The widely anticipated break has come to pass: The United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) has severed its ties to the Service Employees International Union. And as SEIU officials at Washington, D.C. headquarters refuse to accept the decision by the 150,000-member California affiliate, the prospect of prolonged labor strife, possibly even violent, has become real. Led by its longtime president, Sal Rosselli, the Oakland-based UHW announced on Wednesday, January 28 its formal secession from the parent organization and its intention to form a new union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers. More than 100 local officers and board members approved the action. The move occurred only one day after SEIU President Andrew Stern (in photo) had replaced its leadership, alleging misuse of union funds for political purposes and refusal to go along with a reorganization plan.
Union Corruption Update has provided steady coverage of the nearly two-year feud between Rosselli and Stern. Rosselli believes that President Stern, in his haste to boost membership, has shown a dangerous willingness to cut sweetheart deals with anti-union employers and supersede local decision-making. Stern counters that Rosselli doesn’t understand the necessity of institution-building at a time when the ranks of many unions are thinning. One thing is for sure: Rosselli’s people are willing to stick this one out. On the day of the announcement, dozens of UHW-West officials barricaded themselves inside several buildings and dared the SEIU to remove them. “If you don’t have a court order, you’re not getting in,” shouted UHW member Angela Glasper at two approaching men, who then turned back.
Stern had commissioned former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall to conduct an inquiry into the necessity of taking over the local. The report, recently released, concluded that while suspicions of the use of about $3 million in union funds for an anti-Stern campaign did not warrant a takeover, the local’s refusal to agree to a plan to transfer 65,000 members into a new chapter did. Formally, the Service Employees union has taken over the California affiliate, having booted Rosselli and 17 other elected officers and put two trustees in charge of daily operations. The breakaway union has a reorganization plan of its own. Leaders have approached the California Nurses Association, also a foe of Stern, in hopes of creating a merger.
The international union thinks the conflict is manageable. “Having this kind of fight obviously doesn’t help,” said Eliseo Medina, one of the trustees. “But we’re a big organization and can do more than one thing at a time.” The other trustee, SEIU Executive Vice President Dave Regan, dismisses the chances of Rosselli’s startup union succeeding. “The so-called new union doesn’t have any members; it doesn’t have a program; it doesn’t have anything,” he said. University of California at Berkeley labor professor Harley Shaiken thinks the SEIU is mistaken if it believes it has the situation fully under control. “You’ve got tough warfare on the horizon for these two units and distractions for the (labor) movement in general,” remarked Shaiken. That might be another way of saying that the battle could wind up in the streets if it isn’t resolved in court. (Washington Post, 1/29/09; Los Angeles Times, 2/2/09).