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Labor Pains

[whitespace] Cynthia Mathews
Christopher Gardner

Choice Cuts: Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Cynthia Mathews reacted with high dudgeon to union accusations of negative bargaining tactics.

Liberal nonprofit organizations love the idea of 'pro choice'--until it comes to union activity in their own back yards

By John Yewell

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT Hubert Humphrey had a ready reply when asked to take sides on an issue of dispute between political allies. "Some of my friends are for it and some are against it," Humphrey would say, "and I'm sticking with my friends."

The struggle between Santa Cruz Planned Parenthood and the Service Employees International Union Local 415 is shaping up to be one of those intractable conflicts between two sides that share the same friends and in which nobody wants to choose sides.

In this case, choice itself is the issue. It is one of those odd confluences of modern politics, where concepts are manipulated until they have no meaning. For years the right wing has preached open shops and labor "choice," a euphemism for "right-to-work" (without unions), even while seeking to deny pregnant women the same right to choose.

Meanwhile, nonprofits and unions both take the right to choose as an article of faith, be it to bargain collectively or to have an abortion. Now both are under siege as a part of a broader effort to "defund the left." Nonprofits have faced challenges to their tax-exempt status, and labor most recently was targeted by Proposition 226.

For progressives--in other words, virtually the entire Santa Cruz body politic--the struggle leaves precious little middle ground. Like the confrontation between labor and environmentalists over jobs versus the environment, Planned Parenthood versus the SEIU is the latest paradoxical skirmish on a Balkanized political terrain between erstwhile allies.

An election last January among nonsupervisorial staff at Planned Parenthood resulted in a 12-to-1 vote in favor of affiliation with the SEIU. Marian Morris, the prenatal program coordinator and a member of the union's contract negotiation team, says the current organizing effort began early last year.

"There was no specific catalyst" for the unionization drive, Morris says. "But there was a concern that the organization was getting so big that the workers needed a union to protect their interests. This isn't about money. We want our voices to be heard."

Late in 1994, Santa Cruz Planned Parenthood merged with other affiliates to form Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. PPMM is now the largest Planned Parenthood affiliate in the country, with 35 clinics spread over much of California and northern Nevada.

Last November, members of the "bargaining unit," as those employees eligible to vote on unionization are called, approached local Planned Parenthood management and asked them to recognize their union. According to National Labor Relations Board rules, management has the option to recognize the union immediately, but doing so is rare. PPMM declined, and asked for an NLRB-sanctioned election.

In February, after the successful union vote, SEIU and PPMM bargaining teams sat down to talk, but just about everything that has happened since is a matter of dispute.

David Werlin, organizing director for Local 415, says PPMM bargainers have offered no proposals of their own, and have simply rejected everything the union has brought to the table.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember and Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Cynthia Mathews, who is not a member of management's negotiating team, won't discuss details as long as negotiations are in progress. She was unable to put Metro Santa Cruz in touch with management's consultant and chief negotiator, Bruce Conhain, who was out of town. Calls to Conhain's Fairfield office were not returned.

Exclamation Point!

LAST MONTH, in an effort to jump-start the negotiating process, four prominent Local 415 supporters sent out a letter to community leaders on SEIU letterhead asking them to write to PPMM Executive Director Linda Williams in San Jose in support of the union.

The letter was signed by Assemblyman Fred Keeley, Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt and former Santa Cruz mayors John Laird and Jane Weed, and included a list of 36 other supporters.

The SEIU letter accuses PPMM of hiring "a highly paid anti-union consultant to fight the workers." Trying to use the issue of "choice" to its advantage, the SEIU letter says Planned Parenthood is denying its workers the same "choice, self-determination and empowerment" it offers to its clients. It then says that PPMM rejected union proposals for a union shop, dues deductions, overtime pay, shop steward representation, seniority rights and just cause for dismissal.

The letter angered Mathews, who wrote a blistering, exclamation-point-laden two-page reply, accusing the SEIU of "blatantly untrue accusations" and "hostile rhetoric."

"Not a single one of the 40 people who lent their names to that letter took the time to contact us and check the facts!" wrote Mathews. "[T]he untrue allegations are generating ill will among our allies and cutting into our donations."

She says PPMM intends to bargain in good faith. "No final proposals have been submitted," she writes in her letter. "No impasse has been declared." ("Yes, discussions are continuing," Werlin responds, "but they're just saying no.")

Mathews' letter also says that several PPMM employees were so upset at the "antagonistic" tone of the SEIU letter "that they have communicated their dissatisfaction to SEIU." She also defended the hiring of Conhain by PPMM. Objecting to the "highly paid, anti-union" tag, she referred to Conhain as someone "who is known for his constructive style" of labor relations.

In an interview conducted during a tour of the Planned Parenthood facility in Santa Cruz, Mathews ticks off a list of complaints concerning the SEIU letter, beginning with Conhain.

"Conhain has a history of reaching successful negotiated settlements," says Mathews. "We did not hire an anti-union consultant."

Next is the allegation that PPMM is hypocritical and "denying" extension of progressive labor principles to its workers.

"It's untrue," she says, but declines to elaborate so as not to comment on the substance of the negotiations. "We're actively engaged in the negotiating process." PPMM, she says, has not said "no" to the list of union demands, and everything is still on the table.

("If they say they're not actually saying no to what we've been hearing them say no to, that's great," responds Werlin.)

There is, however, one exception. "An open shop is the only non-negotiable item," Mathews says.

In Sacramento, she says, Conhain negotiated an open shop with the SEIU, on behalf of the Sacramento PPMM facility. She says a provision was included in the contract that required workers who did not want to join the union to donate to charity in lieu of dues, so that the cost of dues would not be an issue in whether to join the union.

"We believe in choice," says Mathews.

Clearly, the question of "choice" is popular with both sides--and it cuts both ways.

PPMM CEO Linda Williams also fell back on "choice" to say that an open shop was non-negotiable. "Choice is a fundamental value to us."

But Williams professes to be unaware of federal labor law that takes away that choice from labor unions by requiring them to represent all employees within a bargaining unit without prejudice, in negotiations as well as grievances, whether or not they pay union dues. She acknowledged that it was a "valid point" that it was unfair to the union to be forced to represent workers who refused to join.

Buy the Numbers

EVEN AS MATHEWS decries the SEIU letter for its "untrue statements," parts of her reply letter appear to be truth-challenged. For starters, Mathews was unable to confirm that PPMM had actually lost a dime in contributions. "I don't have any numbers," she now says. "That's anecdotal."

Furthermore, union officials dispute Mathews' claim that Conhain negotiated a mandatory charitable contribution option for Planned Parenthood employees in Sacramento.

"They took out the charitable contribution" in the 1997 contract, says Sacramento SEIU Local 535 organizer Larry Gerber. "They demanded a completely open shop." Gerber says the union had the charitable contribution option in the previous contract, but Conhain and PPMM "kept pounding away at it" until it was taken out. Werlin says PPMM has made no formal proposal for a mandatory charitable-contribution option in Santa Cruz.

Mathews also was unable to confirm that any employees had called the union to complain about the SEIU letter, whether any of them were bargaining unit workers, or how they communicated their dissatisfaction. Werlin says he has received no negative calls or letters.

As for the SEIU allegation of Conhain's high pay, SEIU officials in Oakland who dealt with Conhain as a management consultant during last year's BART strike say his fee then was $150 an hour. Mathews would not discuss Conhain's current fee.

Signers of the SEIU letter were not dissuaded by Mathews' response.

"I think the world of Planned Parenthood, and I fully support the workers," says Assemblyman Keeley. "I will continue to do both irrespective of this issue. I can both support Planned Parenthood and speak out on behalf of the workers getting a fair contract. They are not mutually exclusive." Keeley says he has received no calls pro or con as a result of the SEIU letter.

Supervisor Wormhoudt reacted with some dismay to Mathews' response.

"I really think this thing is getting blown out of proportion," says Wormhoudt. "[The union organizing] is a legitimate effort. It's not an attack on Planned Parenthood.

"I'm a supporter of Planned Parenthood. I always have been. They have the best intentions and have often had to do things on a shoestring. I'm also a supporter of the people who work there, and of their right to decent wages and working conditions."

Wormhoudt says she has received two calls from workers at Planned Parenthood, both thanking her for going public on behalf of the union.

Disputes over the facts aside, Mathews takes issue with the timing of the SEIU letter.

"The letter is very unfortunate," she says. "It may be frustrating, but the process is not stalled. We will look past this and keep moving forward."

Werlin defends sending the letter, saying his members are fed up with what he sees as stalling tactics by PPMM. Negotiations have been in hiatus since early May, when Conhain left town. They are to restart June 27.

"We're hoping we can make Planned Parenthood understand that their behavior towards their workers is not acceptable to either us or the community," says Werlin.

"Part of our motive was to let the community know what was happening," Morris says. "Overall, I think the impact was good."

Mathews disagrees with Werlin's characterization, saying that the tone of the talks has been positive.

"It undermines a climate of good faith," says Mathews. "This doesn't have to be us versus them."

Morris may not agree with Mathews on the climate of the negotiations, but she goes out of her way to insulate Mathews personally from criticism.

"She's been here forever and has been very important to Planned Parenthood," says Morris. "We try as much as possible not to be pitted against each other."

Marcy Golden and Marian Morris
Labor Contractions: Marcy Golden (left) and Marian Morris trace the slow pace of contract negotiations to management consultant Bruce Conhain.

Conhain the Barbarian?

BUT TALKS WITH UNION officials here and elsewhere suggest that they believe there is a villain here, and Conhain is it. Despite assertions from PPMM that Conhain was hired because of his record of positive labor relations, that has not been the experience of two other union locals that have dealt with him.

Gerber sat across the table from Conhain in Sacramento, and was reluctant to speak on the record, but he suggested that from the point of view of his SEIU local, PPMM could have made a better choice.

"There are other labor consultants they could have elected to use that could have reached an agreement without a lot of posturing," says Gerber.

Others are less reticent. Michael Haberberger was the chief negotiator for SEIU during the negotiations over a new contract for BART employees last September. The union struck for a week before a deal was reached.

"When Conhain did speak, what he said was antagonistic. He didn't help us at all in settling," says Haberberger. "He gave speeches on how the employees should appreciate what they already had.

"He liked metaphors, such as how improving our contract would be like putting sugar on ice cream. He would not talk about substance. We ended up in the same place we would have ended up anyway with or without him. He did nothing to help avoid a strike, and was no help to management. I don't know what they were paying him for."

Marian Morris says her negotiating team has had similar problems with Conhain.

"We've asked to meet without him, but they have refused," says Morris. "It might be a good idea not to have those meetings with him."

When asked if she would characterize his contributions as unconstructive, she said "yes."

"I don't think he's necessary to the process. If it were up to him we wouldn't have a good contract," says Morris. "Usually unions get framed as bad for management and good for workers. I disagree. But I think Conhain would agree with that."

Co-worker Marcy Golden, who has not taken part in the negotiations, says the impression among the workers is that Conhain is at fault for the slow pace of negotiations.

"He seems to be the one dragging out the process," says Golden. "It seems we could have moved forward more quickly without him guiding them."

Fertile Fields

WHAT IS HAPPENING with Santa Cruz Planned Parenthood is part of a larger picture, with increased interest being paid to nonprofit organizations by union organizers.

Flo Green is executive director of the California Association of Nonprofits, based in Los Angeles. Green says that unionization has been a reality for certain sectors of the nonprofit community for years, such as hospitals and the arts, but the involvement of unions in the human services field is a phenomenon of the last two to three years.

"It's very clear to those of us in the nonprofit world that we have been targeted," says Green--although this was not the case in Santa Cruz, where Morris says she approached the SEIU.

Green says there are some 11,000 nonprofit human services organization in California, and that the alleged union targeting is a result of declining union membership elsewhere. She had no figures on how active unions have been in recent years vis-a-vis nonprofits, but Green says unions have been very aggressive and have stirred a backlash among nonprofits.

"If they would come with a softer, gentler approach, there'd probably be less resistance," she says.

Green says the organizing effort has created a dilemma for many nonprofits.

"I think that there's an irony. Many who run nonprofits wouldn't cross a picket line, but when they find themselves on the other side, their ideals come into conflict," says Green. "If you're seeing tension, that's what's driving it."

Philosophically, says Green, nonprofits are in favor and supportive of things unions fight for. At the same time, because nonprofit resources are limited and often shaky, committing to inflexible salaries is very scary.

"We rely on contracts and donations, and tomorrow's income is not guaranteed," Green says. "The fear is the degree over which services might be interrupted to meet the demands of a union contract."

While the conflict in Santa Cruz may be less over money than empowerment, Green says nonprofits will still have trouble adjusting.

"In human services it raises lots of questions that should have been raised long ago," she says. "We've always been able to freely hire and fire based on resources."

Instability in funding over the years has caused many nonprofits to rely more on fees for their services, she says, which can negatively affect those most dependent on those services.

"We might have to charge more," she says. "Can we? I think there's a place at which we can't go higher."

Another source of income has been government contracts, which Green fears may be at risk in the new labor environment.

"One of the reasons government contracts with us is because we can do things cheaper, because we have been non-union, and government is unionized," she says. "So government will have to pay more for the same services."

Meanwhile, foundations and other funders may be obliged in the future to take union contracts into consideration when deciding on funding levels.

Supervisor Wormhoudt acknowledged that because of budgetary restraints, "many nonprofits are frequently not very good to their employees." Mathews acknowledged the problem in her letter to SEIU supporters, calling it a "reality" that "nonprofits can never hope to equal the compensation levels of public institutions or private industry."

But Wormhoudt says that attitude might be in need of an adjustment.

"Maybe in the future," says Wormhoudt, "funders will have to take into account wages and working conditions when they give to nonprofits."

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From the June 25-July 1, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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