As an infrequent visitor to the west coast, I’ve never experienced the earthquake tremors that are so familiar to millions of Californians.
But, in a union hall in downtown Oakland last Thursday (3/27), one didn’t have to be a seismologist to see—and feel—the fault lines shifting in America’s second-largest union. Several hundred members and staffers of United Healthcare Workers (UHW) were jammed into their local headquarters for a raucous press conference and pep rally. Arriving by bus, the BART, on foot and by car, the crowd was chanting, clapping, whistling, and making an enormous racket with union-issued yellow plastic clackers. Almost everyone wore the signature purple T-shirts and jackets of their parent organization, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
The event could have easily been mistaken for an SEIU strike vote, a contract ratification meeting, or an organizing rally involving some portion of the UHW’s statewide membership of 150,000. Since a few workers even wheeled in the disabled people they care for in neighboring homes, it also looked like a union protest against state budget cuts.
The gathering of African-American, Asian, and Latino home care workers, nursing home aides, and hospital employees was convened for another purpose, however. Their call-and-response chants were not directed at any recalcitrant employer or tight-wad Republican governor. Instead, UHW members were venting against top officials of their own union.
“What do we want?” Someone with a bullhorn shouted. “Democracy!” the crowd responded. “When do we want it?” The answer, delivered by all present, was a thunderous: “Now!”
And that was before they broke into another spirited chant, reminiscent of Bay Area protests past: “Hey, hey, ho, ho—Andy Stern has got to go!”
Andy Stern is, of course, the powerful, high-profile and increasingly heavy-handed president of SEIU. Much to the chagrin of many of his members, he and union democracy are like oil and water.
On March 27, the day before their Oakland rally, UHW rank-and-filers awoke to a headline in The San Francisco Chronicle that read: “SEIU Leader Moves To Oust West Coast Dissident.” The article reported that Stern was preparing to put UHW under “trusteeship”—a form of labor organization martial law in which local elected leaders are replaced by Stern appointees from Washington. Since he became SEIU president, in the mid-1990s, Stern has named trustees to run the affairs of many locals. Originally, his professed goal was to root out corruption and promote organizing. But, more recently, scores of SEIU affiliates have been merged, restructured, and saddled with un-elected leaders so Stern can exercise greater personal control over their dealings with politicians and employers. (For SEIU’s public sector members, these are often one and the same.)
In UHW, there are no crooks in need of ousting and the local’s membership recruitment record has been exemplary, Between 2001 and 2006, UHW added nearly 65,000 new members—more than any other SEIU local in the country.
Nevertheless, in a March 24 letter—clearly designed to lay the legal groundwork for a take-over—Stern accused UHW of violating the national union constitution by “developing a secret plan to destabilize and decertify bargaining units.” As part of this conspiracy to “sabotage” SEIU, UHW members would become part of a breakaway “independent union” formed in alliance with the AFL-CIO and the California Nurses Association. (CNA is a longtime rival of SEIU, now affiliated with the AFL; SEIU left the AFL in 2005 and formed Change To Win, a rival federation.)
The main target of any trusteeship, based on such false charges, is UHW President Sal Rosselli. He is a well-known Bay Area labor activist and past supporter of myriad progressive causes. Since resigning from SEIU’s national executive committee so he could speak more freely—as he is entitled to do under the Landrum-Griffin Act– Rosselli has turned his local into a hotbed of dissent. He has criticized Stern’s leadership in Labor Notes, on Democracy Now, and in major newspapers like Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and New York Times. Meanwhile, UHW has launched a lively website (www.seiuvoice.org) to stimulate internal debate about the need for “real member participation” in SEIU and a more democratic, bottom-up approach to building the union.
As The Chronicle noted on March 27, Rosselli is trying to generate grassroots support for reform proposals at SEIU’s national convention in Puerto Rico, June 1-4. There, Stern’s critics say they will push for a Teamster-style direct election of top union officers, so all 1.8 million SEIU members can vote on the leadership, instead of a just a few convention delegates every four years. UHW also wants to give local unions more protection against forced mergers which dilute membership control. Critical of recent deal-making by Stern and his associates, SEIU dissidents also want to insure that workers have a stronger voice on the bargaining committees and “unity councils” that deal with large multi-state employers.
According to Rosselli, Stern’s threatened trusteeship over UHW is simply “retaliatory because we are speaking out against his ideology, his direction. The simplest way I can say it is, it’s top down versus bottom-up, corporate unionism versus social unionism.” Based on its size, UHW is entitled to have one the largest delegations at the convention. But, if Stern puts UHW in trusteeship between now and June, none of its 146 elected representatives will be able to attend—or lobby other delegates about democratizing the union’s structure and functioning.
Fellow SEIU dissidents, now organizing nationally in a group called SMART—SEIU Member Activists For Reform Today—would have a much more harder time getting other union officers and stewards to engage in reform activity. That’s why Rosselli accuses Stern of using the UHW trusteeship threat “to eliminate his political opposition.”
In a March 27 statement, Rosselli disclaimed any intention of encouraging membership decertification from SEIU. UHW reasserted its public position that, “despite profound disagreements” with Stern’s leadership, “leaving is not an option. SEIU is OUR union, that’s why we’re fighting to change it.” At the anti- trusteeship rally in Oakland, Rosselli proudly introduced an organizing committee member from St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, California, where 600 service and maintenance workers had just voted to join the union. Due its membership growth around the state, UHW is negotiating new contracts for 75,000 hospital and nursing home workers this year alone.
Given such a heavy bargaining calender—and the challenges UHW faces from various employers—its elected rank-and-file board members are very concerned about the chaos, division, and disruption that will ensue if SEIU tries to oust them and Rosselli–plus purge their local’s most experienced staff reps and organizers.
Their concerns are clearly shared by others in California labor who’ve worked with Rosselli for years—even union officials who disagree with him and leftists who doubt his sincerity as a union reformer. For example, Mike Casey, a prominent Bay Area trade unionist who heads Local 2 of the Hotel Employees, has ignored the usual protocol that “members or leaders of other unions should not interfere in the internal disputes of another union” and issued an open letter about the UHW-SEIU rift. In his March 28 missive, Casey addresses, among others, his own UNITE-HERE national officers—Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm. They both joined Stern in launching Change to Win three years ago, after subjecting AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to withering public criticism—of the sort Stern now objects to when directed at him by Rosselli and others within SEIU!
“I believe that there must always be room within organized labor for legitimate and principled dissent, if our movement is to survive and ultimately grow,” Casey says.“The questions and issues raised by Sal meet the threshold of such dissent…[These] are matters that must be addressed by any union looking to organize on a large scale. The public discourse initiated by UHW and Sal may well be kicking up a lot of dust, but it has also provoked a closer examination of the direction of our movement.”
To date, Casey notes, SEIU spokespeople have responded to Rosselli largely with personal attacks and claims that “his behavior is ‘shameful,’ ‘unprincipled,’ and ‘dishonest.’ “ Says the HERE leader: “The Sal Rosselli I know is anything but shameful, unprincipled, and dishonest.” And he goes on to praise Rosselli and UHW for their solidarity and support when Local 2 members faced a “two-year war”–the strike and lock-out that roiled the local hotel industry in 2004-6. “ Concludes Casey: “Such a union and leader has more than earned the right to air objections to union practices without being vilified or demonized.”
Nevertheless, in some daily press coverage—and the spin of SEIU media handlers—the UHW affair is still depicted as a narrow turf battle between Stern and Rosselli, both veterans of Sixties student activism, now squabbling, in late middle-age, over the perks of institutional power. Conversations with UHW rank-and-filers suggest that they see it differently—as a much broader fight that they didn’t start, but have a huge stake in.
“We’re on a mission to hold Andy Stern accountable” says UHW board member Eloise Reese-Burns, one of the thousands of nursing home workers that Stern wants to transfer—against their wishes–to a Los Angeles-based local. “We believe that the rank-and-file should be involved in making contract demands and helping to raise our contract standards. Andy’s just a bully—but he’s going to find out that it’s not a good idea to piss off the union people who pay your salary.”
Ella Raiford, another African-American leader in UHW who belongs to SEIU’s national black caucus, is equally vehement. Speaking March 22 at a meeting in Berkeley attended by sixty-five SEIU dissidents from locals around California, Raiford noted that there were many in the room “who’ve worked long and hard over the years to have a democratic union.” Now, she said, “Andy Stern is telling us where we have to go and what we have to do—and we don’t have any say in the matter. It’s time for us to stand up and say, “No!’
Applauding the formation of SMART—and UHW’s own alternative vision for the union—Raiford called on her fellow reformers “to make a real ‘change to win” for our members, so they have a voice in the union.” “We’re going to find,” she predicted, “that a lot of people in SEIU want to be part of that ‘change to win.’ ”
(Steve Early worked for 27 years as a Boston-based international union representative and organizer for the Communications Workers of America. In the 1970s, he aided reform movements in the United Mine Workers, Steelworkers, and Teamsters, He is currently working on a book for Cornell ILR Press on the role of Sixties radicals in American unions. Her can be reached at [email protected])