Will SEIU obliterate a California local?

January 9, 2009

Brian Cruz, a member of SEIU Local 1021 in San Francisco, reports on the struggle of members of United Healthcare Workers-West to resist a power grab by the union's president, Andrew Stern.

THE HIGHEST body of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) convened January 8 via teleconference to determine the future of its 150,000-member California affiliate, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW).

If the electronic vote set for January 9 goes according to the plan of SEIU President Andrew Stern, the union's International Executive Board (IEB) will begin dismantling UHW.

The vote comes more than a year and a half after the UHW leaders challenged Stern's efforts to concentrate union power in his hands and pursue collaboration with employers.

According to Stern, unions need to adapt to the present by relegating tools like shop-steward structures and the strike to the past. Unions should be streamlined and more centralized, Stern says, so their leadership can focus more on finessing reforms from employers and politicians.

"I don't think anymore the power of unions comes from its ability to strike," Stern declared on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation program. "I think it comes from its ability to participate in the political process and to change America in issues that we've been talking about, like health care."

Thousands of health care workers marched in September against a plan to put the UHW in trusteeship
Thousands of health care workers marched in September against a plan to put the UHW in trusteeship (Indymedia)

UHW and its supporters, on the other hand, argue that labor needs to negotiate from a position of strength. They assert that union democracy and rank-and-file militancy are as essential now as ever. They further criticize the centralization of power that has taken place in SEIU under Stern, and reject the idea that the decline in unionization rates justifies an organize-at-any-cost method that surrenders many of members' rights and offers concessions.

Instead, UHW leaders--along with their allies in the opposition group SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today (SMART)--stress the importance of union democracy and rank-and-file activism. They point to victories such as the factory occupation at Republic Windows and Doors as positive proof that militant tactics aren't old-fashioned.

UNFORTUNATELY, THERE will be no real debate in the IEB over this issue. One decision that union leaders will make is whether to transfer UHW's 65,000 nursing-home workers--nearly half its members--into a California statewide "long-term care" local with members from two other California locals. SEIU claims it has the authority to gut UHW as a result of a recent "advisory vote" of the members involved.

UHW points out that the election was undemocratic and unfair. Of 309,000 received ballots, only 7 percent were returned, thanks to a boycott organized by UHW leaders. More than 120,000 workers formally protested the election, saying that the options given were a false choice.

The first option (which won) would place all long-term care workers in the state into one local, taking away nearly half of UHW's members; the second option would have placed all the health care workers into one statewide union, wiping UHW off the map.

The IEB may also decide to place the local (or what remains of it) under trusteeship. This would allow the SEIU International to oust UHW leaders and replace them with people appointed by Stern.

The SEIU president has used this method repeatedly over the last decade, forcing union mergers and installing loyal staffers in leadership positions. Three of these Stern allies--Annelle Grajeda and Tyrone Freeman of California, and Rickman Jackson of Michigan--were recently implicated in corruption scandals involving the misuse of millions of dollars in union funds.

By contrast, UHW President Sal Rosselli has a reputation for running a clean operation. But Stern is out to destroy Rosselli and UHW officials not for being corrupt, but for trying to create a real debate within SEIU.

Last year, UHW opposed a highly controversial alliance between SEIU and California nursing homes to which it was originally party.

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.

Throughout the life of the agreement, wages failed to keep pace with inflation, staff benefits declined, and turnover rates grew worse. Meanwhile, the nursing homes' profits soared by 700 percent. But under the agreement's gag rule, UHW leaders found it difficult to fight back.

As members' complaints about the nursing home partnership mounted, UHW leaders decided to challenge other controversial partnerships that SEIU was seeking. They spoke out against an SEIU-nursing home alliance in Washington state, in which the nursing homes would decide which homes could and could not be organized. UHW also spoke out against the SEIU partnership with Tenet Healthcare, in which some workers' jobs would be outsourced and union members would be denied the right to strike for seven years.

UHW officials also spoke out against SEIU's secret pact with Sodexho and Aramark, under which management would determine which shops could be organized. (SEIU officials promised to deny the existence of this agreement.)

Further, UHW criticized Stern's support for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "individual mandate" health care legislation, and the union president's opposition to a statewide "Medicare for all" single-payer bill.

The SEIU International, however, struck back. Union officials maneuvered to have Rosselli removed from SEIU's California State Council and filed federal charges against individual UHW executive board members (charges later thrown out by a judge). At the same time, Stern set in motion procedures for placing UHW in trusteeship and held the sham "jurisdictional election" to justify the carve-up of that union local.

Throughout this onslaught from Stern, UHW leaders have maintained real support from the union's members--workers who have mobilized by the thousands again and again in rallies against trusteeship.

If the IEB divides UHW and/or seizes control of the local, it will be a major setback for the movement for union democracy--not only in SEIU, but also in the labor movement as a whole.

But that won't be the end of the story. What's crucial is how rank-and-file UHW members react to an unfavorable IEB decision--and the support the rest of us in the labor movement can give them. Whatever the IEB decides, the struggle for union democracy in SEIU will continue.

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