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The High Price of Purple Dissent

The tireless members of United Healthcare Workers (UHW) will be on the march again this weekend, in what’s likely to be one the largest anti-trusteeship protests in U.S. labor history. Thousands of rank-and-filers will tell Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern that they prefer their own elected officers to “the strong and stable [appointed] leadership” SEIU promised to send them from Washington, D.C., in a letter received by all 150,000 UHW members in California last month.

The city of San Mateo is hosting this latest “Hands Off Our Union” rally, a sequel to earlier ones in San Jose, Manhattan Beach, Oakland, and elsewhere.  The long-running UHW take-over drama (almost a telenovela by now) began in March when Stern accused his most out-spoken critic, UHW President Sal Rosselli, of various offenses including meeting secretly with Rose Ann DeMoro, of the California Nurses Association, an arch enemy of what Stern once called his “Purple Army.” (This treason-and-conspiracy count has since been dropped in a superceding SEIU “indictment” of Rosselli.)

In San Mateo, the ire of UHW mutineers may be directed also at 80-year old Ray Marshall, a Jimmy Carter cabinet member who now serves on the board of the Economic Policy Institute, a  progressive think-tank backed by SEIU. Marshall is a retired economics professor from Texas, who’s flying in from Austin to conduct a “pre-trusteeship” hearing on Friday and Saturday designed to give UHW a modicum of “due process” before imposition of SEIU-style martial law.

It was a clever move for Stern to hire a “nationally respected labor expert and former U.S. Secretary of Labor” to preside over what UHW members are calling a “kangaroo court.” Marshall’s  “hearing officer” gig (in the not very appropriately named “Fiesta Hall” of the San Mateo Events Center) reflects Stern’s unprecedented need for liberal cover. What better luminary to tap then a “professor emeritus” at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, when you’re wading ever deeper into the “Big Muddy” of trying to occupy sixteen UHW offices, seize $90 million a year in local union dues money, oust hundreds of elected leaders and field staff, plus disarm any non-cooperating members (of whom there will be many).

This is the first time that a prominent outsider has been enlisted to facilitate such a take-over. Used again and again, Stern’s trusteeship powers have demonstrated the limits of union democracy protections under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), a federal law that Marshall was once charged with enforcing (more on that below). Since Stern became president twelve years ago, SEIU has dispensed with elected local union officers (replacing them with appointed trustees or “interim presidents”) in more than 80 affiliates. Percentage-wise (and in absolute numbers), Stern’s trusteeship stats put him in a league of his own in organized labor.

Initially, SEIU’s local union take-overs and make-overs (aka “purging and merging”) were lauded by labor activists and academics for getting rid of “old guard” fiefdoms and giving the union “new strength and unity.” Trusteeships have also been praised for installing a younger, more diverse officialdom (often recruited from outside SEIU) which has helped make the union North America’s second largest. More recently, the applause for Stern’s top-down restructuring of SEIU has been less rousing. That’s because trusteeships have now become a tool for consolidating Stern’s personal power, stifling dissent, negotiating substandard contracts, and creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that’s most unhealthy, even if your union is diverse and fast-growing. As SEIU’s own former education director Bill Fletcher predicted on Democracy Now Sept.19, any trusteeship over UHW will be actively resisted by its working members, creating a situation that’s “going to be absolutely horrible.” (SEIU headquarters staffer Bill Ragan seems to agree; in a just-leaked June memo to UHW occupation planner Stephen Lerner and others, Ragan acknowledged that a take-over would be “difficult,” much “like Iraq, easy to get in…and then a slog.”)

Three thousand miles away from San Mateo, another retiree (better informed about SEIU than Ray Marshall) wishes that he could be at the UHW hearing to support Sal Rosselli. John Templeton is a feisty former social worker for the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. He served for ten years as president of Boston-based SEIU Local 509, an organization highly-regarded for its progressive activism, just as UHW is in the Bay Area. Templeton wasn’t president continuously because 509 limits both its top officer and chapter leaders to serving two consecutive terms, followed by at least a one-year break, a policy rare in SEIU but one that Templeton advocated as a rank-and-file member; the local’s constitution also limits top officer pay to the salary of the highest paid rank-and-file member. (Before he retired, Templeton made about $65,000 a year.)

Local 509 was a champion of Stern’s “New Strength and Unity Plan” when it was first adopted in 2000. As part of a complicated 2003 re-alignment of SEIU affiliates in Massachusetts, Templeton’s local even loyally accepted the ill-advised transfer of 1,500 newly-recruited members from 509 to another local (which treated them so badly at U-Mass that they eventually left SEIU to join the Massachusetts Teachers Association). To this day, Templeton doesn’t want “to sound completely negative” about the national union because “I really like the way they’ve organized janitors…and I think the progress they’ve made with organizing, especially low-paid workers, is marvelous.”

By 2004, however, Templeton was beginning to have doubts about giving “Stern more power to reorganize and trustee locals.” Previously, he recalls, “there had to be corruption, malfeasance or undemocratic activity but, after New Strength Unity, they could trustee for almost any reason.” To curb this trend, Templeton came to SEIU’s national convention in San Francisco four years ago well-prepared. He announced that he was running against Stern for president so he could send out a letter to fellow delegates urging their support for a series of amendments to reform the union’s constitution. Among the changes sought by Templeton–and successfully blocked by Stern–were the following (that would have promoted more democratic practices in SEIU):

“*SEIU shall establish clear and consistent guidelines for placing local unions under trusteeship. Trusteeships shall be used only as a last resort in the case of corruption or serious malfeasances and never for political reasons.

*SEIU shall encourage the process where rank-and-file members are encouraged to run for top leadership positions.

*SEIU shall not interfere in local elections by arranging for trustees, interim appointed officers, staff or any other persons not currently or recently employed within the local’s jurisdiction to run for local offices.

*Any provisional local officer shall serve in that capacity for no more than one year, and shall not be eligible to run for office unless that person is a member by virtue of being currently or recently employed within the bargaining unit jurisdiction of the local.”

In the context of SEIU politics today, Templeton was what you might call a “premature anti-fascist” (ie a kindred soul of earlier American radicals who paid a high price for resisting, in the late 1930s, the overthrow of the Spanish Republic because they didn’t need World War II to alert them to the dangers of dictatorial rule). Even if that historical comparison seems a bit overdrawn (yes, we know that Andy Stern is not Hitler or Mussolini), the little-known story of Local 509’s near-death experience, which followed Templeton’s 2004 convention dissent, pre-figures the far worse ordeal of UHW today.

Like UHW, after its challenge to Stern at this year’s SEIU convention, Local 509 soon found its own autonomy threatened. Stern dispatched a key operative to Boston, Tom Balanoff from Chicago, to hold “jurisdictional hearings” on whether Templeton’s 10,000 members would be better off without their own local. According to former 509 organizer Ferd Wulkan, it was clear during this hearing process that even though the social workers union, like UHW, “did almost everything SEIU asked (e.g. large-scale organizing campaigns, political mobilizations, sending volunteers to other campaigns), the International deeply resented its democratic traditions.”

Stern’s preferred repository for the social workers was a 45,000-member organizational oddity called the National Association of Government Employees (NAGE), a former independent union now operating in more than 40 states as SEIU Local 5000. Not surprisingly, the president of NAGE, David Holway, is the product of a Stern trusteeship, plus Massachusetts Democratic politics (not a promising combination). In his previous incarnations, Holway was a Beacon Hill lobbyist and top aide to Charles Flaherty (better known locally as “Good Time Charlie”) who lost his job as speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives due to a little problem with the IRS involving unpaid taxes.

Holway has plenty of income to report himself (plus homes in Cambridge and Martha’s Vineyard). As Boston Globe columnist Steve Bailey reported three years ago, “Holway makes $229,455 as president of NAGE and another $10,692 for sitting on the SEIU executive board, or $240,147 in all”—for total compensation even larger than Stern’s own. And that doesn’t include Holway’s outside income stream, which included, for several years after he took over Local 5000, annual payments of $100,000 a year or more from the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association, a race track lobbying group that simultaneously employed him as “executive director.”

Like UHW long term care workers who wanted nothing to do with any local headed by the now-fallen Los Angelean, Tryone Freeman (see CounterPunch, Sept. 3, 2008), Local 509ers strongly resisted being absorbed into Holway’s fiefdom. Ultimately, they were successful (aided in part by the local’s anti-merger mobilization and all the negative publicity Holway was getting in The Globe.) Yet 509’s survival as a stand-alone local came at a price.

The post-Templeton administration at 509 (which includes several long-time labor lefties) absorbed the lesson that provoking Stern doesn’t pay. They noticed that indigenous leadership of other major Boston-based SEIU affiliates was rapidly disappearing. Like NAGE, the other three leading “locals” all emerged from trusteeships or mergers with ex-staffers in charge, who owed their jobs to Stern, his second-in-command, Anna Burger, or  Dennis Rivera, director of SEIU’s health care division.)  So, at this year’s SEIU convention in Puerto Rico, the 509 delegation kept its head down (and a safe distance from Rosselli’s local) to avoid incurring the same official wrath that Templeton attracted after the previous convention.

Ironically, that’s the same way Ray Marshall went along to get along (with the labor establishment) during his four years as chief enforcer of laws designed to protect workers’ pensions and their union rights. During the late 1970s, Marshall was responsible for one major mitzvah. Following an avalanche of bad publicity, the DOL did impose federal oversight over the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund, then a piggy-bank for the mob. On lower-profile issues related to the LMRDA, Marshall was much less pro-active. For example, out of deference to the traditional constituency of Labor Secretaries in Democratic administrations (in the pre- Clinton era), he rejected rank-and-file pleas that unions should be required to send every member a copy of their constitution, by-laws, and annual financial statement.

Like every DOL secretary since 1959, Marshall also watched on the sidelines as union dissidents struggled to overcome the LMRDA’s unfortunate Title III limitation that, once a trusteeship is imposed—even for the purposes of political retaliation—the take-over “shall be presumed to be lawful for a period of 18 months.” (In SEIU, thanks to the combined use of trusteeships, local mergers, and/or forced membership transfers, some Boston-area rank-and-filers have been deprived of the right to vote for local union officers for as long as five years.)

Now Marshall is charged with making a recommendation to Stern and the SEIU executive board, later this Fall, about the fate of membership voting rights in UHW. It remains to be seen whether he’s willing to distinguish between real corruption, which does indeed require a cleansing trusteeship in some unions, and disagreements over union policy which should be resolved, politically, through debate, discussion, or even third-party facilitated negotiation (imagine that in a labor union!).

The right of members to disagree with union leaders—to speak out for or against their ideas and actions, free of retaliation—is more strongly embedded in Title I of the LMRDA. That’s why UHW members have now filed suit against Stern under this section of the law, as part of their take-over defense. Before he leaves San Mateo, Marshall would do well to read the plaintiffs’ full complaint, filed in federal court Sept. 17. It documents Stern’s “relentless, pervasive, and unprecedented campaign to target, retaliate against, discredit, and hobble his principle critic, United Healthcare Workers.” As the lawsuit alleges, the “unmistakable message” behind such activity is one already received elsewhere in SEIU: “Cross me, and you, too, will suffer similar reprisals.”

STEVE EARLY is a Boston-based SEIU-watcher, currently working on a book for Cornell University Press on the role of  Sixties’ activists in SEIU and other unions. He’s been involved with union reform efforts since 1972, as an organizer, lawyer, labor educator or journalist. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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