“We will have to destroy UHW to save it” This, it seems, is the objective of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in its campaig against its California affiliate, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW).
In the past year, SEIU national leaders have orchestrated a multi-fronted assault on the 150,000 member California health care workers union – all designed to break the union. The intention, it is clear, is to seize control of UHW, remove the elected leaders and relegate its members to other jurisdictions, or to altogether new organizations. This, formally, is called “trusteeship,” an action labor journalist Steve Early has described as the trade union equivalent of “martial law.” There are indeed new organizations on the drawing boards. Others, yet to be created, remain in the imaginations of the union’s central staff, but once in place, they will have this in common: all are certain to be managed directly from the SEIU national headquarters in Washington, DC.
This SEIU campaign, combining organizational, political and legal attacks, as well as formal charges against leaders and harassment of members has involved a year-long onslaught against UHW and its members. Outsiders might consider it all a sort of trade union theater of the absurd, but for UHW staff and members it has been a long nightmare, a conflict imposed with no reasonable justification whatsoever, yet one that now amounts to a life and death struggle, presenting, as well, the threat of a colossal tragedy. The destruction of UHW, it is clear, will produce disastrous consequences both in California and in the labor movement nationally. On January 8, the SEIU International Executive Committee, meeting, grotesquely, in teleconference, is expected to take steps that will ultimately dismantle UHW – a union that is a powerful force for rank-and-file working people in California, one that has emerged as, perhaps, the single strongest voice for militant action and trade union reform within the US labor movement today. Staff from SEIU – charged with commandeering UHW – are expected to arrive in California no later than the end of this week.
The complaint of the SEIU’s top officials came in a March 24, 2008 letter, charging UHW with violations of the national union’s constitution. In addition, it alleged a conspiracy to “sabotage” SEIU, with UHW somehow in league with the American Federation of Labor– Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and SEIU’s bitter rival the California Nurse Association CNA). More specifically, and the charge that has been the basis of its case for trusteeship, SEIU is said to be guilty of financial malfeasance. This, of course is strongly contested by UHW. In 2007, SEIU alleges, UHW set up an education trust fund – some $6 million to be set aside for the purpose of campaigning on health care issues. The news of this fund set off alarms in the inner chambers of SEIU. It reacted by charging UHW with essentially setting up a self defense fund, the basis, it suspected, of a possible union within the union (not a bad idea given the circumstances). UHW obligingly retreated, disbanding the fund. SEIU, nevertheless, took UHW to court, only to have a District judge dismiss all charges, finding nothing amiss and denying as without merit SEIU’s solicitations.
The issues were first made public when the San Francisco Chronicle disclosed the SEIU’s charges: “SEIU Leader moves To Oust West Coast Dissident.” The dissident, Sal Rosselli, President of UHW, had resigned from the SEIU’s International Executive Committee, citing conflicts with the majority on issues including membership rights, union democracy, corruption and the SEIU’s “alliance” strategy – its “low road” approach to settling with nursing homes managements. The SEIU retort – massive retaliation and collective punishment.
Sal Rosselli is a widely known and popular figure in the Bay Area. The UHW is one of California’s most powerful unions. Protests quickly followed, including from labor councils throughout California and including, notably, Mike Casey, President of UNITE-HERE, Local 2, San Francisco. A May Day open letter to SEIU President, Andy Stern, urging caution, was signed by more than 100 labor educators, writers and intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, David Montgomery, Mike Davis, Elaine Bernard, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Jennifer Klein, Robin D.G. Kelley and Nelson Lichtenstein. In response SEIU denied any threat to place UHW in trusteeship – “the only talk of trusteeship has come from UHW-W itself.” SEIU Vice-presidents Eliseo Medina and Gerry Hudson personally chastised the concerned labor educators. As late as mid-July SEIU spokesman Stephen Lerner called the threat of trusteeship a “myth.”
The dust on this front had barely settled, however, when down came a new gauntlet. UHW was informed that 65,000 southern California home care workers – nearly half the UHW membership – were arbitrarily to be removed and reassigned to Tyrone Freeman’s Los Angeles based local 6434. Freeman, then a Stern’s appointee and favorites, spoiled this plan. In a series of extraordinary exposes, Paul Pringle of the LA Times revealed massive corruption within 6434 – a million dollars paid out to relatives, lavish golf tournaments, Ford Explorers for the staff – second cars some. Freeman, facing federal criminal charges, was quickly removed; 6434 now is itself in trusteeship. Associated scandals were exposed in Michigan, then again in California where Anna Grajeda, Chair of SEIU’s California State Council, also a Stern appointee, was forced to resign, charged with funneling union funds to a boyfriend. Collapse in southern California demanded strategic retreat; the “implosion” plan was shelved, temporarily.
Bill Fletcher, Jr, speaking to Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now! described the SEIU maneuvers as “absurd.” “It’s ironic… in the Spring, there were many of us that were concerned that when UHW started raising issues and differences with the Stern leadership, that they were going to be trusteed, and we were told, “No, no, no. You’re paranoid. This is ridiculous!” What did they do a few weeks ago? Announce that they were going to have trusteeship hearings with the intention of taking over the local.”
SEIU did in fact return to trusteeship, notifying UHW of hearings, to be held in San Mateo, California, on September 26 and 27, hearings to be chaired by 80 year old Ray Marshall, the Secretary of Labor under President Jimmy Carter, now titular director of a Texas think-tank. These hearings – heavily weighted with the trappings of the courtroom and legality, were in fact bought and paid for by SEIU – even Marshall’s attorneys and staff were on the SEIU payroll. The San Mateo hearings lasted two days, adjourned, reconvened in San Jose in November, and promising findings in January. At the same time, SEIU went to court again, filing charges against individual UHW leaders, charges that could lead to these leaders being banned from membership for life.
Marshall’s hearing concluded in November, but its outcomes could not be absolutely guaranteed. Consequently, SEIU’s apparently paranoid brain trust advanced on yet another front. Quite literally before the conclusion of the Marshall hearings, SEIU mailed ballots to all its California health care workers members with a ballot – an election (“advisory only”!) was to be held, the purpose of which would be to somehow justify the reorganization of SEIUs entire statewide healthcare operations. The Marshall hearings ended Saturday November 15; UHW members learned of the election the following Monday morning. Ballots were to be returned no later than December 11 – that is in less than four weeks time.
This ballot – the “Catch 22” ballot, according to UHW – offered members two choices: If you are now confused, imagine getting this in the mail:
Option A: Option A would create a new statewide local union with jurisdiction including all California long-term care workers who are currently represented by UHW, Local 6434, Local 521 (South Bay). They would be united in a new long-term care union, and existing local’s charters would be revoked.
Option B: Option B would create a new California statewide local with jurisdiction for all healthcare workers currently represented by Local 6434 and UHW, and long-term care workers currently in Local 521. Under this option, these healthcare workers would be united in a new SEIU Healthcare local, and the charters of Local 6434 and UHW would be revoked.
In each case, UHW would disappear as we know it. In option “B” it would be disbanded altogether; in option “A” UHW would be dramatically reduced in preparation for the inevitable next battle. In each case the new entities will be led by appointees, selected in Washington, DC by SEIU’s President, Andy Stern.
UHW, certainly, faces great odds. Amassed against it is the largest, fastest growing union in the country (actually second largest, far behind the 3 million plus National Education Association). It commands great financial and organizational resources and spends freely. It is reported to have expended $85 million supporting Obama and the Democrats in this past election. Its leadership is highly centralized. The Stern group consolidated its already daunting control at its June Convention in Puerto Rico. Still, SEIU’s leaders are by no means invulnerable. Just this past week, in a stunning rejection of Andy Stern, the international leadership, and Stern’s appointee, Kristy Sermershiem, 11,000 Santa Clara County public workers in SEIU local 521, in divisional elections, returned independent candidates committed to a democratic and accountable union. There are, in fact, sparks of dissent throughout the union, increasingly connected by SMART (SEIU Members for Reform Today) and there is no doubt that the desire for a clean sweep will grow.
Despite months of mailings, robo calls, personal visits, threats and offers, in a spectacular counter-offensive, tens of thousands of UHW members and supporters have taken to the streets, packed meetings, and petitioned, written letters, sent emails and made phone calls, all in defense not just of UHW but also demanding membership participation in democratic unions, membership participation in bargaining, membership rule in the union. They have opposed the SEIU’s mindless centralism, its sweet heart contracts with employers and its backroom deals with politicians.
The UHW response has been extraordinary, involving rank-and-file mobilization unparalleled in this period. This uprising, involving tens of thousands of rank-and-file members, erupted first in March in reaction to the Stern trusteeship letter; UHW members packed the local’s Oakland headquarters. In July, in Manhattan Beach (southern California), 6000 members overwhelmed “jurisdictional hearings” that might have removed 65,000 members from UHW membership. On September 6, following the UHW’s rank-and-file leadership conference, 5,000 members marched rebelliously through San Jose’s center, chanting “Hands off Our Union!” Then, September 26, trusteeship hearings in San Mateo were greeted by 8,000 members. Inside the hearing room – in fact a grim exhibition hall – more than 1000 members sat for hours, enduring a day of tedious pseudo-legal wrangling in sweltering heat, to have their say. In the hour allotted – seventy members spoke in defense of their union, often with emotion, all with dignity and great strength in their beliefs.
The result of December’s sham election was an unqualified repudiation of the SEIU leadership. Out of 309,000 eligible voters, approximately 24,000 SEIU members cast ballots. This means that 91% of eligible members boycotted the election. Perhaps just as important, union members presented the Election Officer with petitions protesting the election signed by 80,000 members. These were accompanied by 40,000 formal letters of protest. UHW members presented these letters and petitions in sacks weighing hundreds of pounds. It was an astonishing outpouring of opposition, organized in less than one month.
SEIU, on the other hand, has referred to the election results as “a celebration of union democracy.” It plans, we have learned, to present the results – 20,000 yes votes, out of 300,000 – of this election to the Executive Board on January 8 as evidence in favor of “Plan A.” Just how Stern expects to manage these workers remains a mystery. Sworn testimony before Ray Marshall revealed that as early as November 2007, top SEIU officials including Stern, Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, Stephen Lerner and others held a “War Council” where plans were developed to dismantle UHW.
The UHW is a powerful organization in its own right. Its 150,000 members make it larger than many national unions – it has 100 executive board members, 85 of whom are working members. The union has deep roots, in particular in Northern California. It began there in 1934, one offshoot of the San Francisco General Strike, when San Francisco longshoremen, “the lords of docks”, inspired a transformation of industrial relations on the Pacific Coast. In the aftermath of a strike at San Francisco General Hospital, SEIU local 250 was organized, the first hospital union in the country.
In 2005, Local 250 merged with southern California healthcare workers local 399 to form UHW. UHW is an industrial union that represents all classifications of health care workers in hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, home health agencies as well as homecare workers. It is one of the fastest growing unions in the nation. In the run up to merger, locals 250 and 399 added more than 65,000 new members, chiefly in hospitals, more than any other SEIU local. The majority of UHW members are women, mostly people of color; its members speak more than 50 languages.
UHW has long been a force for reform, it has opposed war and supported social justice. Its support for universal health care dates back to the 1980s, when it supported Proposition 186, the single payer healthcare initiative. It was a founding member of US labor Against the War (USLAW) in Iraq. It led, with the California teachers, the trade union fight against proposition 8, the anti-same sex marriage referendum, narrowly passed in November. Sal Rosselli is a past Grand Marshall of San Francisco’s annual Gay Pride Parade.
UHW leaders submit that its hospital members have the highest standards in the industry in the nation – wages, benefits, rights in staffing, workplace safety and patient care standards. Its contract with Kaiser is referred to as the “gold standard.” A beginning UHW housekeeper, I am told, brings home $19 an hour with full, employer paid, benefits. This year, in spite of SEIU, UHW has begun a campaign to bring hospital standards into what John Borsos, UHW administrative Vice-President, calls the “Sweatshops of the twenty-first century,” the nursing homes.
At the same time, even in the midst of this storm, UHW has won dramatic victories, including successful negotiations with Catholic Healthcare West. UHW has also won elections at O’Connor Woods, Stanford, Marian Medical Center, Sacramento Medical Foundation Clinic, and St. Francis Center – winning more hospital workers than the rest of SEIU combined. In late December UHW ratified contracts at ten nursing homes operated by Kindred Healthcare. The Kindred settlement was the fourth major breakthrough contract in the nursing home industry, part of a decades’ long campaign to line up contracts to make significant gains in the nursing home and hospital sectors. UHW was in bargaining for 75,000 people in 2008.
The healthcare industry has been, and remains, harshly-contested industrial terrain; near minimum wages are commonplace in non-union settings. Unions frequently face fiercely antiunion employers and victories rarely come easily. UHW campaigns routinely rely on the threat of action, strikes and the threat of the strike. UHW’s 2005 triumph at Sutter in San Francisco was a result of a knock-down, hard-fought, sixty day strike. UHW has led hospital strikes at Catholic Healthcare West, Daughters of Charity, HCA (formerly Hospital Corporation of America) and against numerous nursing home chains.
Stern, however, sees the strike as archaic, counterproductive: “It’s not good for America when people fight,” he told the wall Street Journal. Interviewed on National Public Radio, he confessed, “I don’t think anymore the power of unions comes from its ability to strike.” “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 healthcare.” The full irony of this position became apparent in Chicago in December. Just as the workers at Republic Windows and Doors emerged triumphant from their magnificent sit-in strike, facing down, among others, the Bank of America, SEIU was revealed to be in bed with the disgraced Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich. The political process indeed!
Similarly, Stern and his supporters belittle the very idea of union democracy, above all workplace democracy. Hence, SEIU’s policy, just now being set in place across the country, of “call centers” as an alternative to shop stewards – that is, a system of centralized phone centers, where professional problem solvers handle workers’ grievances. Again, in contrast, UHW prides itself in workplace organization and member involvement. The structure of the union is thoroughly democratic – from its universal system of shop stewards, stewards’ councils, divisional bodies to its executive committee that is numerically dominated by working members. UHW, interestingly, will hold, if allowed, elections in February, of all officers, including Rosselli. Under trusteeship there will be no elections.
As often as not, a first obstacle to workers who want to fight back is their own union leadership. This is true on the shop-floor; it is also a fact of American labor history. The America Federation of Labor (AFL), conspired with the FBI to destroy the I.W.W. Samuel Gompers, founder of the Federation, not only opposed the Seattle General Strike, but took credit for ending it, dismissing contemptuously “this brief industrial disturbance in the Northwest.” The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) flourished only in defiance of the AFL – even then its successes were marred by a civil war that lasted into the 1950s. Black workers have fought for inclusion and representation since the inception of the labor movement, as have women, Latinos and others. The most recent working class uprisings in the US, the rank-and-file rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s – the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the Miners for Democracy, Teamsters for Democracy, The Steelworkers Fightback – were defined, as much as anything, by unofficial, direct action, wildcat strikes and opposition to existing leadership. The failure of this last round of rebellions to transform US labor tells us a good deal about the roots of the current debacle.
SEIU largely missed out on the 1960s and 1970. It moved center-stage in 1995, however, leading the “New Voice” team that successfully forced Lane Kirkland, President of the AFL-CIO, to step down, then defeated his nominee, Secretary-Treasurer, Thomas Donahue, electing in his place, John Sweeney of SEIU. This was an important achievement but one with few memorable results. It might be noted that Justice for Janitors, the great triumph of SEIU, came on Kirkland’s watch. Andy Stern followed Sweeney as President of SEIU, and then challenged Sweeney in 2005. This time the result was not a new leadership but a new Federation, “Change to Win,” an unlikely coalition of SEIU, the Teamsters Union, UNITE-HERE and the United Food and Commercial Workers, with very foggy program: “United to Win: 21st Century Plan to Build New Strength for Working People.” Change to Win, claiming 6 million members, anointed itself the vanguard of change, promising reorganization, centralization and, above all, growth.
Sweeney, the current President of the AFL-CIO, is a middle-of-the road labor leader, a man who, if anything, looks nostalgically back to the big labor days of fifties business unionism. Stern brought business unionism up to date. The Wall Street Journal finds “Mr. Stern at ease with CEOs and in the media limelight. His sentences come seasoned with business phrases.” The new federation would “grow the labor movement” through increased “market share” and “value added integration.” “Partnership” is a watchword and class collaboration is a badge of honor.
Kim Moody, in US Labor in Trouble and Transition, calls the SEIU “bureaucratic corporate unionism,” a union a run not just as a business but according to the norms of a modern corporation. A largely appointed group of national officers are at its core; a small army of full time staffers carry out the line. It has been centralized with a vengeance; 1199, the New York hospital workers union, is now the 240,000 member 1199 Eastern District, representing workers as far afield as Baltimore. SEIU, to its credit, has grown, though most often in mergers and with the mass induction of home healthcare workers.
Central to SEIU’s strategy of “growth at any cost” is what Moody describes as “the politics of the deal.” The “deal” is hardly new in US labor history; the old barons were quite good at it – “Punish your enemies, reward your friends,” admonished the late Samuel Gompers. The recent history of the SEIU, however, is truly mind-boggling. Examples:
In 2007, The Seattle Times exposed a secret agreement between SEIU Local 775 and operators of for-profit nursing homes. The companies involved pledged to “bless” the union’s organizing efforts in exchange for a 10-year agreement, in which the union promised no strikes and agreed to let the nursing-home operators, not the union or workers — decide which homes are offered up for organizing. The union also agreed not to try organizing more than half of a particular company’s nonunion homes. This agreement is still in effect.
In 2007, also in California, Andy Stern personally intervened in the state’s debate on healthcare reform. He brushed aside the wishes of the entire California section of the SEIU, as well as political supporters of a universal system and engaged in direct talks with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, joining the Governor in promoting a bill backed by business and the insurance industry.
This is no way to run a union.
Today, in the midst of a deepening recession, millions of workers face catastrophe — foreclosure, the loss of healthcare coverage, unemployment – the great majority of them with no economic or political protection whatsoever. They need unions, good unions. I am quite prepared to recognize that there are legions of good union members within SEIU, doing, no doubt, wonderful work. I am certain also that UHW is far from perfect. The fact remains, however, that UHW is a militant, democratic, growing union is under attack. And UHW is, according to Nelson Lichtenstein, labor historian at UC Santa Barbara, testifying in the Marshall hearings “…a local in which there is no self-interested strata of leaders who seek to perpetuate their leadership for criminal or self-serving purposes. Instead, it’s a democratic union – in some ways a model union. I wish there were more like United Healthcare West.”
UHW deserves support, but, frankly, for the most part, it still stands almost alone. The voice of labor has largely been absent, observing its self-imposed silence in deference to the ancient AFL principle of non-interference in other union’s affairs. And the friends of labor, the left, the intellectuals, the labor educators, they are mostly quiet as well. Why is this? SEIU systematically pursued the signers of the May Day letter, arm-twisting, contesting, cajoling, mixing promises with threats, and, regrettably, the truth is that many have run for cover.
As for the employers, SEIU (again) has made their day. “We’re going to make SEIU the poster child for the Employee Free Choice Act,” says Sarah Longwell, spokeswoman for the Center for Union Facts, a right-wing, pro-corporate think tank. The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), heavily supported by organized labor, is now before Congress. It is intended to facilitate union organizing. Perhaps it needs a clause protecting the free- choice of workers to choose their union!
“Which Side are you on?” was the old miners’ slogan; it was a powerful appeal for solidarity. Which side are you on in this dispute – one Sal Rosselli calls a battle for the “soul” of the labor? It certainly is a battle for labor’s soul, but I might ask which soul? There have always been two souls in labor – very roughly, these are: one authoritarian, top-down, bureaucratic and committed to the national interest – business unionism. The other – the empowering of workers, building independent working class institutions, democratizing society and internationalism – social unionism.
There remains, of course, the possibility of compromise; there have been innumerable calls for mediation, but time is short. The fact is that few outside SEIU really want a civil war, but if war comes, there will be no quick victory here; this will be no cake-walk for SEIU. In fact, I suspect that an UHW defeat is not even an option. The members, for a start, will not allow it. The struggle, then, will continue, whatever happens this week.
UHW’s John Borsos sums ups it this way: “The dispute is about how we accomplish /our/…goals and what kind of a labor movement we are building in the process. To put it simply, will the labor movement be a movement of workers, by workers and for workers, driven from the bottom up? Or will it be a centralized, top-down advocacy organization where workers pay membership fees in exchange for professional services?”
CAL WINSLOW is co-editor, with Aaron Brenner and Robert Brenner of “Rebel Rank and File, Labor Militancy and the Revolt from Below in the Long Seventies,” forthcoming, Verso. He is a Fellow in Environmental Politics at UC Berkeley and Director of the Mendocino Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com