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SEIU Heavy on the Ropes: Trouble Makers Gather in Chicago

Dave Regan, no relation to our past now departed Governor, is at it again. Regan is President of Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) California local United Healthcare Workers -West (UHW); he also a member of the SEIU’s Executive Board, compensation $200,000+. This weekend as 1500, probably more, rank-and-file “troublemakers” gather in Chicago, some will be remember the 2008 attempt (unsuccessfully) to storm the Labor Notes Conference that spring in Dearborn, MI, an attack by 300 SEIU staff, led by our Regan, then Director of SEIU’s unit in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Best forgotten, perhaps. But here in California, Regan’s still at it, most recently he’s been charged with assault – the result of picket line militancy? Not exactly. According to CBS news, Regan faces charges for (allegedly, he denies it) breaking the arm of a summons server. Now, no one likes to be on the receiving end of a summons, but this poor messenger had the bad luck of being assigned to serving Regan at his home in upscale suburban Kensington in the Berkeley Hills. He also was reported (by CBS) “to have been aggressive and tried to intimidate the (police) officer” responding to the incident.

Regan, a graduate of the Cornell Institute of Industrial Relations, seems to relish such behavior. He’s reportedly known to drink to access, then look for a fight, friend or foe, it seems not to matter. More to the point, however, Regan was part of the team parachuted into California, also in 2008, to seize the dissident local, UHW, then a 150,000 member strong, militant, democratic union, the flagship of healthcare unionism in California. Under the direction of the then President of SEIU, Andy Stern, underlings Regan and Mary Kay Henry (now SEIU president), declared “World War III” on the local, set up a “war room” and, recalling the words of Lieutenant Calley proceeded to destroy the local “in order to save it.”

That they did; elected officers removed, assets seized, 5000 stewards fired, and all along the way a stream of tough boy talk from Regan, who was appointed the trusteed local’s new President. In Fresno, when home health care workers threatened to leave SEIU and join its challenger, the insurgent NUHW, SEIU responded by assigning nine hundred staff to the city, with the promise of “shock and awe” for the dissidents, and from “Bro.” Regan: “We gotta give them [NUHW] a butt whipping they will never forget,” and “we gotta go old school, put them in the ground and bury them,” and “put a stake through the heart of the NUHW.”

This is from a man who wants to lead health care workers, workers who work to help people.

Things have not gone well for Regan in California, though it is workers who must now pay the price. While Regan targets dissidents with violence and intimidation, he takes quite another approach to the employers. No amount of concession seems to satisfy the millionaire hospital execs; Regan has, for just one example, given away pension benefits covering more than 20,000 UHW members. Multiple partnerships have collapsed, so have “new paradigms” and grand schemes to “save the labor movement.” The summons server was attempting to deliver legal documents to Regan on behalf of the California Hospital Association, which is engaged in dueling lawsuits with Regan after Regan reportedly violated a “Gag” clause contained in a secret “partnership” deal with the Hospital Association. UHW’s initiative for a $15 an hour minimum wage in California was contested by another, nearly identical initiative – this one from? The state SEIU Council! As it’s said, this stuff can’t be made up. Now, the California legislature has adopted its own $15, California’s two SEIU initiatives left in the cold.

There is an ongoing membership revolt. Now the SEIU top leadership has turned against him. Last June Mary Kay Henry engineered (typically SEIU, from on high, no votes offered or taken) removing half of Regan’s members to a new SEIU local, this one led by a Southern California Henry loyalist. The once proud UHW is in fact a shadow of its former self.

So Dave Regan has no doubt good reason to be angry; this is, however, no reason to give Regan a pass, no reason for SEIU to get one either. There’s nothing quaint about it.

It seems that for Regan it’s good to be “old school” and “old school,” apparently includes violence and threats of violence, again, aimed at union dissidents. I have no idea what they taught Regan at Cornel but I do know that in, say, the years following World War II, it was rank-and-file workers who were most likely to be on the receiving end of violence. This was endemic in the gangster world of the International Longshoremen’s Union and the Teamsters, but it could also be found in more respectable quarters and there was never anything redeeming about it.

I recall in the sixties student support for striking coal miners in Hazard Kentucky, workers abandoned by the United Mine Workers, a dictatorship handed down by John L. Lewis to his lieutenant Tony Boyle. When Jock Yablonski, a dissident officer from Pennsylvania’s coalfields challenged all this, the response was deadly: on New Year’s Eve 1969, Yablonski, his wife and daughters murdered in their beds. His killers, lowlifes hired by Bolye’s henchmen in a Cleveland bar.

In the late sixties, there erupted the Black auto workers’ rebellion and a series of wildcat sit-downs followed. I remember in 1973 hearing the first-hand accounts of these United Auto Workers (UAW) dissidents, conditioned to expect company thugs and police violence, confounded when confronted in Detroit not by the aforementioned, but rather by 1000 armed UAW officers and loyalists.

The word Teamster back then seemed inevitably to be followed by the word “goon.” When United Parcel workers wildcatted in Cleveland in 1976, protesting a new contract, imposed from on high, first on the scene were their union officers in big cars filled with baseball bats. Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) was founded in part in opposition to what was in places a reign of terror. Pete Camarata, TDU’s first delegate to a national Teamster Convention, was savagely beaten by goons outside the Las Vegas hall. Then, of course, there were the goons who roamed California’s valleys, hired thugs working with the Teamsters union and the growers in a sickening alliance against the UFW.

Happily, this is for the most part history now; the trouble makers at Labor Notes work openly in unions that are often a far cry from those of the fifties/sixties. There will be a good number of officers in attendance. Strikers will be celebrated, first of all the Chicago teachers who will be on the picket line April 1. There will be women and men; there will be contingents of Blacks, Latinos, LBGT. There will be a session where Labor for Bernie supporters will gather, hundreds of them from all corners of the country.

There will be no Dave Regan at the gates.

Unhappily, we’re still stuck with Regan out here, but not for long one suspects (though who knows what Mary Kay will have in store for us). Regan never recanted the Labor Notes episode, neither did SEIU; he in fact wrote that the SEIU had attacked the Dearborn conference because “they were outraged that Labor Notes would provide a public stage, legitimacy and awards to the leaders of an organization that celebrates denying healthcare workers the opportunity to have a union.” That organization? the California Nurses Association!

NUHW in the meantime thrives; it’s members will be well represented at Labor Notes where they can report on achievements as a democratic, militant, worker run union, committed to rejection of calls for concessions from a hospital industry awash in cash. It’s a union not afraid to go out on strike, a union that empowers members to speak up for patients. A union that recruits and grows, even as the labor movement nationally continues to stagnate or worse decline. A union that actually debated which candidate to support and then voted to support Bernie Sanders.

More articles by:

Cal Winslow is author of Labor’s Civil War in California,(PM Press) and an editor of Rebel Rank and File (Verso). His latest book is E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left (Monthly Review). He can be reached at cwinslow@mcn.org

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