SEIU reform struggle heats up

September 17, 2008

Brian Cruz, Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, members of SEIU Local 1021 in the Bay Area, look at union president Andrew Stern's attempts to oust his opponents and crush a growing reform movement.

DEFIANT AND determined, several thousand members of Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) marched through downtown San Jose on September 6.

Homecare workers, stewards from Kaiser facilities, medical technicians from Catholic Healthcare hospitals, and scores of nursing home workers and union activists joined the demonstration, chanting, "Sin justícia, no hay paz" ("No justice, no peace") and "When health care workers are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!"

But the focus of the protest wasn't some heartless nursing home boss. Rather, the target of the workers' wrath was the head of their union, SEIU International President Andrew Stern, who wants to put UHW into "receivership"--that is, placed under control of a Stern appointee, who would have total power over that union local.

The anti-Stern protest was held in conjunction with a UHW educational conference that stressed rank-and-file activism, the importance of union democracy and the necessity of holding union leaders accountable.

Thousands of health care workers marched against Andrew Stern's plan to put the UHW in receivership
Thousands of health care workers marched against Andrew Stern's plan to put the UHW in receivership (Indymedia)

UHW, led by the popular and democratically elected President Sal Rosselli, has been in the forefront of the fight to democratize and reform SEIU. Rosselli has increasingly clashed with Stern's moves to centralize power, authority and resources into the hands of the International President's office. By campaigning against corruption and for rank-and-file control, UHW has earned Stern's enmity.

Over the past year, the Stern administration has spent millions of SEIU's dollars attacking UHW and trying to undermine the local. This has included frivolous lawsuits, direct mail hit pieces and robo-phone calls to UHW members. In an effort to silence UHW in the run-up to July's International Convention, Stern threatened to take control of the local.

UHW leaders, to their credit, refused to be silenced and went public with the fight to reform SEIU. UHW officers and members, along with a new group, SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today (SMART), were able to bring the debate to the floor of the convention and even contest elections for some of the International Executive Board seats.

What you can do

To find out about the protest locations on September 26-27, monitor the SMART Web site. If you're a member of SIEU, help grow the union reform movement by starting a SMART chapter in your local. You can find out more about SMART at the group's Web site.

But the International managed the floor very tightly and ended up winning on all of its proposals. Stern also pushed through a resolution authorizing him to split UHW by moving its 65,000 long-term care workers into the Los Angeles-based SEIU Local 6434.

Next, the International announced a hearing to determine the fate of these 65,000 workers for Manhattan Beach, near LA, just 10 days in advance. UHW, however, was able to organize a mass protest at the hearings of over 6,000 members from all over the state. This embarrassed Stern and forced him to back down, albeit temporarily.

STERN'S CAMPAIGN to take control of UHW has also been slowed down by a series of scandals involving top allies, including SEIU Local 6434 President Tyrone Freeman. Stern had intended for Freeman to get control of the 65,000 members transferred from UHW. But following a series of investigative reports by the Los Angeles Times, Freeman has taken a leave from his office and is under criminal investigation.

According to the Times, "Freeman's local and a related charity have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to home-based firms owned by his wife and mother-in-law, as well as $16,000 to a now-defunct minor league basketball team coached by his brother-in-law." The local also ran up bills at pricey restaurants, an expensive cigar club and William Morris, the Hollywood talent agency.

Freeman's rise to a powerful union position is typical among Stern's allies in the SEIU. Originally put into office as a Stern appointee, he went unchallenged in a subsequent union election because Local 6434's nomination requirements make it practically impossible for non-incumbents to run (4,800 nominating signatures must be gathered within three weeks in a local representing homecare workers, who rarely see one another).

Rickman Jackson, the former chief of staff for Local 6434, who moved on to be president of the largest SEIU local in Michigan, stepped down because he was implicated in one of the charges against Freeman (it was Jackson's local that was involved in the violent attack on the Labor Notes conference in April to "protest" a scheduled appearance by a speaker from the rival California Nurses Association).

Also immersed in scandal is Annelle Grajeda, the appointed president of the 65,000-member SEIU Local 721. Grajeda became president of the SEIU California State Council in a Stern-backed coup against Rosselli, who had held that post. Grajeda was also elected by acclamation to become one of SEIU's six International Executive Vice Presidents (a $200,000 per year post).

Now, however, Grajeda has stepped down as well, amid charges of permitting double- and even triple-dipping by her ex-boyfriend Alejandro Stephens. As labor journalists Steve Early and Cal Winslow reported, "Stephens is accused of remaining on the payroll of Los Angeles County, while collecting 'tens of thousands of dollars' from various SEIU entities, including the state council headed by Grajeda, Grajeda's own 75,000-member local, and the international union."

Stern has decided to try to use this disaster as an excuse to dispose of UHW. He's proclaiming himself a proponent for "reform" within the labor movement and has promised to clean house.

Thus, he's called for a new hearing to place UHW under trusteeship, recycling charges that were earlier dismissed by a federal judge. The hearing is set for September 26 and 27. However, the location hasn't been announced yet, as Stern aims to undercut a mobilization by UHW members to protest the threat of trusteeship.

A trusteeship is the labor-movement equivalent of martial law. It allows the International to remove all elected officers, dissolve any and all leadership bodies, fire staff, and ignore rank-and-file bargaining committees. In their place, one appointed "trustee" is empowered to make all decisions. Labor law only permits an International to place a Local in trusteeship for very specific reasons, such as corruption or financial malfeasance.

What are UHW's "crimes" that would justify a trusteeship? Blowing the whistle on backroom deals and substandard contracts conducted in the name of labor-management partnership; opposing the SEIU International's support of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's so-called health care reform, which is based on individual mandates; and sending a delegation to the International Convention to propose constitutional changes, motions and resolutions designed to give rank-and-file leaders a voice at all levels of the union.

HOWEVER, STERN'S campaign to destabilize UHW seems to have had the opposite effect. The International's use of smears, lies and innuendos against Rosselli has galvanized UHW's membership around an explicit agenda of union reform.

Oscar, a member of UHW in Oakland, said, "People are pissed off because of the scandals. People are getting more and more involved and understanding the issues more clearly. [Member] turnouts are better, and people see with their own eyes the truth. They are more confident than ever. As we continue to win the best contracts ever and raise the bar for the nursing home industry, people are excited."

The stakes in this battle are high. A trusteeship of SEIU would also weaken the voice for reform and democracy inside the union. No doubt one of Stern's first actions would be to cut UHW's ties to the SMART reform group.

Jon Meade, president of SEIU Local 1021's Paramedic Chapter, warned, "If UHW is dismantled, union democracy will be hurt the most. This is a watershed event for union democracy inside SEIU. This is a landmark struggle for the labor movement. It represents union democracy verses corporatization."

The broader labor movement would be weakened if the voices of dissent inside SEIU were silenced. Finally, the broader progressive community also would be harmed by a UHW trusteeship. With UHW out of the way, Stern would be able to ignore the membership's desire for single-payer health care reform and cut political deals that protect the insurance industry.

This is why we should all turn out on September 26 and September 27 to protest at the UHW trusteeship hearing. This next protest promises to be as big--or bigger--than the membership turnout at the last hearing in July outside LA.

"Los Angeles will look like a no-show by comparison," said Elsa from In Home Support Services in Sonoma County. Asked if Stern can be stopped, Elsa was somber, but resolute: "Yes, we can stop the trusteeship."

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