Roots of the crisis in the SEIU

April 25, 2008

Brian Cruz and Larry Bradshaw, members of SEIU Local 1021 in the Bay Area and delegates to the union's convention in June, explain the issues involved in the SEIU's conflicts, internal and external.

DETAILS OF the clash between the nation's largest union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the smaller California Nurses Association (CNA) can be confusing--including, most recently, the accusation that the CNA derailed an SEIU organizing drive in Ohio.

Next came the violent disruption by SEIU officials and members at the Labor Notes conference in Dearborn, Mich., to try and shut down a scheduled speech by a CNA leader.

On the surface, SEIU's attack on the Labor Notes conference was the result of the rival unions' battle over registered nurses in Ohio. However, the conflict runs much deeper. SEIU President Andy Stern's strategy of partnering with employers to increase union membership--which is what the CNA was opposing in Ohio--has in recent months undergone intense scrutiny and criticism within our union.

Stern's pursuit of partnership is the source of the major rift between the leadership at the SEIU International office in Washington, D.C., and the top officials of the 140,000-member West Coast SEIU local known as United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW). Member opposition to partnership provides fuel for the union democracy movement embodied in the new group, SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today (SMART).

SEIU members organized by union officials try to break into the 2008 Labor Notes conference
SEIU members organized by union officials try to break into the Labor Notes conference

In order for pro-democracy labor activists to take advantage of all the opportunities opening up because of the challenge to Stern, it is important to not simply take sides on the Ohio issue, but to use it to challenge the business union practices of SEIU that pit unions against each other.

THE SAGA began in Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP) hospitals in Ohio, where last month, some 8,000 health care workers were to have union elections, but under questionable circumstances.

Although SEIU had tried for years to organize these facilities with little success, a deal had apparently been struck between CHP and SEIU, and in February, CHP filed for a union election to happen within two weeks.

Management used an "RM petition" in which an employer can petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to have a union election without demonstrating employee support for the union. It is thus an excellent tool for employers who favor one union over another.

As part of the agreement between SEIU and CHP, neither side would actively campaign during the union vote, bringing new meaning to what is often called a "neutrality agreement."

According to the magazine Labor Notes, a letter to the staffers at St. Regis hospital in Lima, Ohio, read, "To avoid the conflict and negative tension typically caused by organizing campaigns...neither managers nor union representatives will approach you or even answer questions if you approach them."

Thus, any of the workers at these hospitals who wanted to participate in the unionization drive were quickly shuffled into SEIU's organize-the-employers campaign, despite their good intentions.

One nurse at Mercy Western Hills hospital in Cincinnati remarked, "It became apparent that if we were going to get anywhere we needed to work from the top of the organization down...In the last year and a half, there hasn't been much door-to-door contact. I would tell people, we're working on a different level to make sure we could have an election without the intimidation we saw at the beginning of the campaign."

UNDER THESE circumstances, in which a union is not bargaining from a position of strength, one can only expect concessions to management and a sweetheart deal--good for the boss, bad for the workers.

Furthermore, such a deal would have set a low standard for organizing health care workers nationwide. And it didn't take long for the industry to show its support. According to the Springfield (Ohio) News-Sun, "The Ohio Hospital Association called the non-interference agreement between CHP and the SEIU refreshing."

At this point, the CNA had no previous base of support within the hospitals and no previous plans to organize them. But it was stuck in a Catch-22.

The CNA could let the election go on as planned, and watch SEIU be selected as the de facto choice for health care employers in future campaigns, undermining the CNA's and other unions' campaigns. This type of union-employer collusion is exactly what happened in California in 2003, when SEIU cut a deal with Tenet Hospitals that prevented the CNA from even appearing on the election ballot, even though both unions had been campaigning there.

Or instead, the CNA could challenge the vote at CHP, where it had even less support than SEIU, due to the fact that the CNA is far smaller than SEIU and lacks its resources. By intervening, the CNA took the chance that the Ohio nurses wouldn't join any union.

The CNA decided to challenge CHP. Upon hearing of the employer-initiated union election, the CNA sent staff to Ohio to campaign against SEIU, calling the process a "rigged scam" in which SEIU would accept a substandard contract.

Unfortunately, part of the CNA's argument was that nurses should be in a separate union from other workers in the hospital. SEIU has shown, however, that organizing on an industrial basis doesn't necessarily lead to good contracts.

Feeling the heat, SEIU asked to have the election stopped, and the employers obliged. Since then, SEIU has been calling the CNA "union-busters" nonstop--on its anti-CNA Web site, in its press releases, outside CNA members' homes and, most notoriously, at the recent Labor Notes conference in Michigan.

On April 12, seven busloads of SEIU members and staff gathered in front of the Hyatt Regency in Dearborn, Mich., to protest against Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the CNA, at the Labor Notes banquet. DeMoro had earlier decided to skip the conference because of security concerns, but that didn't prevent what happened next.

An open letter to SEIU from SMART members who attended the Labor Notes conference recounts:

When conference participants (mostly rank-and-filers from unions around the country) tried to stop protesters from disrupting the dinner, the protesters (including some SEIU staff) pushed their way through the crowd by throwing punches and shoving people to the ground. One UAW retiree who had organized strike support for American Axle workers that day was taken to the hospital with a head injury, and others suffered minor injuries. One protester rushed the stage and attempted to speak to the crowd.

Some of us saw an SEIU member, who had collapsed on the ground, being moved onto a stretcher by police and EMTs. On Sunday, SEIU's Michigan health care local posted an obituary for home health care member David Smith. It informed Smith's co-workers that "he passed away...during a rally to give healthcare workers the right to organize in Ohio."

As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in a statement, "There is no justification--none--for the violent attack orchestrated by SEIU." SEIU President Stern responded that Sweeney "has the power to solve the problem" by reigning in the CNA, which recently affiliated to the AFL-CIO.

Ironically, SEIU can't use AFL-CIO procedures to mediate the conflict, since Stern led his union and others out of the federation in 2005 to launch the rival Change to Win coalition.

THE ISSUE extends far beyond Ohio. It is intimately tied to the debate over how labor can buck the trend in declining union density (the percentage of workers in unions).

The SEIU International contends that the low numbers justify an organize-at-any-cost method that surrenders many members' rights. This method of organizing, which offers concessions and support of pro-business legislation for the employer's blessing to organize, is being challenged by Sal Rosselli, president of the union's second largest local, UHW.

Rosselli led a UHW rebellion against a partnership deal with California nursing homes that allowed for the unionization of 3,000 workers.

The union and the employers lobbied the state legislature together to obtain increased funding for the industry. In exchange, employers allowed 3,000 workers to join SEIU--but only under a pre-arranged "template" contract that banned union members from speaking out on patient ratios, prohibited strikes and otherwise limited workers' rights.

Under pressure from UHW members--including a petition campaign signed by 20,000 workers--the SEIU International canceled the partnership deal in May 2007, more than four years after its inception.

But the partnership strategy wasn't abandoned. Earlier this year, the SEIU International unilaterally dissolved the union's West Coast council for bargaining with Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) in order to take the negotiations into their own hands at the national level.

According to an inside source, the union was negotiating to gain possibly 300,000 members from Catholic hospitals nationwide in exchange for a health care "reform" bill that would be lucrative for employers--while the newly organized workers would have substandard contracts.

These partnerships explain SEIU's support of bills that fall short of what is really necessary to fix our broken health care system: removing the private insurers and the establishment of a national health care system.

What's more, Stern wants the SEIU International to take control over our locals' organizing funds in order to pursue this strategy--and will try to gain approval for this at the union's convention in Puerto Rico in June.

This is not the way that unions will be rebuilt in the country.

The SEIU International's attempts to consolidate power have spurred an all-out fight within the union. UHW has been running an opposition campaign through petitions and organizing rallies, and by putting forward a platform for union democracy for the convention.

In response, the SEIU International charged that UHW violated labor law in the election of its convention delegates and demanded that the elections be rerun.

What's more, the massive mergers in California have left union activists upset about the lack of democracy. Members in Southern California are fighting the jurisdictional changes that placed them in SEIU Local 721 without a direct vote in their legacy local, 347.

In the Bay Area, members of SEIU Local 1021 are challenging its appointed leadership that broke union rules in the election for convention delegates in order to discredit pro-democracy forces, an attempt which for the most part failed.

All this has created an opening for the formation of SMART, which now has members in all the California locals and in 16 locals outside of California.

Many SEIU reformers believe the real culprit in Ohio was SEIU's employers-first strategy for organizing that invariably pits unions against each other. The best possibility to challenge it comes from within our union, not outside of it. SMART can be a vehicle for that struggle.

But any reform movement within SEIU needs to develop an analysis that criticizes the partnership model and offers a concrete alternative for workers.

By doing so, it can link the disparate and isolated struggles within the union against bad health care, bad immigration deals, privatization and public-sector cuts--and combine them with a movement for union democracy.

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