CounterPunch: Eyewitness in Oakland / Stern’s gang seizes UHW union hall
February 2nd, 2009
By CAL WINSLOW
I’ve forgotten the technical term, a senior moment perhaps. What do you call a mob of white people, who, with the police standing by, attack a handful of defenseless people, in this case mostly women of color, a few youngsters, humiliate them, drive them from their home?
This mob, thirty, maybe forty strong, mostly very nicely dressed white men for this side of struggling Oakland, was led by a young female lawyer – there were a couple of nasty ex-cops in tow, just in case. They used bolt-cutters to get through the parking-lot gates in back; they smashed their way through a second floor window, then pushed their way to the front, where they opened the doors, let in the rest of the mob in and then ended the occupation – evicting the (former) members of United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) from their union hall, their house. “Who’s House, Our House!” No more.
The Oakland cops arrived just in time to see to it that the freshly evicted behaved themselves. They were not impressed, apparently, by the fact that the workers actually had the building’s deed in hand. Neither were they concerned that no court had sanctioned this invasion – a Sergeant Kelly assured the workers that everything was just as it should be.
This mob, these people were Mary Kay Henry’s “warriors,” staff members and lawyers of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), recruited from around the country to do battle. They came, possibly 200 strong, to California to break UHW – the dissident, 150,000 member healthcare workers union – a militant and democratic union that represented hospital workers, long term and home care workers, plus others throughout California. They call it “trusteeship” – the trade union equivalent, according to Steve Early, of martial law. Mary Kay Henry, an Executive Vice President of SEIU, paid $200,000+ a year, personally pushed her way into hall. She was assisted by another Executive Vice President, Dave Regan, a $200,000+ guy as well. I guess they were on hand just to show that SEIU was serious, but also perhaps a little bullying firsthand was a pleasant diversion from the banalities of Washington, DC life. In Regan’s case, this seems a career specialization. Last March he helped orchestrate SEIU’s physical (but unsuccessful) assault on the Labor Notes Conference in Detroit.
It all had an air of slumming it – coming here to this neighborhood in Oakland where Jerry Brown’s grand gentrification scheme is languishing. Upscale apartments sit empty; the atmosphere of the neighborhood still owes more to the Social Services offices at the end of the street and the Greyhound Bus station around the corner. The rented SUV’s and black Audi sedans stood out on Thomas Berkley Way, where UHW had had its headquarters for more than twenty years. Its roots go right back to the 1934 general strike. It has been an important factor in California labor history.
I spent two days with what might best be called a “rear guard”action; UHW members holding the passes, so to speak, as the rest of the old organization UHW spread throughout the state signing up members for their new union, National Union of Healthcare Workers – NUHW!
The mob, of course, preferred to remain nameless, as is their want. “What is your name?” Who are you?” Cold glare. The workers, on the contrary, were quite proud to be there; certainly no one hid in the back. Mell Garcia, a medical assistant with thirty-one years at Kaiser-Haywood, an elected chief shop steward, told me -“after Puerto Rico /site of the 20028 SEIU Convention/ – all bets were off for me, they way they treated us. I can’t believe I have the opportunity to make history – we’re out from under ‘the great dictator’! We can have a union belongs to us – a union for the members.”
Did I say Andy Stern, President of SEIU, was not in the crowd? No, he was in Davos, appropriately, with the World Economic Summit, where “political and business leaders aim to create the foremost global partnerships…” Andy Stern likes “partnerships.”
Emily Ryan, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, elected shop steward at Kaiser Folsom, was a proud UHW member as well – she should have been on this years’ new UHW executive board; she was elected in January, and would have served had not UHW been wrecked . No more elections now. Dave Regan and Eliseo Medina, yet another Executive Vice President are in charge, appointed by Andy Stern.
Ryan believes labor needs a new start – it’s been “too cozy with the employers.” She’s seen the “service model” union and doesn’t want it. “Our model is member driven; it allows us to make our own decisions.”
Angela Glasper is the elected chief steward at Kaiser- Antioch – she’s been there twenty years. She was a UHW Vice-President and a well-know spokesperson. She’s the mother of six; her daughter Shea, a law student in San Francisco, as well as a younger son, came in and out, bringing food, checking up on mom. I wonder if SEIU staff brought their kids out to California – maybe there was childcare at the Hilton. Glasper says, “I grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, I’ve been through a lot. I’m not going back. In UHW my shackles were off, my burden was lifted.
“I’m through with SEIU. I’d rather not have a union; I’d rather just fight Kaiser with my unit.” Glasper went to the inauguration; she took the opportunity to stop by SEIU headquarters. “I can’t believe the disrespect. And we /UHW/ send them $30 million dollars a year! Every year.”
Members started sleeping in the offices early in the week. Rumors had it that the attack would come on Wednesday. Off-duty cops had the building under surveillance – everyone who came and went had their picture taken. There were never that many members at any one timea;s I said, it was a rear guard action. But important all the same. No one wanted to just abandon the building – and “all it stood for.” “It wouldn’t be right,” said Lover Joyce, Kaiser –Walnut Creek. “We couldn’t just walk away.”
I see this morning that Dave Regan says the occupiers were all UHW staff – this can most likely be explained by the Washington, DC company he keeps – the fact must be that SEIU “dues units” are becoming increasingly disfamiliar to him. A smirking Regan told the Bay Guardian, “The police came and we sorted it out.” “Sorting out” the people who pay your wages.
I suspect the Washington staff won’t hang around the Oakland office too long. They’re not dressed for it. Anyone who’s been in an occupation knows they get boring. You get to know the carpets a little too well. And the furniture. This is not the place to bring one’s corporate partners. No mahogany conference tables here. No leather chairs. No weight room. No portraits of King Andy. Also, no fleet of company cars (What kind of a company? Whoops, union is this!)
In fact, the hall was dressed up just a bit – a beautiful, huge banner hung above the front doors declaring “Hands off our union,” but mostly the Oakland office is no frills and a little worse for the wear. It’s an overcrowded, place, two floors, lots of cubicles, piles of boxes of files. Not a place for entertaining. There were also picket signs, banners, mementos of past strikes and organizing drives, pictures of members in moments of triumph. A history of struggle. SEIU fired the leaders of UHW last week and put all the staff on “administrative leave” – told to stay home, stay away from members and worksites. So the cubicles were empty, but there were many signs of the people who had worked there, family snapshots pinned above their desks, postcards, children’s artwork, political buttons.
Some places there were nice little notes for the replacements to come. One was “When did Eliseo know? 2001.” That’s a reference to Eliseo Medina, now the Trustee, with Dave Regan. Eliseo is a generic professional labor leader – a full-timer since the seventies. He led the SEIU in southern California when Tyrone Freeman was appointed by Andy Stern to lead Los Angeles local 6434. Freeman, now fired, faces federal criminal charges, embezzling millions, lavish Hawaii weddings, Beverly Hills Cigar clubs, golf tournaments, the family on the payroll. Eliseo, apparently, didn’t notice, not much of a judge of character.
Ruby Guzman works in a nursing home in San Pablo; she’s been a steward for two years, representing 60 workers. She’s a single mom, her daughter, a community college student, came along for support. “I was in the Teamsters before this,” she told me, “everything changed when we joined UHW. We were empowered. I negotiated our contract last year – we have the highest standards in California. Guzman is one of the 65,000 long-term care workers just hijacked from UHW – she would have been sent to Tyrone Freeman had he not been discovered. Now she’ll be in the new, unnamed as yet, 240,000 member “local” lead by who knows whom – though definitely appointed by Andy Stern. In UHW “we make $4 more an hour than 6434.We have the right to advocate for our patients – they can’t just tell us shut up – we have the right to take care issues to mediation.”
“They want us out of UHW; they don’t want us in with Kaiser workers because we’re too strong that way. We need all healthcare workers united together.” Partnerships work best, it seems, when the workers aren’t strong, when they can’t cause trouble.
I think the workers could have held the building, I think the SEIU staff would have run the other way in anything like a fair fight. But what would be the point? “This is about people, not buildings.” I heard this again and again. Still, as Sonia Minor, elected steward at Kaiser- Martinez, told me, “I’m glad I was there. I’m glad I saw it with my own eyes, the SEIU, the police, the lack of integrity, us together. It made me want to fight more.” The task now is to get the new union up and running. The occupation – occupations, that is, all California UHW offices were occupied – from the start made it clear to SEIU that there will get nothing here without a fight.
There have always been middle-class people in the workers’ movements, even the odd aristocrat. In its own way, it’s a tradition to take pride in – class traitors! whatever. And a place even for lawyers. Nevertheless, Thursday night at 8:00, when the first SEIU contingent appeared, led by an impeccably dressed young lawyer, papers in hand, flanked by six natty white men, the contrast was breathtaking. It’s not that Italian mobsters in silk suits would have been more authentic; it’s that here, shamelessly, no apologies, no concessions, was the corporate union, twenty-first century, pure and simple. In the event, they were denied access: “We order you to leave this building!” she said. Response? No.
I asked Sal Rosselli, fired elected President of UHW, why SEIU seemed so disorganized. “Not used to dealing with members,” he thought.
That night, I have to say, I became fully confident that the new (N)UHW would win – the positions are clear, the contrasts sharp, the lynching of UHW ultimately had failed. I feel like writing it’s the bosses v. the workers, a phrase that today makes labor specialists cringe. It’s just too nineteenth century. Anyway, it wasn’t the bosses v. the workers. Ralph Nader was technically wrong to call SEIU a “company union” – it wasn’t started by the companies. No, it’s the union bosses v. the workers, but in this very latest corporate incarnation, sociologically, these are the same people, they represent, really, the same interests. They want to make capital “strong” again, they promise productive workers, “value added,” Andy Stern says he doesn’t like it when people fight.
Well, these workers are fighters, and as far as I can see, they want out of SEIU because they want to keep fighting. I can imagine (in his reverie) Andy Stern’s next, triumphant visit to California, representing 600,000 members, led, virtually without exception, by hand-picked lieutenants. Arnold, he dreams, will surely recognize this – he’ll know that here’s a man he can work with. Medical care for the twentieth century – universal, free, no insurance companies. No way. Forget it. Let’s make a deal!
I don’t think it will happen. In this fight we have seen everything that is good in the labor movement; we have also seen everything that is rotten. That’s positive in a way. We have to know what the sides are. A good fight can clarify things and this conflict has certainly done that. And remember there still are good fights. I think, in the words of old Eugene Debs, let’s take heart, “the cross is bending, the midnight is passing”. For California’s healthcare workers, the times are changing. That’s good news for all of us. Go NUHW!
Cal Winslow is co-editor, with Aaron Brenner and Robert Brenner, of Rebel Rank and File, Labor Militancy and 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.