Who Rules SEIU?

 “SEIU has evolved into a dictatorship in which Andy Stern
and others have consolidated power, decision-making
authority, and resources among a few.”

–Sal Rosselli, president of SEIU’s
United Healthcare Workers-West, in
The San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 3, 2008

On Thursday, January 8, a group of 70 Service Employees International Union (SEIU) officials will join a conference call, set up in Washington, D.C., to decide the fate of 150,000 members of United Healthcare Workers-West, SEIU’s third-largest affiliate.

Among the actions the SEIU International Executive Board (IEB) may take is transferring 65,000 long-term care workers in California, against their will, from UHW into a new statewide entity with officers appointed by SEIU President Andy Stern. Either on this call or during a meeting Jan. 20., Stern’s board may also approve a headquarters take-over of UHW’s remaining 85,000 members. This would be accomplished via a Stern-imposed trusteeship that would replace all UHW elected leaders and further obliterate their local, one of the fastest-growing and most dynamic in SEIU.

SEIU spokesmen are downplaying the impact of either course of action.

They say it’s just an “internal matter,” a question of changing “local union jurisdiction,” after a long deliberative process, resulting in “democratic” decisions. Stern points to a recent “advisory vote” with an 86.2 percent showing in favor of his California re-organization plan. What he neglects to mention is that only 24,000 members cast valid ballots, out of 309,000 who received them—a 7 percent participation rate. More than 120,000 workers—in UHW and two other locals—actively boycotted the election, signing cards or petitions protesting it. Members pointed out that SEIU’s ballot only gave them two options, both leading to UHW dismemberment. As rank-and-filer Lola Young explained to The Sacramento Bee, “It was like asking me if I wanted to be shot in the left knee or the right knee. It’s not much of a choice.”

As widely reported in the California press, tens of thousands of hospital, nursing home, and home care workers like Young spent much of last year mobilizing to keep UHW intact and their own popular president, Sal Rosselli, in office. They made it clear, on numerous occasions, that they favored Rosselli’s approach to health care organizing and bargaining over Stern’s. In late 2008, they picked up support from prominent friends of labor and revered union figures like United Farm Workers founding mother, Dolores Huerta. In two recent public letters, nearly 300 elected officials, community activists, clergy members, academics, and trade unionists noted that Rosselli’s local had “consistently acted with the highest integrity, placing the best interests of caregivers, consumers, and communities at the center of its work.” The concerned politicians–including leading California liberals like Sheila Kuehl, Mervin Dymally, Fiona Ma, Tom Ammiano, and Dean Florez–urged Stern to “seek a peaceful resolution of your dispute with UHW rather than precipitate a crippling civil war inside SEIU.”

Despite such appeals, SEIU headquarters is still poised to launch the union equivalent of George Bush’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”  Stern’s own misbegotten invasion of California could cost millions of dues dollars (on top of the huge amounts SEIU has already spent trying to undermine UHW). It will require the deployment of many international union staffers (who numbered more than 600 at last count and presumably have better things to do elsewhere.) None of these would-be occupiers of UHW will be greeted as “liberators” by the rank-and-file, as they attempt to displace elected UHW board members, bargaining committees, stewards, and mobilizers. UHW employers will have a field day with the resulting disruption of contract negotiations and enforcement.

At a time when unions are urging Congress to pass an Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), to aid union organizing and bargaining, there will be much damaging publicity for all of labor. It will highlight the fact that most SEIU members in California no longer have the right to choose what local they’re in or who represents them. Already anti-EFCA groups have run full-page ads in major newspapers playing up SEIU’s role in foisting Gov. Rod Blagojevich on the now unappreciative citizens of Illinois. When and if Stern pulls the trigger on UHW, UnionFacts.com and similar management front groups will have a propaganda field day displaying the corpse of workers’ rights within SEIU.

For some outside observers, one of the mysteries of this affair is why SEIU board members have, so far, gone along with what N.Y. Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez calls a “colossal scam” and “a stunning assault on union democracy.”  SEIU’s IEB is, after all, the union’s top decision-making body (except when its convention is in session once every four years). In their own communities, some IEB members are well-known progressives. Among those with a resume that includes Sixties’ activism, a few were once even communists, socialists, and/or union dissidents themselves. Today, they’re understandably proud to be part of a board, which is, by far, the most diverse in labor, in many important categories. Among SEIU’s president, secretary-treasurer, six executive vice-presidents, 23 vice-presidents, five Canadian or retiree representatives, and 37 others simply titled “IEB Member,” one finds more women, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and gays than in any other similar executive body.

Unfortunately, how this “diversity” was achieved creates a major problem in terms of IEB accountability to the membership vs. the top leadership. The SEIU board has been structured and its members recruited in such a way that it doesn’t provide a check on the power of the president or secretary-treasurer, Andy Stern and Anna Burger respectively, or any meaningful oversight of their activities. Some officials on the board do have a base in their own local unions (usually, smaller ones) that they developed themselves as locally elected leaders and four out of 73 are elected just by their fellow Canadians, as a concession to Canadian “autonomy.” But the vast majority owes their union jobs and careers, now and in the past, to the two top officers. In very corporate fashion, Stern and Burger have transformed their board into a “management team,” that has about the same degree of real “independence” as corporate directors hand-picked by a powerful CEO. If any member ever steps out of line—like Rosselli did in recent years, due to policy differences with Stern—he or she will be dropped from the team, as Rosselli was last June when the current Stern-Burger “administration slate” was elected by 2,000 delegates meeting in Puerto Rico. At SEIU conventions–since the entire board (except for Canadians) is elected “at large”–an independent candidate has about as much chance of winning as a dissident shareholder running for director of General Electric at its annual meeting.

In other labor organizations—even ones  more deserving of the moniker “business union”—national executive boards are filled with former workers who came up through the ranks. Ambitious rank-and-filers have a much better chance of making it to the top elsewhere than in SEIU. Candidates for board positions usually start out as a shop steward. Later, they become an elected local union leader, perhaps serve on the national staff for awhile, and then run for a seat on the national executive, as an independent or on someone else’s slate. In big unions like the Teamsters and Steelworkers, some candidates run for at-large positions—ie union-wide office, like the presidency—but most board hopefuls have to compete for fellow members’ votes in regional conferences or districts where they live, work, and are known.

In unions like my own former employer, the Communications Workers of America, the top officers and executive board are elected, as in SEIU, by convention delegates chosen by the members, not via the more democratic Teamster or Steelworker method of direct elections. But, regardless of whether voting is direct or indirect and no matter how bureaucratized a union may have become, the allocation of executive board seats to different constituencies (smaller than the entire union) tends to make  some board members more politically accountable to those at the bottom rather than just the top. In the Communications Workers of America, for example, most board members represent either multi-state districts (ranging in size from 20,000 to 175,000 members). Or they are elected from occupational groups such as manufacturing workers, flight attendants, public employees, or journalists. Competition for seats on the CWA board is quite common. Independent candidates can even oust incumbents backed by the national president and fellow board members, as a challenger did last spring in the CWA/Newspaper Guild. Even the current president, Larry Cohen, was first elected to CWA office ten years ago only after facing stiff competition from an incumbent board member vying for the same open position as EVP.
What’s striking about SEIU is not only the absence of similar opportunities for competitive elections, but also the union background and current payroll status of many board members. According to an analysis done by UHW prior to the election and expansion of the IEB last year, “the majority are Stern appointees or staff. Out of [what was then] 67 members of the IEB, well over half are either SEIU International Union staff, or local leaders who were originally appointed to leadership positions in their local by Stern, rather than being elected by their members.”  Opportunities for such career-advancing appointments abound in SEIU, to a degree unique in the labor movement. That’s because, under Stern, nearly 80 local unions have been put under headquarters trusteeships and/or re-organized with new leaders named by him, rather than elected by the members. (Due to its consolidation into huge, regional bodies, SEIU now has only 300 “locals” left.)

Union trusteeships are supposed to be a method of rooting out corruption, straightening out a troubled local’s finances or functioning, and then holding elections within eighteen months that return the local to membership control.

In SEIU, however, Stern-installed trustees or “interim presidents” are usually staffers from outside the local who are given as long as three years to entrench themselves politically, before facing any membership vote.

Running as de facto incumbents, they usually win, with the help of a large number of other paid staffers who are, by then, working for them on the union payroll as well. To get the picture, one need look no further than the six officials who serve directly under Stern and Burger—Annelle Grajeda, May Kay Henry, Gerry Hudson, Eliseo Medina, Dave Regan, and Tom Woodruff. Now earning nearly $200,000 each, four of these six executive vice-presidents have never been working members, in any SEIU jurisdiction; the other two became part of SEIU through its merger with District 1199, the New York-based health care union. The four originally hired from outside served as either trustee of a local, a local union executive director, or in some other appointed staff position. All owe their original or later, higher-ranking jobs to the sponsorship of Stern, Burger, or a fellow EVP.

Within the larger SEIU board—as talented as some members may be–this patronage system has been producing some rotten fruit lately (or, as SEIU loyalists describe it, “a few bad apples”). Just two months after her elevation to EVP on Stern and Burger’s ticket, Grajeda came under investigation for financial improprieties and was forced to take a leave from her local (where she was a Stern-appointed “interim president”), from SEIU’s California state council (where Stern helped her  replace Rosselli as chairperson), and her new International union job (another 2008 gift from the SEIU president).

Also absent from this week’s conference call to decide the fate of UHW will be Tyrone Freeman and Rickman Jackson, two more Stern protégés who became public embarrassments. They were elected to the IEB last June but removed shortly thereafter in the huge corruption scandal engulfing Local 6434 in Los Angeles, SEIU’s second largest affiliate. Freeman has since been kicked out of SEIU and ordered to pay back $1.1 million that he embezzled; he still faces likely criminal charges. Jackson was stripped of the Michigan local that Stern had awarded him, ordered to make restitution as well, and then exiled to Canada, where he is being given a “second-chance.”

Due to an unrelated scandal, former SEIU research department staffer, Tom Balanoff, now a Stern-installed national vice-president in Chicago, has been dodging reporters lately (although reportedly also cooperating with the FBI) about his wire-tapped conversations with the recently arrested Rod Blagojevich, governor of Illinois. Presumably, Balanoff will be voting this week on the future of UHW, along with a number of current SEIU headquarters staffers, who in most cases have never held any elected office in SEIU other than being on the board. One might reasonably wonder how SEIU presidential assistants or department heads like Kirk Adams, Eileen Kirlin, Stephen Lerner, or Debbie Schneider can be expected to cast an independent vote on questions related to UHW (or anything else) when Stern and Burger sign their paychecks and they serve in their regular jobs at the pleasure of the officers?

Deliberating with them will be board members whose own political empire building, unpopularity with dues-payers, or semi-retired status make them unlikely profiles in courage or free-thinkers either. One thinks here of Susana Segat, an ex-political operative now running a Boston local that lost several thousand members to the Mass Teachers Association because of her high-handed, Burger-backed methods. Or SEIU vice-president David Holway, a lawyer and ex-lobbyist, whose New England-based Local 5000 now has a license from Stern to gobble up smaller groups as far away as Georgia.  Or their fellow Bostonian Celia Wcislo, who was put out to pasture when her local was absorbed by 300,000-member SEIU/1199 in New York, eliminating any further need for her services as an elected president of 25-years standing.  Or former foundation official and environmentalist Jane McAlevey, whose brief reign as appointed director of SEIU Local 1107 in Nevada was so dysfunctional that she was forced out last June, while retaining her seat on the SEIU board.

And then there are all the SEIU janitor local leaders around the country who’ve never worked a day in their life as janitors but serve on the  IEB anyway because of their past role as staffers or Stern-anointed trustees. The newest of these is Javier Morillo-Alicea, a former Macalester College history instructor who is gay, Latino, and now president of Minneapolis Local 26, where he worked briefly as an organizer.  Morillo-Alicea is young, energetic, and much-admired locally. But does anyone expect him to buck his powerful SEIU patrons in Washington, D.C., when that means risking all that he’s acquired in a just few short years, including the Minnesota janitors’ franchise, an executive board position, and a Stern-created slot on SEIU’s new “ethics commission”? I wouldn’t bet money on  Morilla-Alicea speaking out, unless he wants to have his local endure the same kind of headquarters’ assault that UHW has suffered and he, personally, is ready to return to the tenure track in academia.

The great irony of the cast of characters that Stern and Burger have assembled to administer the coup de grace to UHW is that, structurally, the SEIU board now resembles the ruling body of International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), before that union was democratized and reformed over the past twenty years. During the IBT’s mob-dominated past, its members had no right to elect top officers in a nationwide vote or elect, from their own region, the Teamster vice-presidents who make up the rest of the executive board. The only successful IEB candidates were all elected at-large, by delegates at leadership-dominated conventions, as part of slates formed by Teamster presidents (four of whom were indicted and three of whom went to jail in corruption scandals). Each of these pre-1989 Teamster chiefs would add or drop people from their leadership “team,” as needed, to insure executive board conformity with their wishes (using the additional carrot of a full Teamster salary, on top of any others, just for meeting attendance).

Beginning in 1991, thanks to the presence of TDU and the settlement of a federal racketeering lawsuit, the IBT has had a series of contested elections for the top leadership, and convention delegates only get to nominate the candidates. In each race, the president, secretary-treasurer, and some V-Ps have run “at large,” with all 1.4 million Teamsters eligible to vote for them. All other board members, representing regional constituencies, have had to campaign for election among a smaller number of rank-and-file voters who live and work in the same area they do. Almost all successful IEB candidates, whether liberal or conservative, “old guard” or reformer,” have been working members of the union, not appointed staffers; with the notable exception of current president James Hoffa, all previously served in lower-level elected positions.

Reflecting the IEB’s local union roots (and legal protections in the Teamster constitution), a bigger Teamster local can’t take over a smaller one without members of the latter voting to approve the merger.  Although trusteeships were often used in the IBT’s bad old days to crush dissent, they have, since 1989, been mainly used to oust crooks. Tom Leedham, the progressive leader of a Portland, Oregon local, has run for international president three times as a TDU-backed candidate, sharply criticizing Hoffa’s leadership and always gaining 35 to 40 percent of the vote. Unlike Sal Rosselli, Stern’s leading foe in SEIU, Leedham has not faced the threat of trusteeship in retaliation for his dissent. As Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) organizer Ken Paff told The Los Angeles Times Dec. 30:  “When your union [SEIU] is less democratic than the Teamsters, you have to look in the mirror and ask, ‘What happened?’”

More friends of SEIU should be asking this question. More labor-oriented academics should be doing some Sixties’-style “power structure research”—which means taking a closer look at “who rules SEIU,” how they do it, and what price workers pay for having such an unhealthy concentration of power and privilege at the top of their national union. And, finally, concerned trade unionists around the country should be coming to the aid of UHW, in its hour of need, before Andy Stern’s pending assault on SEIU dissidents backfires on all of organized labor, making the campaign for labor law reform a dead letter on Capitol Hill.

STEVE EARLY is former CWA organizer who has been a supporter of  Teamster reform and a commentator on Teamster politics since 1977. His recent reporting on labor has focused on SEIU, the subject of a forthcoming book. He is also the author of  Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home (Monthly Review Press, 2009). He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com






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