The Mother of All Union Trusteeships


Three years ago this Friday (Jan. 27), Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern declared war on one-quarter of his California membership. SEIU headquarters in Washington dispatched an army of paid staffers to seize the Oakland office of United Healthcare Workers (UHW) and other union facilities around the state. Stern’s trusteeship over UHW was aided by scores of high priced union lawyers, uniformed local police officers, and private security personnel from the OSO Group, which hires ex-cops, former FBI and Secret Service agents, and even retired CIA employees to provide corporate clients with surveillance, intelligence, and counter-terrorism protection. (OSO’s bill for its services totaled $2.2 million.)

Before the UHW take-over occurred, the 150,000 hospital, home care, and nursing home workers in UHW were part of a model local that was spearheading a much-needed movement for union democracy and reform within SEIU. Overnight, they were stripped of their own elected leaders, from the shop-floor to statewide level. For the next several years, SEIU’s third largest affiliate was run by Stern appointees, with no accountability to the membership. Many of its overseers arrived from out-of-state and have never left, fulfilling their duties with far less competence and commitment than the local officers and staff they replaced. Once a fast-growing SEIU affiliate, UHW has done little or no new organizing since the 2009 trusteeship. Contract standards and workplace representation have both declined dramatically for its existing members

Instead, SEIU and its installed UHW leaders have diverted more than $50 million in membership dues money into their on-going counter-insurgency effort. About 9,000 UHW members have, nevertheless, joined a rival union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), that was formed in response to trusteeship. Dave Regan, the SEIU official imported from Ohio to replace Sal Rosselli as president of UHW, now earns nearly $300,000 a year, more than twice what his predecessor was paid. Post-trusteeship, the UHW treasury has been so badly plundered that even its PR flack, Steve Trossman, makes $200,000 annually.

That’s a higher salary than the national presidents of the United Auto Workers, Steelworkers, and Communications Workers receive for overseeing unions with 350,000 to 700,000 members.

Stern defended the UHW trusteeship as a tragic necessity. In America, Stern told The Washington Post, “there is not enough money you can spend…to protect us from terrorists. As you know, sometimes you have to spend money to protect the integrity of the institution from its own version of self-righteousness and terrorism.”

The Legacy of Andy Stern

On the third anniversary of the “mother of all trusteeships” – one of the largest in U.S. labor history – it’s worth remembering why and how this fiasco occurred. In the view of most outside observers, the UHW take-over has greatly harmed, rather than helped, SEIU-represented health care workers, in California and other parts of the country.

Stern’s intervention has also negatively impacted other California unions that once counted on SEIU to be a progressive force in local and state politics. The UHW under Regan won’t even back a referendum campaign to increase state taxation of millionaires, a measure favored by the California Federation of Teachers and other groups.

Meanwhile, since Stern’s retirement in 2010, SEIU’s “President Emeritus” has become a full-fledged One Percenter himself. In addition to collecting a union pension worth nearly a quarter of a million dollars annually, he receives huge director fees as a board member of SIGA Technologies (a perk arranged by billionaire Ron Perlman, a major stakeholder in the pharmaceutical firm).

From Stern’s current perch at the Columbia University Business School, he has been lobbying for corporate tax relief and deficit reduction, while urging, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, that the U.S. adopt China’s model of economic development (one notably lacking in respect for workers rights and real unions).

For workers still trapped in the Chinese-style company unionism that Stern & Co. imposed on them, the UHW trusteeship saga is a tale of political deceit and blatant hypocrisy; the official version of why former UHW-President Sal Rosselli and other Stern critics had to be ousted in 2009 didn’t conform to reality at the time and, as a credible pretext, has grown much thinner ever since. To provide liberal cover for his crack-down on SEIU reformers, Stern utilized union insiders like Justice for Janitors organizer Stephen Lerner and Executive Vice-President Eliseo Medina, who now serves as SEIU’s secretary-treasurer under Stern’s successor, Mary Kay Henry. To lend a veneer of legality to the proceedings he also hired a well-known outsider, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall.

A Carter Administration cabinet member now 83 years old, Marshall was paid $200,000 to investigate Stern’s allegations that financial misconduct by Rosselli and his executive board justified a UHW take-over. While researching a book published last year, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, I interviewed the retired University of Texas law professor about the trusteeship hearings he conducted while top SEIU staffers like Lerner were already making secret preparations to remove elected UHW leaders.

Marshall reaffirmed his January 2009 finding that, based on the evidence presented to him, there were no current UHW financial irregularities that required such action. “Nobody lost any money,” Marshall told me. And, contrary to Stern’s view that UHW dissenters were organizational “terrorists” who needed to be rooted out, Marshall believed that both SEIU and UHW were “strong and progressive voices for their members and all American workers.” In a personal letter to Stern on January 21, 2009, Marshall urged the parties “to settle their differences and return to the kind of cooperation that helped both organizations…”

Unfortunately, the price of cooperation for UHW, as determined by Marshall in his accompanying written decision, was its dismemberment. On January 9, 2009, the Stern controlled SEIU executive board ordered that 65,000 UHW-represented nursing home and home care members be transferred to a new statewide SEIU local that would have all of its officers hand-picked by Stern.

The affected workers had made it quite clear to SEIU and Marshall that they preferred to remain within UHW, which insisted that the question be put to a vote among its long-term care members (a form of rank-and-file veto power not guaranteed by the SEIU constitution). Nursing home and home care union activists feared they would end up in the clutches of another Stern protégé like Tyrone Freeman, the president of SEIU’s United Long Term Care Workers Local 6434 based in Los Angeles. In mid-2008, Freeman’s embezzlement of $1 million from his low-paid membership had just created a widely-publicized corruption scandal and led to his removal from office. (He now awaits federal criminal charges as well.)

As Medina explained in a Jan. 21, 2009 Beyond Chron article (entitled “Why SEIU Supports Uniting Long Term Care Workers”), members of Freeman’s former local, UHW, and a third SEIU affiliate were all going to be merged into “the nation’s largest and most powerful organization of long term care workers – 240,000 strong” for their own good. According to Medina, creating this “one unified local” was a top SEIU priority and “couldn’t come at a more critical moment,” due to public sector budget crises and resulting home care program funding cuts that threatened to undermine past union gains.

“Homecare workers hold an important place in SEIU,” Medina insisted. In fact, they were so important that he was personally “working with members in California” to ensure prompt implementation of the restructuring plan mandated by the SEIU board. “When our international union made a commitment to organize home care workers as a way to raise standards in this sector, the entire national union fought intensely to pass laws to allow home care workers to organize…” Medina wrote. “That’s why we must use all of our resources to strengthen union membership and political power in parts of this state and across the country.”

SEIU’s Post-Trusteeship Reality 

After UHW balked at the forced transfer of its long-term care membership – and trusteeship was imposed – SEIU’s impending membership realignment was never mentioned publicly again. The statewide long term care local that Medina was going to create – “to raise more folks out of poverty so they can provide for themselves and their families” – was never established.

In apparent continuing violation of the executive board’s now three-year old jurisdictional decree, 65,000 nursing home and home care workers remain dis-united, to this very day, in UHW. There, 2 per cent   of their modest pay-checks is deducted monthly to fund the extravagant salaries of Dave Regan and his top staff.

If there’s any transfer of membership in the near future, it will most likely involve Regan’s absorption of 160,000-member Local 6434, a take-over opposed by its current president, a former SEIU staffer named Laphonza Butler. Of course, if UHW and 6434 were consolidated, Regan would then head the second largest SEIU affiliate in the country. But long term care workers would not be segregated in their own local; they would be united with hospital workers, just as pre-trusteeship UHW leaders said they should be.

The notion that any of these top-down schemes lead to strengthened union membership and/or more “political power” is almost laughable at this point. Since Stern’s seizure of UHW, SEIU political clout has diminished so much in California that it couldn’t even get a putative ally, Governor Brown, to sign a bill passed by the legislature last year permitting unionization of tens of thousands of home-based child care providers through a card check recognition process. Similar card check procedures in New York, New Jersey, and others states have made it possible for tens of thousands of home day care providers to be unionized there.

While UHW/SEIU have been spending millions battling NUHW in California, past union gains among both home care workers and child-care providers have unraveled around the country. Some of the organizing “laws” referred to by Medina above were not laws at all—but executive orders obtained by SEIU from labor friendly governors in states like Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

After Republicans replaced in Democrats three of those four states in 2010, the victors began stripping more than 75,000 publicly-funded, home-based workers of recently acquired bargaining rights or contract protections. (For details, see Steve Early, “GOP Targets Fragile Gains of Home-Based Caregivers,” Working In These Times, April 9, 2011.)

Since the UHW trusteeship, SEIU’s overall organizing record has steadily declined. It has lost a series of decertification elections to independent unions formed by county workers in southern California, city workers in Los Angeles, municipal workers in Arizona, and health care workers in Ontario. In recent months, NUHW has, for the first time, won NLRB elections outside of California, ousting SEIU as the representative of several hundred Michigan health care workers. Last January, a large-scale SEIU attempt to grow in Ohio ended in crushing defeat at hospitals and nursing facilities operated by Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP).

In statewide voting conducted among CHP professional and non-professional employees, there was only one union (SEIU) on the ballot and virtually no anti-union campaigning. Nevertheless, the health care local formerly headed by Dave Regan lost in 39 proposed bargaining units and won in only four. Less than 700 workers gained bargaining rights out of 6,600 eligible to vote.


Something’s Rotten?


After Henry became SEIU president, she appointed a Dave Regan protégé from Ohio to head up new member recruitment throughout the country. SEIU’s new organizing director, Florida-based Scott Courtney, makes more than $200,000 a year, as the union’s highest paid unelected official.


According to one concerned SEIU activist, “the International union is doing no organizing. Scott Courtney is in charge and the only campaign he has allowed has been fighting off NUHW at Kaiser. Everything else has been shutdown.” In the Fall of 2010, Courtney had such an acrimonious dispute with Stephen Lerner over SEIU priorities that he put Lerner on administrative leave. His unruly subordinate was, back then, a convention-elected member of SEIU’s top governing board, and thus outranked Courtney. Yet, after a quarter century of widely-praised SEIU work, Lerner was given little or no role in organizing the unorganized when he was finally allowed to return to his headquarters staff position early last year.

Now this longtime Stern loyalist, liberal media darling, and critic of SEIU dissidents been forced out of SEIU entirely – by Mary Kay Henry! Although Lerner has refrained from public comment about his  resignation this month, at least one co-worker – a self-described “career staffer”(blogging under the screen name “Union Jo”) – took to the internet to warn that “the internal culture at SEIU under Mary Kay has taken a turn toward the dark side.” (For the full lament, see “Courtney has clamped down on dissent, with Henry’s evident approval,” reports Union Jo. Lerner’s “ouster exposes the culture of fear, rigidity, and conformism that has taken root inside the union since she became its leader.” All of which leads this anonymous whistle-blower to conclude that “something’s rotten inside SEIU” – hardly a revelation to UHW members stripped of their union rights three years ago, and terribly abused, on a wide scale, ever since.

STEVE EARLY is a former national staff member of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) who has been active in labor causes since 1972. He is the author of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor  (Haymarket Books, 2010, a contributor to the forthcoming, Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, from Monthly Review Press.


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