United States: Struggle for union democracy as SEIU dissidents attacked

November 29, 2008

On November 17, the Service Employees Industrial Union (SEIU) announced that it would be holding an advisory ballot of members in California to determine the future of the United Healthcare Workers–West (UHW-W), which with 150,000 members is the SEIU's third largest local.

The leadership of UHW-W, particularly its president Sal Rosselli, has been at the forefront of a campaign within the SEIU against the increasing centralisation of power within the union — a process which it argues will rob rank-and-file members of a say in the contracts that govern their employment.

The announcement of the ballot followed six days of hearings to determine if there was grounds for the SEIU to place the UHW-W in trusteeship, thus allowing the SEIU to replace the UHW-W's leadership with one loyal to the SEIU's tops.

The UHW-W and other critics of the SEIU argue that the latter is determined to silence its critics by any means, and is simply seeking to legitimise the removal of the UHW-W leadership.

The UHW-W has responded with ongoing mobilisations by members in defence of union democracy.

The UHW-W's opposition to the direction of the SEIU emerged from a range of differences over how best to organise workers, moves to break up the UHW-W and changes in the SEIU rules that the UHW-W argue would result in a significant concentration of power in the hands of the SEIU leadership.

In 2007, the UHW-W accused the SEIU leadership, which has intervened into UHW-W-run bargaining, of taking too many concessions in its effort to win agreement from employers to agree to neutrality in union recognition ballots in currently unorganised sites.

This reflects SEIU President Andy Stern's view that central to successful union organising is to demonstrate that unions can "add value" to an employer.

In his 2006 book, A Country that Works: Getting America Back on Track, Stern argued that a "class-struggle mentality was a vestige of an earlier, rough era of industrial union[ism]", and that the new labour movement should strive for "a 'working relationship' that can add value to the business and help improve performance [that] will result in workers sharing fairly in their employers' success".

A central part of the current round of union restructuring has included the transfer of 45,000 of UHW-W's members working in home-care to Local 6345 (United Long Term Care) in California.

While members will get to vote on this transfer, the decision is to be taken as an aggregate of the affected members of both locals, rather than of each separately. With Local 6434 having more members in this sector, they have the capacity to over-ride the decision of UHW-W members.

In the newly formed locals the leadership, at least initially, would be appointed by the SEIU international leadership.

In the lead up to the SEIU's convention, the international leadership proposed a series of changes in SEIU policy under the title of "Justice for All", which was passed overwhelmingly at the convention. The changes substantially increased the powers of the national union over its locals.

The UHW-W argued that the changes would reduce the input that rank-and-file members could have in collective bargaining, particularly the final wording of contracts, and shift the handling of grievances from local stewards and onto centralised call centres.

In response, the UHW-W issued a "Platform for Change" at the convention, that called for allowing rank and file members to elect representatives to the bargaining committees, and to vote on contract proposals and "any agreement" that affects working conditions.

The proposals also sought to limit forced mergers of locals as well as change elections for international officers by convention delegates to direct election by the membership.

Allegations against UHW-W

On August 25, Stern announced that a trusteeship hearing would be held into the UHW-W. The key allegation has been that the leadership of UHW-W had misappropriated union funds by using US$3 million of the locals fund to create a non-profit Patient Education Fund (PEF), in May 2007 to fund public education campaigns.

The SEIU leadership alleges that the fund was established to assist the UHW-W leadership to resist attempts to put it into trusteeship. On April 24, the UHW-W voted to close down the PEF.

On March 24, Stern had written to all 150,000 UHW-W members about a series of allegations. The letter was widely seen as the beginnings of a move to put the UHW-W into receivership.

On May 1, 101 pro-union writers, authors, and educators signed an open letter to Stern that was published as a half-page ad in the New York Times, expressing "deep concern" over the threat of placing UHW-W into trusteeship.

The letter stated such a move "would send a very troubling message and be viewed, by many, as a sign that internal democracy is not valued or tolerated within SEIU".

Stern and other local and international leaders of the SEIU have argued that there was no intention to put UHW-W into receivership.

On June 5, SEIU leader Bill Ragen sent an email to other officials that discussed possible options to intervene into the UHW-W. The email raised the possibility of trusteeship, but suggested such a move was problematic — "like Iraq, easy to get in and then a slog".

The preferred option outlined in the email would be the local's implosion, via the stripping away of members, luring away of senior staff, legal suits around the PEF and encouraging dissatisfaction among the UHW-W membership.

The charges against the UHW-W's leadership mirror those in a court case that was brought against the UHW-W by the SEIU on June 20. In the case, the SEIU argued that 10 members of the UHW-W's executive had, in establishing the PEF, breached their duty to use the union's funds for the interests of the union and had breached the SEIU's constitution and bylaws.

The SEIU's case was subsequently dismissed on July 22 without a formal hearing.

Corruption in the SEIU

In August, a growing corruption scandal erupted surrounding three of Stern's hand-picked officials within SEIU locals in California and Michigan.

In a series of articles, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Stern-appointed presidents of three SEIU locals, including the president of Local 6345 where 45,000 UHW-W members were to be transferred, and an executive vice-president of the SEIU, are accused of misspending hundreds of thousands of dollars of members money to enrich themselves and their families.

All three have been stood down from their positions.

In response to the scandal, Stern announced on September 3 the creation of an ethics commission and the establishment of an ethics code for the union.

Stern also announced that the board would be asked to examine the actions of the leadership of UHW-W.

The leadership of the UHW-W argued that the pursuit of the local reflects both an attempt to shift attention away from the corruption of SEIU officials close to Stern and to advance his goal of breaking up the UHW-W.

On September 10, Herman Benson, founder of the Association for Union Democracy, pointed out on his Union Democracy blog that,"unlike Stern's own appointees, Rosselli has never been charged with trying to enrich himself or friends. The attack on Rosselli derives from his political opposition to Stern."

A witch-hunt

The launching of the trusteeship process has to be taken in the context of the corruption crisis. The crisis makes it unlikely that the SEIU will be able to successfully transfer members from the UHW-W to local 6345.

The hearing process itself has been constructed to help give further cover to the SEIU.

Throughout the attacks on the local, the UHW-W has sought to mobilise its members to win new agreements and organise workplaces, as well as fight against the trusteeship process.

UHW-W members have mobilised in their thousands across California, including at the trusteeship hearings.

More than 5000 UHW-W members participated in rallies outside of the hearings on September 26 and 27.

During the second series of trusteeship hearings held on November 12 and 13, UHW-W held "Keeping it Real" rallies both outside trusteeship hearing in San Jose, as well as outside of SEIU offices in Los Angeles and Oakland.

At the latter protests, they attempted to deliver a petition signed by 80,000 members calling on the SEIU to end the trusteeship hearings and enter into mediation with the UHW-W.

In Sacramento members protested outside the headquarters of Sutter Health, which has been delaying negotiating with UHW-W, to demand the company immediately negotiate with the local.

However, their efforts have been made difficult as companies seek to delay bargaining in the hope that the UHW-W will be put under trusteeship and the company will be able to bargain with a more pliant SIEU-controlled union.

Despite the SEIU's control of the hearing process, it was unable to prove the allegations of misconduct against the UHW-W. Faced with the UHW-W memberships' determination to maintain control of their union, the SEIU has established a new voting process that could be used to legitimise action against the local.

The ballot, which will close on December 11, asks all SEIU members in California whether the 65,000 homecare and nursing home workers wish to join a statewide long-term care union with leaders appointed by Stern, or whether the UHW-W should be dissolved and a new statewide healthcare workers union created with leaders appointed by Stern.

The UHW-W have raised a number of concerns with the ballot process.

Firstly, the vote is only advisory, so the SEIU can ignore the result if they wish. Secondly, as it is a ballot of all SEIU members in California, the votes of UHW-W members may be blunted if their vote is swamped by the remainder of SEIU members in the state.

Thirdly, UHW-W were only informed of the ballot when it was mailed to members, while other Californian locals were informed prior to its mailing so they could begin campaigning support of the proposals.

As such, the UHW-W has decided to boycott the vote, encouraging members to instead send postcards protesting the ballot.

[For more information on the UHW-W and the campaign against it, visit http://www.seiuvoice.org.]

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