Association for Union Democracy: From now on, SEIU = Stern Employees International Union

NewsMarch 1, 2009

A Discussion Piece by Herman Benson

Andy Stern, SEIU international president, has trusteed the 150,000 local, United Healthcare Workers-West. He has removed its elected officers, stripped the local of 65,000 members, taken control of its treasury and collective bargaining, and seems on the road to destroying one of the most politically influential labor organizations in California, one with a long respected record for progressive unionism. In so doing, he has waved aside mass protests and petitions from thousands of SEIU members; he has shrugged off written objections from over 100 pro-union educators, academics, writers, and intellectuals around the country, and from 50 more of their colleagues in California. He has ignored an appeal from political leaders in California and representatives of community, ethnic, and religious organizations that he abandon the trusteeship threat. In November, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors presented a Certificate of Honor to Sal Rosselli, UHW-W president, “and the 150,000 members of UHW-West for their continued fight for real democracy in the American Labor Movement and their commitment to building real power for healthcare workers.”

But none of that has moved Stern. To anyone who has followed recent events in the SEIU with an unprejudiced eye, what obsesses Stern should be obvious: come what may, in one way or another, any stick to beat a foe, he is determined to crush the one inside the SEIU who has been his only effective critic: Sal Rosselli. Stern’s road may be paved with good intentions, but he has been thrown off balance by a craving for unchallenged power. But this time, he confronts not a humble leaderless mass of members passively submitting to manipulation but a movement determined to fight to control their own union, a movement which can count upon support from the broad labor-liberal-civil libertarian community.

Workers form unions to defend their rights from arrogant employers. In this case, they are also compelled to defend democracy from an arrogant union leader. A hundred elected leaders of the UHW-W have resigned from the SEIU to found a new health care union, the National United Healthcare Workers or NUHW. Stern has provoked a battle for the hearts of 150,000 healthcare unionists that will be fought out at the job sites and before the National Labor Relations Board and local labor boards for many months, perhaps for years. It is bound to affect more than the fate of 150,000 West Coast workers; it will influence the quality of democracy in the labor movement. For the SEIU, these events are a sign of encroaching moral sickness:

To silence Sal Rosselli, a critic, whose personal integrity has never been questioned, he now takes over one local of 150,000. To repair the damage inflicted by one of his own close supporters, he was compelled to take over the 160,000-member Local 6434 in California, whose president he had appointed and who has been expelled on charges of misappropriating around a million dollars. The president of the 55,000 – member Michigan local, also appointed by Stern, was forced to step down on related charges. The president of the77,000-member Local 721 in Los Angeles, another Stern appointee, who later became an international vice president, took a leave of absence after reports that she had funneled thousands of dollars of union money to a boyfriend.

In less than a year, the SEIU international executive board has allowed itself to become a housebroken appendage to Stern’s will. Back in May 2008, when Stern’s decision to trustee UHW-W were first becoming apparent, 47 top SEIU leaders wrote that “trusteeships should never be used to limit democratic debate in any union…. no such retaliatory trusteeship is under consideration nor would we ever vote to approve one.” On January 9, 47 board members approved Stern’s proposal to cut 65,000 long term care workers out of Rosselli’s local. Still, ten board members would not go along. But, on January 22, according to reports, the 47 board members voted unanimously to authorize a trusteeship.

Stern may have the legal right to strip UHW-W of 65,000 members, trustee the local, remove its elected officers, and even destroy it. But Stern dominates only his own union and not our country, which remains a democracy, and so victims inside his union have the legal and moral right to dissolve their ties with his SEIU and assert their democratic rights by forming a new and more perfect union. Which is what they have set out to do.

At stake are over a hundred union contracts, scores of employers, and the future of at least 150,000 health care workers to be decided in a bitter battle that will rage for many months. Perhaps years.

Source: Association for Union Democracy