By Peter Colasurdo
The Service Employees International Union is one of the many unions associated with the University of Washington. SEIU 1199NW is the bargaining representative for several chapters or job classes at the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. As well, they represent healthcare workers in hospitals, clinics, and other settings across the state. Just who are these people however? Who exactly do they represent and how? These questions and many more will be answered in the following profile.
SEIU1199NW is the local affiliate for the national SEIU body. The national body was founded in Chicago in 1921 by a group of immigrant janitors.1 Since that time it has grown to be the largest union in the AFL-CIO with over 1.5 million members in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Hundreds of locals have been formed and are forming as the organizing continues at a fevered pace. District 1199NW was set up in 1983 in the Puget Sound area and was originally a core of nurses from Group Health Cooperative. It was formed initially under the Hospital and Health Care Employees Union2 and later voted to join SEIU. It has since spread throughout the state and is active in many different healthcare settings. The state is divided in two with an office in Spokane for the east side of the state and one in Renton for the west side.
Mission and Vision
SEIU has a very broad mission statement, which is: “To improve the lives of working people and their families, and lead the way to a more just and humane society.”3 Being a national body, it is important that their vision be broad and far reaching as they must represent hundreds of locals and districts across the nation in the struggle to gain more for the working class.
SEIU District 1199NW hones this vision to pertain more specifically to its constituency here in the Northwest. It goes further in specifying its goals and incentives. The district’s bylaws state that its aim and purpose is to unite all employees within its jurisdiction (Washington State) and to expand the control of its members over all aspects of work. Furthermore it desires to protect and advance the technical and professional status of its members, promote recognition and respect for the vital role of the health care employee, and to educate the membership in union principles and democracy.4 A key follow-up comes in the local’s guiding principals which states “The policy of the District and its methods of operation shall be such as to facilitate and stimulate the broadest possible rank and file participation in the formulation and execution of the program of the District…and to encourage development of the most effective leadership.”5
Both the national and local levels of SEIU envision themselves in the organizational model. That is, the focus of the union is to place the bulk of its effort in the recruitment of new members within current open shops (not everyone is a union member) as well as to work with organizers in non-union shops. In taking this approach, SEIU believes that by gaining more members nationwide, the bargaining power of the unit will increase, and in so doing, the abilities of each individual local will likewise increase. These factors will allow for a greater empowerment of the locals in working with management to gain favorable contracts. The locals will have the backing of a powerful national union as well as strong majorities within each local.
The structure that comprises the SEIU is a very democratic one. Members vote on who will represent them at the local and national levels. Currently Andrew Stern is the President of the International. He along with three executive vice presidents and a secretary-treasurer have been voted in to guide the efforts of the union on the national scene. All of these positions are full time paid positions for the union.
At the local level, the same basic structures exist. 1199NW has a President, Diane Sosne, an Executive Vice President, Emily Van Bronkhorst, and Secretary-Treasurer, Chris Barton. All three of these are full time paid positions. In addition to these, there are two non-paid vice presidential positions. There is a vice president for the private sector as well as one for the public sector. Currently, Sara Cooney works as an RN at Group Health representing the private sector and Marcy Johnson works as an RN in the Department of Social and Health Services representing the public sector. Diane Sosne along with the presidents of the other locals represents 1199NW on the International’s Executive Board. This board meets throughout the year to discuss the needs and the focus for SEIU.
Other positions within the local include union delegates and executive board representatives. A delegate is a representative for a particular work unit or department. The union with both local and national resources trains these delegates to handle issues that might come up in their work spaces as well as standing as an advocate when some of these same issues are raised with the management. Twice every year, these delegates meet in a delegate assembly to discuss and plan the direction for the union as well as approving a budget. These assemblies are not closed and are open to the membership body.6
Executive board members are elected within each chapter of the local. A chapter consists of a group of employees covered by a distinct contract. If the size of the chapter exceeds 200 members, then one additional representative is elected for each additional 200 members. Here in Washington, Group Heath Cooperative Registered Nurses represent a chapter, and being spread across the state, each region has a representative. These representatives then meet on a monthly basis to discuss union issues and focus.7
Union positions are for terms of two years and are voted upon by the members. Any member in good standing for one year can run for any position within the union. To be in good standing simply means to have signed a union card and be current in your dues. The member that desires to run for office must first gather a petition with the signatures of ten percent of the good standing members in the shop or area that they are to represent. Voting is then conducted by mail as voter’s guides and ballots are sent out to the membership. The returned ballots are then processed and counted by the District Election Board and the vote is certified. This all takes place in the spring with newly elected officers assuming their roles in June.
The people that make up SEIU come from many different walks of life and professions as well as varied racial and ethnic backgrounds. They work in both the public and private sector. Based on numbers that the union compiled in 1999, the racial percentages or cross section within the union closely follow what is represented in society as a whole. Caucasians are the majority at around 63 percent with a mix of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Pacific Islanders, and others comprising the other 37 percent. The average annual income for members in 1999 was spread almost equally among three categories: over $35,000, under $25,000, and between the two. The age dominating is between 35 and 49, comprising 46 percent while 37 percent are 50 or older and a small number of people are between 18 and 35. The last figures compiled in 1999 were that the organization is comprised of 58 percent women. It was also found that a slight majority (56 percent) of the membership has only been involved for ten years or less.8
Here in Washington, 1199NW is active in over 24 different medical care systems. Job environments range from the largest hospitals and Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO) to small neighborhood clinics. Within these organizations, members work as nurses, medical technicians, food service workers, social care workers, and physician assistants among others.
Dues and Benefits
Dues are paid by the membership to assist in the success of the local as well as the international. Generally they are based on a small percentage of the base salary. Currently, the dues for 1199NW are 1.5 percent of your gross monthly pay, with a cap set at $60 per month. For newly hired employees there is a one-time $30 initiation fee.9
The union’s dues go to pay for those things that the local decides are most important and the dues will not increase without a vote from the majority. At 1199NW, 50 percent of the dues paid are put to direct action in negotiations and member support as well as better or more improved communications and technology. The other 50 percent has large chunks devoted to organizing new members (16 percent), a strike and defense fund (10 percent), and support for the international (17 percent). The remaining 7 percent is utilized in coordinated campaigns, union coalitions, and legal expenses.10
There are many benefits that go hand in hand with membership in this union. Many of the fringe benefits come down from the international and are from the dues paid. The international has set up educational scholarships and loan programs for the members and their families. They offer several life and other health insurance plans at discounted rates. For members purchasing homes or in need of other funding there are home and personal loan programs sponsored by the union. There are countless discount programs offered to union members for computers, legal services, and even vacations.
In addition to all these things the international has a vast array of support materials for its membership. This includes a SEIU website and the support of websites at the local level. The union publishes countless brochures, pamphlets, and newsletters to keep the locals informed and up to date with the union’s goals and strategies.
Finally, SEIU has a powerful lobby in Washington DC as well as at the state government level. They are spending the time and money to push for legislation that will help working families while fighting anything that may give an advantage to the corporate managers and hurt the worker.
There are many relationships that 1199NW must maintain and nurture. They must keep up with their constituents, the international body, other SEIU locals, other unions, and finally they must keep up with those industries in which the rank and file toils.
The Service Employees International Union local 1199NW has a somewhat indirect relationship with the University of Washington. The University has two main medical facilities for which it is responsible in maintaining. The UW Medical Center (UWMC) located just south of the Seattle campus is a 450-bed comprehensive care facility and the Harborview Medical Center (HMC) is a 351-bed facility closer to downtown in the First Hill neighborhood. HMC, unlike the UWMC, is owned by King County and the UW is tasked with managing its operations. 1199NW is the negotiating union only for the personnel that work at HMC. There is an interesting dynamic that is created from this arrangement that seems to work to the unions favor. The union in this situation has several avenues to which their voice can be heard. They can discuss issues with the Executive Director of HMC, David Jaffee, or with the President of UW, Richard McCormick. Being a county and state institution they can take issues to those respective governmental bodies. Ultimately, HMC is managed by the UW, but these other avenues can certainly act to put pressure on the University to do what the union feels is right for its workers. Though the relationship with the University may not always be a great one, there has never been a full out strike of 1199NW workers at HMC. There were members that respected some strike-like actions taken by other unions at HMC recently but never an action that came from within the local itself.
The relationship that 1199NW has with other unions seems to be a good one. In an interview at the local office with one of the field organizers, Cathy Kaufman, she expressed that it is in the best interest of all the separate locals to act together on issues, especially when different unions support members in similar career fields like healthcare.11Likewise, within SEIU there are several different locals in Washington and it is important for them to come together and draw clear lines of responsibilities and focuses. This is happening currently between 1199NW and local 6. There are many places where the memberships overlap and the discussion now is in giving each local a clear focus. They are working towards consolidating and moving members between the two locals based on job types and locations. Local 6 will take up the reigns for nursing home and home care employees and 1199NW will focus on the larger hospitals.
Cathy expressed the relationship that 1199NW has with the international as being a good one. She spoke about the many benefits (listed previously) that the international supplies to its members. The international at the same time gives the locals a large amount of autonomy to move in a direction that best suits the local. This direction is generally guided by the international but not micromanaged.
The national body for SEIU along with the various locals has been pushing many things through both local and national governments. Currently there is a push to enforce better safety standards when it comes to sharps (needles) in the medical workspace. The desire is to require that needles have a safety cover that will protect the worker after the needle has been used and contaminated. This push is being spearheaded to a great deal by the SEIU Nurse Alliance.12 This is an internal group of nurses keyed in on issues that most specifically affect the nursing trade.
The union as a whole is continuing its focus on organizing the masses and uniting workers. At 1199NW, calls to the office and requests for information about unionizing in various new work places are outpacing the staff’s ability to handle them all. Recently at HMC, the Health Care Specialists (Physician Assistants) voted a majority (50 of 79) in favor of becoming a union shop. This means essentially that they are all going to become dues paying members and all future hires will be required to join as a condition of employment. They can see a value in having an organization larger than themselves that will back them up when it comes to issues with the management.
The workloads at many of the hospitals and clinics in which SEIU members work has been steadily increasing and managements have been trying to cut staffing to keep up with rising costs and in attempting to maintain profitability. SEIU is actively negotiating with HMC for the RN chapter and is working to address issues of short staffing and work place safety, not only for the nurses but for the patients as well.
Currently, 1199NW is in the midst of its bi-annual election cycle. The most advertised candidates are for the local presidency, but as well, several Executive Board slots are up for a vote. Each position of the local’s main presidency is currently unopposed. This goes to show that the body is happy with the results they have seen and are content with the vision of the current leadership.
In an expanding industry and with costs always on the rise, the union is in place to ensure that the workers on the bottom are given a just wage and benefits. SEIU has worked for more than 75 years to this end. Through a democratic system and in making an effort to empower the working class, SEIU has been successful. Membership is growing and the fields that the union represents are expanding. SEIU is taking hold of the workers desire for justice and helping to make that justice a reality.
© 2002 Peter Colasurdo
1 SEIU <http://www.seiu.org> accessed: 18 April 2002
2 Welcome so SEIU 1199NW: Stronger Together for Quality Care, Quality Jobs (Service Employees International Union District 1199NW, 2001) Informational Brochure
3 SEIU: Leading the Way (Service Employees International Union, 1999) Informational Brochure
4-5 SEIU 1199NW Bylaws
6-7 Welcome to SEIU 1199NW: Stronger Together for Quality Care, Quality Jobs (Service Employees International Union District 1199NW, 2001) Informational Brochure
8 SEIU: Leading the Way (Service Employees International Union, 1999) Informational Brochure
9-10 Welcome so SEIU 1199NW: Stronger Together for Quality Care, Quality Jobs (Service Employees International Union District 1199NW, 2001) Informational Brochure
11Cathy Kaufman, Field Organizer, SEIU District 1199NW, Personal Interview,
6 May 2002.
12 SEIU Nurse Alliance <http://www.nursealliance.org> accessed 18 April 2002
These articles were written in Spring 2002. For problems or questions contact James Gregory.