Rift between SEIU International Union and California Affiliate Widens

The Service Employees International Union is growing at a time when most other unions are not. It now has 1.9 million dues-paying members, a near doubling from early 1996 when current President Andrew Stern took over the helm. Things, in other words, have worked out according to plan. Stern’s grow-or-die gospel is central to the way his union organizes and negotiates. It’s also the main reason for the eventual split that occurred between him and his predecessor, John Sweeney, who ascended to the AFL-CIO leadership. That split became formalized in the summer of 2005, when the SEIU and a half-dozen other AFL-CIO affiliates formed their own federation, Change to Win. But Stern has opponents within his own union, too, most of all in the form of Sal Rosselli, head of a 140,000-member, Oakland, Calif.-based affiliate, United Healthcare Workers-West. Union Corruption Update reported last year that Rosselli was highly dissatisfied with the way SEIU leaders from Washington, D.C. headquarters apparently strong-armed into being a substandard contract between UHW-West and California nursing home operators. Relations since have deteriorated further.      


Earlier this month, Rosselli resigned from his membership on the SEIU’s executive committee, and in dramatic fashion. In a biting letter to President Stern, he wrote:


Over the past two years, a stark difference has evolved between SEIU’s projected image and its real-world practices. An overly zealous focus on growth – growth at any cost – apparently has eclipsed SEIU’s commitment to its members. It is said democracy dies in darkness. It is with deep disappointment and great concern that I have watched dark shadows fall upon SEIU, diminishing our hopes for revitalizing the labor movement.


Rosselli reiterated his displeasure on the air to Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, co-hosts of the progressive-Left radio/TV daily news show, “Democracy Now!” The segment also featured a Stern loyalist, Dave Regan, president of SEIU District 1199, which represents health care workers in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. Rosselli explained his resignation this way:  


I resigned because a series of events that happened the last several weeks, culminating two and a half years of struggle inside the SEIU, a fundamental difference in ideology and direction. And the easiest way I can describe it is bottom-up versus top-down, empowering workers to be in control of their lives, in control of their relationship with their employer versus centralizing control and power among a few in Washington, D.C.


He emphasized what Union Corruption Update had publicized, and what SF Weekly before that had revealed, backed by strong evidence: a secret deal between the SEIU leadership and California nursing home employers that resulted in a contract with poor wages and benefits, and a radically restricted right to renegotiate any terms. “We, constructively, internally, blew a whistle on this and criticized these agreements,” said Rosselli.


Dave Regan was loaded for bear. Responding to co-host Goodman’s call for clarification, he offered these choice words:


I think what Sal has done and what he is doing is shameful, unprincipled and dishonest. And Sal knows it…You know, SEIU absolutely makes decisions in a legitimate, principled and democratic way. Sal has been a key leader and involved in every major leadership discussion in the union for twelve years…We’re having an internal political fight in SEIU. There’s no question about that. Sal is leading that fight. But the fact remains SEIU is organizing more workers in America than any other union. We are improving the lives of more workers through collective bargaining than any other union in America. We’re not perfect. We don’t claim to be. We struggle every day to get better. And the tragedy of this is Sal Rosselli, because of his personal agenda, is willing to diminish and attack and ultimately, apparently, try to destroy lots of good work that’s done by hundreds of thousands and millions of people. I’m a trade unionist. I thought Sal Rosselli was a trade unionist. This is the absolute most despicable kind of behavior…Sal is willing, through his actions, on this program, in California and other places, to weaken the strength of members of my local union in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.


He added that what irks Rosselli is a difference of opinion within the union, and the fact that his didn’t prevail.

The rift is likely to come to a head at the Service Employees’ convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico during May 30-June 4. Neither side gives any indication of yielding. United Healthcare Workers-West may well wind up disaffiliating. But either way, a primary root problem will remain. And that problem is that the SEIU as a whole and UHW-West in particular have heavily recruited from first- and second-generation Hispanic immigrants with low levels of education, English-language fluency, and ability (and often willingness) to assimilate into the American mainstream. Those are traits that severely limit worker bargaining power, which is a major reason why the SEIU and the nursing home operators seem to get along so well. Each has an interest in keeping immigration levels high. The employers get to save a bundle on labor costs, while the union gets a bumper crop of new members. Unfortunately, this arrangement comes at the expense of California taxpayers, who find they must subsidize the MediCal state insurance program at ever higher levels. Mass immigration from the Third World is the kind of third-rail issue that neither labor, management nor Leftie media outlets like “Democracy Now!” even permit themselves to discuss, much less resolve. (theunionnews.blogspot.com, 2/17/08).