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Purple Bullying, Ten Years Later: SEIU Trustees Trample Member Rights On Eve of Janus Decision

Photo by Shutter Stutter | CC BY 2.0

In Chicago this coming weekend, 2,500 rank-and-file activists, from the U.S. and abroad, will be meeting under the banner of Labor Notes to celebrate the revival of union militancy, including recent strike victories like the West Virginia teachers’ walk-out.

This conference—nineteenth of its sort since 1981–will be the largest gathering ever hosted by the now Brooklyn-based labor education project. Labor Notes staff train shop stewards and local officers, promote cross-union networks, and publish books and newsletters about union democracy and reform.

As Labor Notes co-founder, socialist Kim Moody explained to Jacobin readers several years ago, “the emphasis has always been on building power in the workplace” and “undermining the conservative consciousness produced by bureaucratic unionism.” One particular conference focus this year is how public employee unions can transform themselves to insure that the Supreme Court’s impending decision in the Janus case doesn’t lead to a worker exodus, once payment of union dues or agency fees becomes voluntary.

Among the many Chicago-area trade unionists planning to attend their first Labor Notes conference are members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, which represents 29,000 government employees in Illinois and Indiana. At a time when public sector labor organizations need to be on their best behavior—and increasingly responsive to the rank-and-file—Local 73 members have been experiencing “bureaucratic unionism” at its most frustrating and dysfunctional worst.

SEIU officials, from out of town, have run the local by fiat, since its elected officers were ousted in August, 2016 due to their “incessant infighting.” Under federal law, such headquarters-imposed trusteeships enjoy the presumption of legitimacy—regardless of their grounds—for a minimum of eighteen months. Time is up on that calendar in Local 73. So two thousand of its dues-payers have signed petitions demanding that their union be returned to membership control via democratic elections for seven officers and 100 executive board members.

Fired For Their Candidacy

To accelerate this process, a group of longtime Local 73 activists formed “Members Leading Members,” a reform caucus with its own slate of candidates. When their names were announced, ten contenders for office were summarily dismissed from their union staff jobs by appointees of SEIU president Mary Kay Henry. Their work is now being done by eight International union staffers, whose higher salaries will be absorbed by the local. Remzi Joas, a member of SEIU since 1986, former head of Local 73’s higher education division and now a candidate for local president, was among those fired. Local 73 members are pursuing a federal court challenge to the trusteeship and the related retaliatory firings.

When Henry recently made a worksite visit in Local 73, workers confronted her directly, presented their petitions calling for an election, and demanded to know when “self-governance” would be restored. Henry claimed that SEIU’s current focus on preparing for the fall-out of the Janus decision and electing a labor-friendly governor took precedence over local union voting in the meantime. But she did promise to refer the matter to her lawyers. (This unconvincing performance, by a national union president paid nearly $300,000 per year, was captured for posterity here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U530a-IGr1g&feature=youtu.be)

At a restive membership meeting in late February, Eliseo Medina, a Local 73 co-trustee, former SEIU Executive Board member, and long ago hero of United Farm Workers organizing, spent nearly three hours sparring with an equally unhappy crowd of 100. Those who turned up were angry about having no say about the day-to-day operations of their union, staff assignments or salaries, or the conduct of contract negotiations. To divert their attention, Medina showed a film about Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Jaos, “members were so disgusted with the trustees that they just finally left the union hall.”

A former SEIU-represented janitor and doorman in Chicago, Jaos worries that some workers in his current local will stop paying union dues or agency fees if the Supreme Court imposes open shop conditions on the public sector, and they still have no voice in union decision- making. If Local 73 is merged, by Washington, DC headquarters dictate, into a neighboring SEIU affiliate, the rank-and-file reaction could be similar (although some of its diverse bargaining units might prefer, after their recent mistreatment, to be part of SEIU’s mid-western Health Care Workers local instead, AFSCME’s Illinois District Council, or the Chicago Teachers Union).

Purple Déjà vu

SEIU does not approach this Chicago dispute with what lawyers call “clean hands.” Its past use of trusteeships, forced mergers, and top-down restructuring has been costly, counter-productive, and highly political—a way to reward friends of the leadership and punish internal critics. SEIU’s organizational culture of staff domination has led to repeated trampling of membership rights and, recently, embarrassing disclosures about sexual harassment of female members by male union officials in Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, and California.

In the run-up to SEIU’s largest and most disastrous local union take-over—involving United Healthcare Workers (UHW)– some of the first punches where thrown at a Labor Notes conference in Dearborn, Michigan ten years ago this month. Volunteer marshals at that gathering of 1,000 had to fend off several hundred gate-crashers wearing purple-colored T-shirts and bandanas to conceal their faces, who were bussed, in, from two mid-western SEIU affiliates.

Among those drawn into the fray were low-wage home care workers, told by their union, that the progressive labor conference in Dearborn was actually a conclave of “union-busters.” (An African-American SEIU member named David Smith collapsed and died of a heart attack before the heavily policed brawl was over; for a first person account of that senseless tragedy see: https://www.counterpunch.org/2008/04/15/the-purple-punch-out-in-dearborn/)

In reality, SEIU’s target was Rose Ann DeMoro of the California Nurses Association, a prominent female union leader and then organizational rival of SEIU, who was scheduled to speak at Labor Notes’ 2008 fund-raising dinner. Protest organizers also hoped to intimidate fellow SEIU members from California who were attending the conference because they opposed the leadership of SEIU president Andy Stern and wanted to reform their national union.

Media coverage of the dust-up in Dearborn was so unfavorable that the AFL-CIO, then headed by former SEIU President John Sweeney, issued a statement declaring there was “no justification for the violent attack orchestrated by SEIU. Violence in attacking freedom of speech must be strongly condemned.”

Sweeney’s successor, Andy Stern, now SEIU President Emeritus, never apologized for or expressed any regrets over this PR debacle. Since leaving the union eight years ago, Stern has served as a corporate-funded Columbia Business School research fellow, drug company director, and paid consultant for gig economy firms like Airbnb and Handy, giving him even more to apologize for. (For all the sordid details, see this.)

A Toxic Culture

In early 2009, before he retired, Stern rewarded Dave Regan, the architect of SEIU’s 2008 Labor Notes protest with a plum assignment in California. Regan and fellow Stern appointee Eliseo Medina were sent to Oakland to seize control of UHW, a well-functioning and widely respected state-wide affiliate of SEIU, whose elected leaders had become critical of Stern’s approach to organizing and bargaining.

To impose that “mother of all trusteeships” on 150,000 workers, the Stern Administration spent tens of millions of dollars. It also dispatched an occupying army of union officials to block ousted elected leaders, UHW shop stewards, and rank-and-file members from forming a new union, after they were put under trusteeship. As I described in a 2011 book called The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket) the result was many months—and now years–of harassment, intimidation, and bullying of UHW dissenters, whether they are trying to leave SEIU, via decertification votes, or just get post-trusteeship UHW staff to represent them properly.

Regan turned his trusteeship duty into a sinecure, as UHW president, that now pays $250,000 a year, even though his local has one third fewer members than a decade ago. Other higher level Stern operatives involved in the dismantling of UHW include Mary Kay Henry herself, who once, famously called the Walnut Creek, CA. police to help bar Kaiser Permanente shop steward, Lover Joyce, from a post-trusteeship meeting in his own workplace.

After health care organizer Scott Courtney, a right hand man of Dave Regan, helped plan the assault on Labor Notes and, then, UHW members in California, Henry promoted his SEIU career. As president after Stern, she made Courtney Executive Vice President of SEIU and coordinator of its national “Fight for 15” campaign among fast food workers. Others of lesser stature on the SEIU national staff and from various locals also got their ticket punched—and their careers boosted—by running roughshod over UHW members at Kaiser and other California hospital chains, in 2009-11.

Where Are They Today?

The results were not pretty when some SEIU operatives took similar or worse liberties elsewhere, later on. Last October, Henry suspended Courtney from his $250,000 a year position because, as Bloomberg News reported, “people working for him had been rewarded or reassigned based on romantic relationships with him.” Courtney soon quit, before he could be fired, as demanded by the feminist advocacy group, UltraViolet, which deemed his conduct “wholly unacceptable.”

As BuzzFeed News then disclosed, two male SEIU staffers who reported to Courtney were fired or forced to resign in Chicago, based on allegations that he protected them, despite complaints from co-workers about their bullying behavior involving women.

A third offender, also fired for the same reason, had spent time in California during the UHW trusteeship. SEIU’s own version of the Harvey Weinstein scandal gathered further momentum, when media outlets, like The Boston Globe, chronicled examples of unwanted sexual advances by long protected officials like Massachusetts SEIU1199 leader Tyrek Lee, or staffers who moved from one SEIU local to another, despite allegations of misconduct trailing behind them.

To Sal Rosselli, the former UHW president and SEIU board member, who dared to criticize the direction of SEIU under Stern, this is clearly a case of chickens coming home to roost. “If you want to understand SEIU’s toxic macho culture, one of the worst expressions was the way its staff and leadership behaved before and during the UHW trusteeship,” he says. “In an environment where dissent must be crushed at all costs, leaders will be emboldened to prey on subordinates — and subordinates will feel intimidated about blowing the whistle.”

Now president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), the more democratic, independent union created from the ashes of Stern’s scorched earth campaign a decade ago, Rosselli is also coming to Labor Notes in Chicago, with a rank-and-file delegation of fifteen. While UHW, under the installed leadership of Dave Regan, has steadily shrunk, 14,000-member NUHW is growing and thriving. Its members backed Bernie Sanders two years ago, while Henry pushed SEIU into the Clinton camp, despite Sanders’ far superior labor record.

The Kaiser Partnership Frays

NUHW members at Kaiser and other employers have waged creative contract campaigns and militant anti-concession strikes. Kaiser mental health clinicians and other healthcare professionals are preparing for bargaining that begins in July. Like the CNA, NUHW operates outside the SEIU-dominated Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions (CKPU), because the coalition’s embrace of labor-management partnering can inhibit much-needed public advocacy of patient safety and quality care.

Meanwhile, UHW’s Kaiser Division is in disarray. That’s because Regan appointee Marcus Hatcher had to be fired for—guess what?– alleged sexual misconduct with three members of the union’s Executive Board! Regan’s own mounting leadership failures just triggered a more significant departure. Twenty-one unions representing 45,000 out of the 121,000 workers affected by CKPU’s joint bargaining have just quit the Coalition.

As Denise Duncan, leader of the AFSCME-affiliated United Nurses Associations of California explained: “we cannot be derailed by the leader of a single local,” referring to Regan. According to Duncan, at a pre-bargaining meeting in March, SEIU-UHW “once again engaged in disruptive tactics designed to assert [its] control over the coalition, making it clear to us that this behavior will never stop.” Under Regan, she charged, SEIU-UHW has “continually fractured our unity and our ability to focus on bargaining.”

Bullying, disruption, capitulation to management, and no accountability to members or union allies—that pretty much sums up the post-trusteeship MO of SEIU-UHW, thanks to Andy Stern and Mary Kay Henry. Is it any wonder that, halfway across the country from California, SEIU Local 73 members want to choose their own leaders? The alternative is continued domination by a national union with a history of hiring people later in need of discipline because their personal behavior not only harmed SEIU members, but also damaged the reputation of all unions at a moment of great political danger.

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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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