Members of Large California Health Care Local Sue SEIU, Stern

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The insurrection by a major California affiliate of the Service Employees International Union against Washington, D.C. headquarters is getting closer by the month to an all-out confrontation.  The dissenting faction, known as United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) and led by Sal Rosselli, for the last couple years has been openly critical of international President Andrew Stern and his top lieutenants for focusing on membership expansion at the expense of quality contracts.  On September 17, nearly 30 members of the Oakland, Calif.-based local took the battle to a new level, filing a complaint in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California that accuses SEIU leaders of suppressing their rights.  The action, a retort to a failed action this spring by the parent union, seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.   

 

United Healthcare Workers-West, which represents hospital, long-term care and home-care workers, came about in January 2005 through a merger of SEIU Local 250 in Northern California and SEIU Local 399 in Southern California.  Now with roughly 150,000 active members, the union is a major reason why the SEIU now claims a rank and file of 2 million, more than double the figure of a dozen years ago.  Yet its collective-bargaining ability appears to have taken a few steps backward.  Rosselli argues that this is because SEIU President Andrew Stern and Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger have ruthlessly consolidated their power and brokered secret deals over the objections of local leaders.  The end result is that UHW has more members, but lesser contracts.  Agreements with such employers as Aramark and The Compass Group, they say, lock workers into low wages, poor benefits, and a lack of renegotiation rights.  Now reinforcements have arrived.

 

Fully 28 UHW-West members, all elected officers of the union, accuse Stern and his allies of unjustly curtailing free speech and participation rights spelled out under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act.    

 

Over the past eight months, SEIU President Andrew Stern has engaged in a relentless and pervasive campaign that has been intended to, and has in fact, intimidated and chilled dissent and criticism of his policies, decisions and actions by SEIU members nationwide.  Beginning in early 2008, Stern has employed all of the SEIU’s personnel and resources in an unprecedented campaign to target, retaliate, discredit, and hobble his principal critic, United Healthcare Workers-West, SEIU (“UHW”), its members and leadership.  Stern carpet-bombed the entire SEIU leadership, nationwide, with his negative publicity, attacks and threats of retaliation aimed at UHW, over the months that followed, thereby transmitting an unmistakable message to the entire SEIU leadership and membership:  “cross me, and you, too, will suffer similar reprisals,” up to and including, the ultimate form of punishment – imposition of trusteeship wherein Stern assumes autocratic control over a dissident subordinate entity, its members, property and assets, and terminates its democratically elected leaders.

 

That’s some strong language even by union standards.  But the plaintiffs are confident they have the goods to back it up.  And they’re angry as hell.  One plaintiff, Michael Torres, a respiratory therapist at USC Hospital in Los Angeles, explained it this way:  “It’s unbelievable that Andy Stern and Anna Burger would go to these extremes to weaken our union and silence SEIU members.  These attacks are worse than what we’ve seen from even our worst anti-union employer.”      

 

Stern and his people haven’t spoken all that much, preferring to focus on action.  They’ve made clear they intend to impose a trusteeship on Rosselli’s union.  Toward that end, Stern has hired former Secretary of Labor (under President Carter) Ray Marshall to serve as an outside hearing officer during the trusteeship process.  SEIU issued a statement late in August indicating “significant evidence that (UHW’s leadership) engaged in a pattern of financial malpractice and fraud” allegedly involving millions of dollars in union funds.  “We will not tolerate any action by any leader that harms the interests of our membership,” Stern said at the time.  It’s worth noting that these accusations are similar to those dismissed by U.S. District Judge John Walter without a hearing this past July.  The SEIU had filed suit on April 29 in Los Angeles federal court, accusing Rosselli and others of illegally diverting money from an education fund under their control to their own use.  This battle could last several years – if anyone is still standing.  (San Francisco Business Times, 9/12/08; United Healthcare Workers-West, 9/18/08; Siegel & LeWitter, Oakland, Calif., Case No. C08-04368; other sources).