Battle at the top over SEIU's future

SEIU Local 1021 member Brian Cruz reports on a battle between union officials Sal Rosselli and Andy Stern.

SAN FRANCISCO--An ongoing battle within the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) reached a new pitch when one of the union's top officials resigned from the executive committee. The resignation brings front and center SEIU President Andy Stern's highly criticized "at any cost" strategy for rebuilding the labor movement.

With the backing of his executive board, the president of the 140,000-member SEIU local United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), Sal Rosselli, offered a scathing condemnation of Stern's "undemocratic practices" in his widely publicized resignation letter last week. Rosselli charged that "an overzealous focus on growth--growth at any cost, apparently--has eclipsed SEIU's commitment to its members."

Over the last few years, Stern has honed a strategy for organizing new workers that relies on gaining neutrality agreements from employers (blessings to organize their workforce)--not by picketing or organizing workers' power, but by offering political favors and pre-bargained "template" contracts that are usually "sweetheart" deals.

Usually, workers and local unions can't strike, can't bargain for more and can't complain under the agreements. This type of organizing, while it can gain many members, is at the expense of their rights and of standards in labor as a whole.

UHW has been a part of a number of these large deals, yet their problematic nature and the International union's desire to take the strategy to a national level have put the two SEIU officials at odds.

Rosselli's letter addresses how the International leadership negotiated with employers behind the local's back, excluding it from talks, disingenuously tried to split its staff and proposed jurisdictional changes clearly aimed at limiting the local's power.

In one case, according to Rosselli, Stern "unilaterally decided to eliminate" the multi-local council for bargaining with Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) and appointed his own consultant just before negotiations. In its rebuttal, the International union revealed its intention when it accused Rosselli of "hav[ing] a problem with there being one unified national strategy to help workers unite in Catholic hospitals."

According to an inside source, this "strategy" would gain for the union 300,000 members, but under the condition of template contracts, and in exchange for continued support of a bad-for-workers national health care bill that could provide a windfall for the hospitals. Plus, though the members would receive representation form the locals, they would be directly signed up to the International to avoid future jurisdictional problems.

This is the direction that the SEIU is headed: a streamlined, top-down, lobbying machine with many members with few rights.

But while Rosselli blows the whistle on the erosion of union democracy and standards, he fails to break from the larger culprit: the overall business union strategy of partnering with employers.

This is the reason why he can criticize Stern for secretly cutting a deal with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to help pass a terrible health care bill--yet he can't come out in strong support of single-payer health care, as other unions have.

Still, the fight for internal democratic reform that will take Rosselli to SEIU's 2008 convention in June will be a step forward--and will encourage rank-and-file dissidents in his union and nationwide to challenge Stern's pro-corporate strategy.

No individual will rebuild the labor movement, not Rosselli and especially not Stern. But the stand Rosselli is taking is opening a space for discussion and struggle within locals and the international for the militants who one day will.