Talking Union: Leaving SEIU and Joining NUHW
November 30th, 2009
An Open Letter to my SEIU friends, former co-workers, and all SEIU members and staff
By Paul Krehbiel
As a former staff worker for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 660 (now 721) in Los Angeles from 1998 – 2007, I am appalled by the degeneration of SEIU under the direction of President Andy Stern. While Local 660 had its share of problems, it had been in many respects a vibrant union. I was committed to Local 660 and its members and worked hard to build a strong, democratic, member-empowered union. But I can no longer remain silent about the degeneration I see, not only in Local 721, but also in many other SEIU units that Stern and his agents have taken over.
While on staff at Local 660, I worked as a Lead Field Representative/ Organizer, an Acting Director, and Chief Negotiator for over 5,000 Los Angeles County Registered Nurses. I was an organizer of a successful worksite campaign to get Los Angeles County to comply with California’s statewide 2004 nurse-to-patient ratio law, helped lead campaigns to build Stewards Councils in the County’s two largest hospitals, and I received commendations from SEIU leaders and members during my first six years on staff. I did my union work at Local 660 the same way I did it when I first joined the labor movement in 1968 while employed as a union auto parts worker in Buffalo. Then, I was won to trade unionism based on democratic rights for members, freedom of speech, and a belief that the goal of union members was to protect and support each other, and advance the interests of all working people. I became a full-time union representative in 1985 and I have never given up the beliefs I had in 1968.
Members Needs Ignored and Rights Given Away
By 2004-2005, I saw Local 660 changing from an organization that had allowed considerable local control and member involvement into an organization that dampened freedom of speech, weakened internal democracy, reduced meaningful member involvement, made secret deals with employers that harmed members’ interests, and isolated and punished those members and staff who disagreed with these negative changes.
This was part of the program that Stern developed for the entire union: to make large and unnecessary concessions to employers in return for the easy sign-up of more dues-paying members, and without real member involvement or approval. As his program was being implemented in Local 660, here are some of the things I witnessed. During contract negotiations, I and other negotiators were told by top officials of Local 660, such as Annelle Grajeda (then General Manager of Local 660) to end negotiations before we could mount a campaign to achieve the most important issues that the members wanted resolved, such as improvements in staffing for nurses. The goal, I was told, was not to upset management. I asked, “What about management upsetting our members?” I received no response.
I was informed in January 2004 that top Local 660 officials made a secret deal with the management of Los Angeles County to exempt the County indefinitely from meeting the new state law spelling out nurse-to-patient ratios. This new law set the legal ratio for 2004 at one 1icensed nurse for six patients, and one less patient per nurse for the next two years. In Los Angeles County, one licensed nurse had 10, 15, and even 20 patients. I saw stressed-out nurses in tears because they were worried about whether they gave adequate care to all their patients since they were assigned so many that they could not spend enough time with them. When I tried to help the nurses get management to abide by the new staffing law, I was told by top Local 660 officials to stop my activities immediately or face possible discipline.
I also saw top Local 660 officials come into LAC+USC Medical Center, where I was a union representative, and tell workers that certain elected stewards (excellent stewards who organized to protect workers rights and resist the Stern program) were bad stewards and should not be supported. I was upset and angered seeing SEIU erode the power and wellbeing of members and stewards and pit members against each other. Members became increasingly angry and alienated from SEIU.
Members Weakened Before Mega-Merger
Early in 2005, SEIU Local 660 staff was directed to spend most of our time signing up members to attend a “Convention” to take place on October 15, 2005. The goal of the “Convention” was to “make us a stronger and more effective union.” We were given weekly sign-up “goals” that were so high that we had little time to work with stewards and members to address their issues on the job. This combined with the routine neglect, dropping grievances, and making secret deals that hurt the members, resulted in a bigger disconnect between the top officials and the membership, making it even harder to meet our “goal” – which was 5,000 attendees. When the “Convention” took place, less than 800 people showed up and that counted a member and their whole family. There were no elected delegates, no elections, and no previously prepared proposals to be discussed and debated by members.
The “Convention” was really a very expensive three-hour rally – with high-tech light shows, live music, and chanting, costing the local $1 million, which was paid out of members’ dues dollars. Perhaps 15-20 minutes was devoted to “passing” several vaguely worded “motions” about making our union bigger and stronger, but there were no details, and no discussion on the “motions.” A union official asked the crowd if they agreed with building a stronger union, and the cheers and clapping from the crowd was interpreted as affirmation – all the “motions” passed. Charades like this are touted by Stern and other SEIU officials as evidence that SEIU is a “democratic” union. The “motions” that were “passed” then served as a “democratic mandate” to merge Local 660 with other SEIU locals in Southern California, and strip previously held rights from the members. It also gave Stern’s agents a way to identify those members who would go along with the Stern program without question – a number were bribed with paid-time off to do union work, free trips, promises of union positions, and other benefits. The staunchest Stern supporters were appointed to union positions in the new Local 721. This “Convention” also served as a way to identify those members who didn’t enthusiastically endorse this dog and pony show, in order to isolate and punish them, especially if they expressed disagreement.
Activists Retaliated Against and Removed
In November and December of 2005, I and other staff members asked for and held meetings with top Local 660 officials to alert them to the improper and possible illegal behavior of a Local 660 director who counseled female staff members to wear low-cut blouses and very short skirts to get things from male managers. This was done in a New Employee Orientation, and individually. One young woman staff member who attended the New Employee Orientation came to me afterwards nearly in tears and asked if wearing revealing clothing was a job requirement at SEIU. I was outraged, and told her absolutely not. Our staff union, United Union Representatives of Los Angeles, held two meetings to discuss this, and 15 staff members wrote statements about improper behavior by this director. I was the spokesperson for the group in meetings with top Local 660 officials, and we demanded an immediate end to such a practice, and that the director be removed. We also stated our concerns about the other harmful practices mentioned above and in the written statements by staff. I was immediately targeted for termination. I was given a Performance Evaluation that was marked Unsatisfactory in nearly every category of work by a young, inexperienced director who just prior to this had called me sometimes almost weekly to get my advice on how best to handle a wide array of union problems. Due to the increasing pressure placed on me, I went out on sick leave in 2006, and felt then that I could no longer work for a union that had sunk to such a disgraceful level of corruption, degradation, and sell-out practices. Members and staff kept me informed about developments in Local 660, and Local 721 after it was formed.
Democracy Subverted and Scrapped
In 2006-07, Stern initiated the campaign to merge Local 660 with six other locals to form Local 721, one of many such mega-mergers happening across the country. After working to undermine and weaken the strength of organized workers on the job, SEIU told members that the only solution to their problems was to unite with other locals to make a bigger local. However, there were few or no details on how the new union would function, or what rights members would have. Committees of active members were set up to “advise” the leaders, giving the impression that member involvement was valued. But, since the majority of members were so alienated and disconnected from the union, most paid little attention to SEIU mailings and announcements. And those members who did participate had no vote on any of the ideas; the top officials made all the final decisions. I’d seen this ruse when I worked at Local 660. Now conditions were ripe for a merger election. Ballots were mailed to the members, and SEIU then contacted the unquestioning Stern supporters who were reminded to vote “yes” for the merger. The turnout was tiny, so it was no surprise when a majority who cast ballots “voted” for the merger. SEIU then announced that the members decided in a “democratic” vote to merge their union with others. This was another charade, not real democracy.
Then, Stern and Grajeda, using business reorganization law and a weakened SEIU Constitution and By-Laws, arbitrarily removed all the elected officers and elected Executive Board members of Local 660 and the other merged locals, and Stern appointed Grajeda president of the new Local 721. Then, Stern and Grajeda kept members in the dark on important issues, made more decisions without meaningful member involvement or vote, stopped holding membership meetings, and weakened or dismantled existing steward and other member structures. While this was happening, 19 staff members, including myself, were fired. We all had worked to build member-power on the job, and many had attended the “whistle-blower” meetings mentioned above. Stern and Grajeda used this same business reorganization law as their legal cover since there was no just cause for terminating any of us. Stern and Grajeda then put the rest of the staff on probation for a year, even staff members with 15 and 20 years experience. The message was clear to staff: you will support our program 100% or you will be fired too. Stern and Grajeda were cleansing the staff to stop us from helping members stop the destruction of their union. I knew that many staff were very unhappy and did not agree with the Stern program, but they kept quiet for fear of being fired.
Under Stern, “Bigger” Means Weaker
Stern brags that SEIU has 2 million members, which makes it “bigger and stronger” than practically all other unions. He uses this line to try to keep the members he has (increasing numbers of members want out), and to try to get others to vote to join SEIU. (Stern’s thirst for more dues dollars appears unquenchable, and he’ll misinform and lie to fool workers into joining a group that is now isolated by most of the rest of the labor movement.) But what could those 2 million SEIU members do for workers in any given location? Nothing under Stern’s regime, because he has taken away their rights too and kept them in the dark about what’s really going on in the union. Stern and his agents lie to the members, and tell them that SEIU is fighting for the best possible contract for them, while at that very moment SEIU is giving away hard-won benefits behind the members’ backs. When I worked for SEIU Local 660 as it was preparing to become part of Stern’s Local 721, I felt like I was working in a mental hospital where paranoid and dictatorial schizophrenics were in charge.
Many members and staff expressed to me similar views. I heard many Local 721 members complain that they felt weaker after the merger, while Local 721 was announcing that is was “bigger,” “stronger,” and “more united” than ever. One member told me he felt like he was in the “Twilight Zone.” SEIU methodically works to weaken or dismantle every lever of real member power, and then tells people they are stronger. Nothing is done to help the stewards, so members are told if they have a grievance to call an 800 number to a remote “call center.” Members have told me that when they phone the “call” center, they either get a taped message and no return call, or usually someone who does not know how to help them but says they will get back to them, but doesn’t. Members have said they have not seen a rep in months, and those members who do see one are usually told by the rep that they cannot help them. How is it better to be a member of a corrupt ineffective union with a large but powerless membership, whose leaders sell out the members? I would rather be in a smaller union of fully informed and empowered members who can really stand up and fight to protect and advance their interests, as they see them, and have the full backing of their union leaders.
To make matters worse, shortly after the merger and Stern’s appointment of Grajeda as the new president of Local 721, she was the subject of several articles in the Los Angeles Times which revealed alleged improper practices by her that resulted in her former boyfriend, former Local 660 president Alejandro Stephens, receiving unauthorized and improper payments. (Another Stern appointed president, at Local 6434, also based in Los Angeles, was Tyrone Freeman, whom the Times reported improperly took over $1 million from that local’s dues dollars.) When the expose of Grajeda stirred up Local 721 members, Stern promoted Grajeda to become the special assistant to Anna Berger, SEIU’s national Secretary-Treasurer in Washington, D. C. There is growing alarm among SEIU members that Grajeda would be sent to work in the financial office of the entire union. It should be no surprise that a man such as Stern, who puts little value on morals or principles and who lies and sells out his own members, has appointed people like himself to positions of power and authority. There is an old saying: “A fish rots from the head down.” This is destroying the union.
For those members who do try to get involved, they are expected to be absolutely loyal to Stern and his agents without question, and to carry out every order, no matter how bizarre or harmful to others. Infringements on the rights or interests of others are justified because it’s for the “cause,” some mysterious alleged higher purpose. History is littered with terrible abuses and crimes against others because it was for a “cause.” The real cause should be to give members their voice, skills, and power to protect and advance their interests. The only member involvement Stern and his agents want is from members who are willing to be good foot soldiers in Stern’s army, to carry out Stern’s program. Members who try to get involved as real union members, with democratic rights and their own voices, are frozen out, removed from their elected positions as stewards or bargaining committee members, and retaliated against if they persist in demanding their rights. SEIU members need a real union, not another boss.
NUHW: Real Member Power and Protection
I watched with increasing alarm the growing number of corrupt, destructive and sell-out practices by Stern’s SEIU in 2007 and 2008. The arbitrary removal of elected SEIU stewards, the physical attacks by SEIU on the Labor Notes Conference in Dearborn which I witnessed first-hand and which caused one death and one worker being sent to the hospital, the splitting and raiding of UNITE-HERE, the attacks on the Teachers Union in Puerto Rico and more have caused so much harm to so many.
In January 2009, Stern arbitrarily removed the elected leaders of United Healthcare Workers – West, a 150,000-member union within SEIU, and placed it under appointed Trustees who have given away wage and benefit gains of UHW-W members in just a few months. Kaiser workers, for example, are rightfully infuriated at the SEIU-UHW Trustees who agreed with Kaiser management’s demand for cutbacks in workers’ pensions. Stern’s anti-labor practices are a disgrace, and a blot on the labor movement.
Fortunately, scores of unions have criticized Stern, some in scathing terms. AFSCME president Gerald McEntee charged SEIU with “piracy,” and Operating Engineers called Stern the “Darth Vader of the labor movement.” Even those unions that Stern got to leave the AFL-CIO with him to join his Change to Win group, are protesting Stern’s anti-labor practices, and Change to Win is now unraveling.
The day after the Trustees took over UHW-W, those former leaders and members formed the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), based on internal union democracy, member empowerment, freedom of speech, the right to vote on NUHW leaders and their contracts – rights that are being eroded and eliminated in SEIU. Almost the entire elected leadership and staff of the old UHW-W left SEIU to build NUHW. Within the first 6 weeks, 100,000 members of the old UHW — the vast majority, signed petitions saying they wanted to leave SEIU and join NUHW. However, SEIU has filed scores of frivolous charges with the National labor Relations Board in an effort to stop these elections. SEIU is afraid to allow its members a free choice of unions.
There are some in SEIU local unions across the country who want to reform it. I wish them the best of luck. But Stern has centralized so much power into his own hands that I believe it will be very, very hard. The leaders and members of the old UHW-W tried to reform SEIU, and they all were summarily removed from their offices.
I was ecstatic when I heard about the formation of NUHW. I joined NUHW that day, and I’m glad I did. Join with tens of thousands of other workers by joining NUHW to win back basic democratic union rights, and to protect and advance good wages, benefits, and working conditions. NUHW has a solid core of volunteers who are seasoned and excellent union organizers and representatives, and NUHW is successfully challenging SEIU, whose budget and staff are many, many times larger. Yet, NUHW has won a majority of the few elections that have taken place. Building NUHW is a fight for our dignity and respect. It is also a struggle for the future of the labor movement. Do we want a labor movement that is run by the members and the leaders we elect and trust, or a despot like Andy Stern?
NUHW welcomes donations to help this work. Go on-line to: fundforuniondemocracy.org, or send a contribution to: The Fund for Union Democracy, 465 California St. (Ste. 1600), San Francisco, CA 94104. All donations will go toward building NUHW.
Before Paul Krehbiel went on staff for SEIU Local 660/721 he had been a leader of the anti-Vietnam war movement in Buffalo, a factory worker, a founder of a California organization working for single-payer health care, a staffer for the United Furniture Workers of America, and elected president of the United Union Representatives of Los Angeles. His memoir Shades of Justice, published in 2008,
can be ordered from Autumn Leaf Press.
Source: Talking Union