Thousands of SEIU members are expected in
The rally is being organized by United Healthcare Workers (UHW) and allied dissidents in SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today (SMART). Both are reacting to their national president’s scheduling of a Sept. 22-23 hearing to remove the elected officers of 150,000-member UHW, including its leader Sal Rosselli, and replace them with Stern appointees from
An SEIU activist for 25-years and now the union’s top reformer, Rosselli describes Stern’s latest move as “an act of desperation and retaliation,” designed to divert attention from serious problems in other locals.
Stern picked a bad time for his latest UHW take-over bid. His own skills as a union CEO and talent scout are now in question. In August alone, three close followers—all just appointed or promoted to big-paying jobs in key locals or at SEIU headquarters—have been forced to step down due to mishandled funds. Among those being investigated are Tyrone Freeman from Los Angeles, president of SEIU’s second- largest local union; Annelle Grajeda, chair of its California state council; and Rickman Jackson, a Michigan local leader involved in the widely-condemned disruption of the Labor Notes conference in Michigan last April by four bus-loads of SEIU staffers and stewards. (See “Purple Punch-Out in
Thanks to Stern’s personal patronage, these three all serve on the Executive Board of the 2 million-member union. At SEIU’s riot cop-protected convention in Puerto Rico (See “San Juan Showdown,” Counter-Punch, June 3, 2008), Freeman,
As Paul Pringle of the L.A. Times has reported in a stunning investigative series, the U.S. Department of Labor is probing “payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars by the union and a related charity to firms owned by relatives of Freeman and expenditures of similar sums on a golf tournament, restaurants such as Morton’s steakhouse, and entertainment companies.” (Associated Press estimates the total amount misspent to be $1 million.) Freeman is a 38-year old former SEIU staffer from
Going down in Freeman’s wake was Rickman Jackson, his former chief of staff at Local 6434, who is now on “voluntary leave” as well.
Last but not least, over Labor Day weekend, Pringle reported a third investigation-related “voluntary leave.” With Stern’s backing, Annelle Grajeda became head of SEIU’s California State Council earlier this year after Rosselli was forced out of that position. She now has stepped down from the Council and two other union jobs over accusations that she permitted double- (or triple?)-dipping by her ex-boyfriend. Grajeda is a former local union staff director, who has never been directly elected by the rank-and-file to any SEIU office. Yet her loyalty to Stern was rewarded in San Juan just three months ago—in the form of new $200,000 a year paycheck as one of six SEIU international Executive Vice-Presidents. Her ex-boyfriend, Alejandro Stephens, is accused of remaining on the payroll of
SEIU is now trying to recover some of the money paid to Stephens—in belated response to a formal complaint filed by SMART member Arturo Diaz, who is also a county worker. Diaz called the multiple pay-outs a “betrayal of the public trust and malfeasance.” He and other members of Local 721 want to know what role Grajeda might have played in enriching Stephens. Says Diaz: “I think he’s totally taken advantage of the membership.”
Trusteeship vs Dismemberment
When Counter-Punch last visited the embattled members of UHW in late March, they were rallying, by the hundreds, in their
But the powerful (and always persistent) SEIU president was not deterred for long. Stern quickly moved to Plan B, which called for dismemberment of UHW. If SEIU had to tolerate a dissident like Rosselli–for awhile longer–his local was at least going to be much smaller. (And, despite the International union’s on-going campaign of legal harassment and disruption, UHW has continued to grow through new organizing.) So, at the
Very few UHW long-term care union activists —overwhelmingly women of color–have ever been fans of Tyrone. He’s viewed as a glib con artist and weak negotiator–far less aggressive than Rosselli in upholding SEIU contract standards. In balloting conducted by UHW last winter, the affected members voted by a large margin to stay put. But, this being SEIU, what the members wanted didn’t matter in
Internal foes of dismemberment were backed by outsiders who share that UHW concern. Both fear that Stern wants to revive an industry-wide “organizing rights” deal with nursing home operators that compromised SEIU’s ability to engage in patient advocacy, while, at the same time, didn’t deliver promised improvements in pay, benefits, and workloads for union members. In a July 9 open letter, UC-San Francisco sociologist and nursing professor Charlene Harringon, a top researcher on nursing home financing , applauded a different kind of contract, negotiated recently by UHW with Mariner Health Care facilities in northern
By mid-August–thanks to Tyronegate–Stern’s attempted downsizing of UHW was looking pretty indefensible (although all parties are still awaiting a decision from former UAW lawyer Leonard Page—a friend of SEIU General Counsel Judy Scott –who conducted the controversial hearing in Manhattan Beach.) How could anyone now justify the transfer of so many UHW members, against their wishes, to a local they didn’t want to be in even before it was exposed as corrupt and had to be put under trusteeship?
From Justice For Janitors to Injustice For UHW
Unfortunately, the ever-agile Stern just shifted back to his original plan—putting UHW in trusteeship! On August 25, SEIU headquarters issued a press release giving notice of a Sept. 22-23 “trusteeship hearing to address fraud charges” against UHW. The “fraudulent” acts cited are mainly the very reasonable steps UHW has taken—with full knowledge of its elected leadership–to protect itself, legally and organizationally, from any abuse of Stern’s trusteeship powers. In the release, Stern declares that he’s now “committed to leading a reform movement in labor.” (He followed that up with a Sept. 2 leak to the New York Times about SEIU’s imminent creation of a “high-level ethics commission.”) Nevertheless, Stern’s primary goal is still to crush the reform movement that already exists in his own union, via a purge of Rosselli, plus all UHW senior staff and elected officers. Snuffed out along with them would be the local’s valuable website (www.seiuvoice.org), which has rallied SEIU dissidents around the country–before, during, and since the union’s
Laying the groundwork for this “nuclear option”—and providing “left-cover” for his boss (as usual)—is none other than Stephen Lerner. Lerner is the much-heralded SEIU organizer and executive board member responsible for the union’s “Justice for Janitors” campaigns. Like Stern, he’s also no slouch at double-talk. Just a month ago, in an on-line exchange posted at MRZine, Lerner scoffed at the “myth that UHW has been threatened with trusteeship.” He reassured progressive readers that “this simply isn’t true, no matter how often repeated” and claimed that such “misinformation” is just a “distraction” from the “vibrant, open honest debate” that needs to go on about how labor can secure what he calls “Justice for All.” Standing in the way of that goal is “ ‘Left Business Unionism,’ or maybe more appropriately, ‘Neo-Business Unionism.’” According to Lerner, this previously unidentified species is exemplified by UHW—which clings to “a business union model” and focuses too much “on servicing and defending remaining islands of unionization (ie local union interests).” In addition, UHW has apparently also been guilty of indulging in “left rhetoric about militant struggle, better contracts…and greater local autonomy.”
Lerner’s “discourse,” as the academics call it, would be laughable—given how factually challenged it is–if it were not for one real fact. On August 25, Stern named Lerner and three other officials to act as his “Personal Representatives and Monitors” of UHW activity. So last week, instead of being down in L.A.—where he could have been helping to secure justice for home care workers (whose treasury has been pilfered by Tyrone)—Lerner was part of a lawyer-assisted crew of Stern “monitors” hovering about UHW. All are now busily engaged in peppering Rosselli’s local with burdensome “information requests” about every conceivable aspect of its daily operations, particularly those related to the local’s legal defense against Stern. Of course, nothing in this intentionally disruptive intervention assists UHW members in any way, particularly those out on strike or in difficult contract negotiations; rather, it’s designed to impede “normal” union functioning, while manufacturing further justification for a full-blown take-over that would (with UHW added) leave the vast majority of California’s 700,000 members with un-elected leadership.
How do we know what life is like on the front-lines of UHW —in the middle of the local’s multi-front war for survival? Well, in the interests of full disclosure, the authors must note that we both have daughters working as UHW reps. So we hear a lot about the added stress and frustration of doing day-to-day trade union work under such trying conditions. One of our young staffers reports that she’s been aiding nursing home members whose bosses have become increasingly recalcitrant in bargaining. Unlike Mariner, some UHW employers clearly hope that, by dragging their feet now, they’ll be able to negotiate more favorable terms later on. Outfits like Kindred Healthcare would much prefer to deal with friendlier faces from Local 6434–if UHW members ever end up there–or with any Stern appointees who gain control of UHW.
Plain Old Business Unionism
How did a national union culture, long touted as one of labor’s most dynamic and progressive, engender such a mess? How did it produce a Tryone Freeman and the kind of press coverage he’s been getting lately (which hurts all unions, not just SEIU)? In Pringle’s LA Times reporting, this “rising star in local labor circles” is depicted–accurately, by all accounts (except Freeman’s own)–as a free-spending 21st century SEIU version of Jackie Presser, the biggest Teamster boodler of the 1970s and 80s. As other observers have noted, there’s a steady drift, in too many SEIU’ locals, toward Presser’s brand of plain old “business unionism.” First, SEIU operatives—at the Labor Notes conference last Spring—resort to the same kind of thuggish behavior once common in the Teamsters during the Presser era. Now, like purple shades of Jackie, SEIU leaders collect inflated salaries, tolerate executive board double-dipping, and ignore nepotism and casual looting of local treasuries—until membership or media whistle-blowing forces them to announce a “clean-up.”
One of Freeman’s early mentors–who asked not to be identified–had this explanation of Tyrone’s rise and fall (as well as the career trajectory of similar Stern proteges): “These are folks who did not earn their status, they were handed it—and that leads to a dependence on who handed it to you. The union’s leadership bench is actually very shallow today…A person’s talent and skill and upward mobility now seem to be in inverse proportion in SEIU.”
If loyalty to Stern, rather than competence or honesty, is what leads to rapid career advancement—and that would appear to be the case–there may be two, three, many Tyrones in the union’s future. That’s because scores of Stern-installed leaders now preside over huge, consolidated locals with few structures for membership accountability or control; many have gotten where they are today via initial appointment rather than through membership election. Many have never worked a day in their life as an SEIU member but their local by-laws have been rigged to insure that they will not ever be easily replaced by anyone from the rank-and-file.
In Local 6434, for example, a worker who wanted to run against Freeman as president is required, within a mere three weeks, to collect and submit the nominating signatures of 4,800 fellow dues-payers! That would be an unheard of hurdle, even in a local with members employed in traditional workplaces. In a union of home-based workers–who may not run into five other members in an entire month–it’s a guarantee of “presidency for life.” Along with its criminal investigation of Freeman’s spending, the Labor Department is also in the process of invalidating this nomination requirement and forcing a fair election.
Legal work in that Local 6434 election challenge was done by Arthur Fox, who is also assisting UHW. He got his start as a union democracy lawyer in the 1970s, as founder of the Professional Drivers Council, a truck drivers’ group that later merged with TDU—Teamsters for a Democratic Union. We also worked with many of the same Teamster dissidents during that period—brave members of PROD, TDU, and a rank-and-file caucus within United Parcel Service called UPSurge. What’s striking to us about the situation in SEIU today is how much the lessons of union democracy struggles during the 1970s have suddenly become relevant again.
Learning Lessons of Past Reformers
To their credit, UHW organizers have been doing their best to brush up on this subject. Among the fifty workshops and training sessions being offered this weekend at a rank-and-file leadership development conference in
Asked recently about this new focus of UHW staff training and member education, Vice-President John Borsos explained: “One challenge we face is creating a culture of solidarity in non-traditional worksites, where there may not be the traditional kind of union consciousness. So we have tried to be very conscious about instilling a sense of history and institutional culture. We want to demonstrate that what we are doing has been done before. We want people to realize there are precedents for it–in SEIU and other unions. I think our struggle with SEIU has made UHW more democratic…”
That internal union battle has certainly made some SEIU rank-and-filers a lot angrier with their top officers than they used to be. Last weekend, for example, Bay Area hospital worker Maya Morris, a leader of SMART, was part of a delegation of 35 UHW activists who dogged Stern and his second-in-command, Anna Berger, at every stop on their “Take Back Labor Day” tour of the mid-west. At this series of post-DNC press events—designed to highlight the need for labor law reform–a busload of SEIU dissidents from California was not a particularly welcome sight, because of their broader conception of “workers rights.”
At a rally for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, held in
But, as Tomasian notes, Burger “didn’t talk about whether SEIU members deserve a voice in their own union.” After the rally, Burger gave Tomasian the brush-off, so later in the day, in
(Cal Winslow is a labor historian, labor educator, Fellow in Environmental Politics, UC Berkeley, and Director of the Mendocino Institute. Steve Early served for three decades as a national union staffer for the Communications Workers of