profitability.
• Avoid costly strikes and get to say which nursing homes the union can attempt to organize.
Service Employees International Union
SEIU is the largest union in North America, with about 1.9 million members. It's also the largest union in Washington, where SEIU and its affiliates represent more than 100,000 workers.
The membership includes health-care workers, long-term-care workers, child-care workers, janitors and classified school employees, such as teachers' aides, bus drivers and secretaries.
SEIU Local 775 represents 28,000 home-care workers and about 1,500 nursing-home workers in 17 facilities statewide.
Source: Service Employees International Union