Pay-to-Play Politics, the SEIU and Obamacare

The Governor of Illinois, for all his well-documented faults, has performed at least one valuable public service. He has made it clear to the meanest intelligence that our new President-elect emerged from a hopelessly corrupt political culture. Barack Obama oozed from the same stinking Chicago swamp that produced Blagojevich, and a man whose formative years were spent wallowing in the muck with such creatures isn't likely to be long in White House before the stench of pay-to-play politics begins to pervade the place. That this has important implications for the future of health care in this country has already been demonstrated by a brazen episode of cronyism involving one of America's most prestigious health care institutions, the University of Chicago Medical Center.

It is no secret that, immediately following Obama's election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, UCMC created a new position called "Vice President for Community and External Affairs" and bestowed it-along with a lavish salary-upon Michelle Obama. It is less well known, however, that one of her husband's cronies subsequently received preferential treatment in a UCMC contract bidding process. Specifically, the medical center altered its normal procedure for soliciting contact proposals so that longtime Obama "friend" and political donor, Robert Blackwell, could submit a bid to upgrade UCMC's intranet. Naturally, officials of the medical center deny that the expanded process was in any way connected to Obama's influence, but Blackwell Consulting was awarded the $600,000 contract.

What does this have to do with national health care policy? Well, Mr. Obama achieved his November victory with more than a little help from such "friends." These benefactors paid a lot to put him in the White House, and they weren't all motivated by a desire "make history." Among the most generous of Obama's supporters was another entity that has figured prominently in the Illinois culture of corruption -- the Service Employees International Union. According to CNSNews, the SEIU's political action committee made "more than $27 million in independent expenditures" in support of Obama's presidential campaign while its members "knocked on 1.87 million doors, made 4.4 million phone calls, registered 85,914 voters and sent more than 2.5 million pieces of mail."

In return for all this largesse, the SEIU wants help in unionizing the health care industry. And a clear sign that Obama intends to provide that assistance can be found in his nomination of California Representative Hilda Solis, the hand-picked candidate of SEIU President Andy Stern, for U.S. Secretary of Labor. Solis made her priorities clear during the press conference at which her nomination was announced: "As secretary of Labor, I'll work to strengthen our unions ..." And a key strategy in "strengthening" unions will be an aggressive program to organize health care workers. Indeed, she has a track record of doing just that. As it was phrased in the gleeful news release from SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West, "She has stood alongside healthcare workers as they fought to form unions in their hospitals."

Having a Secretary of Labor in the pocket of the SEIU is only part of the overall strategy to unionize health care, however. Another important component is the anti-democratic legislation bearing the Orwellian title, "Employee Free Choice Act." Historically, a union has the right to bargain on behalf of employees only after a majority has authorized such representation in a secret ballot election. EFCA would change all that. "Card check," as the bill is commonly known, would alter the National Labor Relations Act so that unions can bypass these secret ballot elections. EFCA would allow a union to open negotiations with the management of any company (or hospital) where a majority of employees (or nurses) have been harassed or deceived into a signing a petition supporting unionization.

Anyone doubting that the SEIU will engage in harassment and deception to take over a health care organization should read the testimony that Karen Mayhew, an employee of Kaiser Permanente, gave before the U.S. House and Labor Committee in February of 2007. In the spring of 2005, the SEIU descended upon her Kaiser office and began what was essentially a "card check" campaign: "For the next 7 months, a union organizer ... would incessantly approach us on our breaks, our lunch hours, even in the hallway on the way to the restroom." To encourage employees to give in and sign "authorization cards," union representatives told them they were merely agreeing to have a secret ballot election in which the employees would decide whether they wanted to be unionized.

This assertion was, predictably, an outright lie: "On October 17, 2005, my department was brought into a meeting with our senior management and told that as of that date, we were officially represented by the SEIU. There was never an election and no further information was available to us." The union had acquired the signatures of 50% of the employees, plus one, and now claimed to represent all of the workers. Naturally, Ms. Mayhew and her fellow employees were very angry. Eventually, they were able to escape the SEIU's clutches by filing an Unfair Labor Practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. NLRB scrutiny revealed the obvious -- the union had conducted a deceptive organizing campaign and then bullied Kaiser into acquiescence.

These Kaiser employees succeeded because the NLRB's Division of Advice took their complaint very seriously and acted accordingly. It is lucky for Mayhew, et al that their complaint was processed before the advent of the Obama Administration. Even without EFCA, it is unlikely that an NLRB packed with Obama appointees would have come to their rescue. The passage of card check, combined a union-friendly Labor Relations Board and a Labor Secretary who has been a staunch proponent of health care unionization, would make such workers easy prey for the SEIU. With EFCA in its arsenal, the SEIU's march through health care would make Sherman's march to the sea seem diffident by comparison.

Nor will Stern and the SEIU be diffident in their demand that the new President make good on his substantial debt to them. Indeed, Stern has made it clear that he expects EFCA to be introduced during the first 100 days of the new Congress-with the full support of the new administration. And Barack Obama, having cut his teeth in Chicago's pay-to-play political culture, knows what the consequences will be if he doesn't cooperate. It doesn't matter that unionization of our medical delivery system will exacerbate health care inflation while stifling badly needed innovation. And allusions to Detroit will fall on deaf ears. The SEIU has paid. Now it expects to play. The President-elect knows the rules of the game. So, expect Obamacare to come with a union label.

David Catron is a health care finance professional who has spent more than twenty years working for and advising hospitals and medical practices. He blogs at Health Care BS.
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