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SEIU’s Civil War (cont’d)

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Legitimizing the trusteeship

Shortly thereafter, events changed rapidly. First, an internal email was released that demonstrated that the SEIU leadership had misled outsiders. The email confirmed that discussions were underway to trustee or “implode” the local. Secondly, stories came out in the media concerning the leadership of SEIU Local 6434, the California state-wide long-term care workers local into which the SEIU leadership proposed placing UHW members. Tyrone Freeman, head of the local, had for years been a very close ally and protégé of Stern. The allegations against the leadership of the local for corruption became so intense that SEIU trusteed the local, thereby removing Freeman.

SEIU leadership then moved into blitzkrieg mode and announced hearings against the UHW leadership, a precipitous action quite at variance with earlier assurances that SEIU leadership had no intention to trustee the United Healthcare West local.

SEIU chose former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall as the hearing officer for a set of lengthy hearings in the late summer and early fall of 2008. These focused on allegations of financial improprieties on the part of UHW leadership involving the establishment of a multi-million dollar fund that the local seemed ready to use to fight the looming SEIU trusteeship. The hearings had the feel of a big time lawsuit with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to pay dueling teams of outside legal counsel and expert witnesses.

When Marshall finally delivered his 105-page report in early January 2009, he agreed that many of the charges put forward by the SEIU leadership against the UHW officers were valid, i.e., that the big California local did attempt to move several million dollars to a non-profit educational fund that was in reality a resource designed to fight the SEIU should a trusteeship be imposed. Marshall also ruled that the trusteeship threat was not a “retaliation” against UHW’s decision to speak out against what many of its members considered undemocratic SEIU policies.

But Marshall made none of this the basis for a trusteeship, arguing instead that the “the underlying issue is a conflict over jurisdiction” involving the home healthcare workers. In effect, Marshall sided with UHW when it argued that the charges and countercharges involving financial malpractice were really “symptoms of the fundamental relationship between the International and the UHW.” Marshall called for a peaceful resolution of this conflict, based on a view shared by many unionists that “the main beneficiaries of this conflict are anti-union employers and politicians.”

But Marshall’s report was not that of a disinterested judge. The former labor secretary sided with UHW in recommending that the SEIU International board not establish a trusteeship on the basis of the specific issues (largely those involving finances) pressed by the SEIU during the lengthy hearings. But in what many observers saw as a tacked-on, last minute concession to Andrew Stern, Marshall amended his report (the typeface is actually different) to call for trusteeship if the UHW refused to abide by the SEIU’s decision to force UHW to relinquish jurisdiction over 65,000 long-term care workers and put them in a single state-wide unit.

UHW made an 11th hour compromise offer to the effect that should the long-term care workers vote to leave UHW, the California local would abide by their wishes. But the senior leadership at SEIU was not looking for a way out of the crisis. They ignored the offer and imposed a trusteeship at midnight on January 27, not a minute later than legally possible.

First moments of a new day?

In the history of the U.S. labor movement, as well as that of the SEIU, imposition of trusteeships normally encounter some discontent, but resistance is uneven and generally short-lived. A 1959 law, Landrum-Griffin, enacted when Teamster corruption was in the headlines, is designed to give national union officers overwhelming power to reorganize a local, install new officers, and run its affairs. Even when a trusteeship has been imposed in an autocratic fashion, most union reformers believe the wise course of action is to “take” it, organize an opposition, and then fight to win a new election in a few years.

The leadership of UHW, however, backed by a broad stratum of key activists, has chosen a more radical, confrontational, and democratic path. In a series of meetings in the spring of 2009, the old UHW transformed itself into an entirely new trade union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers. It would challenge SEIU for the allegiance of tens of thousands of hospital, nursing home, and healthcare workers in its old jurisdiction and quite possibly in new ones as well. This was and remains a bold effort, in which virtually all legal, organizational and economic resources are monopolized by the SEIU.

But the NUHW has a powerful resource of its own: the determined support of thousands of workers in some of the best organized and most militant workplaces in the entire healthcare sector. Unlike so many SEIU locals, the old UHW was led by a stratum of activists that reached deep into the ranks of the workforce. Doctors, nurses, technicians, and healthcare aids at Kaiser Permanente have long been in the vanguard of unionism, in the Bay Area and throughout the hospital sector. (Indeed, when SEIU put the old Kaiser local, Local 250, into trusteeship in the 1980s, workers there defeated the leadership put forward by the national SEIU and elected Rosselli as local union president once the trusteeship was lifted.)

It is unclear that SEIU’s top leadership truly anticipated the extent and scope of the resistance that emerged in UHW following the trusteeship. They probably did not imagine that this resistance would take the form of the establishment of an independent union that positioned itself as the legitimate successor to UHW. In either case, shortly after the beginning of the trusteeship, the NUHW went about building a resistance movement to the trusteeship. The core founding principles included both the notion of (1) one union for one industry (in this case, a healthcare union for all healthcare workers), and (2) an institutionalized set of participatory, democratic governance practices which devolved power from the staff to the working members.

What has been particularly striking about the NUHW effort is the manner in which its influence has spread within the former UHW jurisdiction. Within weeks, over 50,000 members signed decertification petitions indicating their desire to leave the trusteed UHW and enter into the new NUHW. And in the first major contest between SEIU and the NUHW, which revolved around homecare workers in Fresno, Calif., SEIU won what can only be described as a pyrrhic victory.

In that case, SEIU reportedly spent about $10 million dollars, including the deployment of nearly one thousand staff people, and then won the decertification election by a margin of less than two hundred votes. The NUHW has challenged the result, citing numerous irregularities. Irrespective of the final outcome, the fact remains that in a region and among workers that had not been a strategic base for NUHW, they nevertheless forced SEIU to spend an immense sum of money, and nearly won! Union activists expended all this time and money on a civil war that never should have happened in the first place, rather than on actions desperately needed to generate new growth or advance the political mobilizations necessary to fulfill the promise of the Obama victory just months before.

The underdog’s reclamation

Assessing what to make of NUHW and its potential is, at this time, a matter for speculation. Despite having pitifully few resources, the new union is capable of winning. In the NUHW’s key jurisdictions, particularly Kaiser Permanente, it is quite conceivable that they will overwhelm the SEIU’s imported and maladroit leadership.

This is true for at least three reasons. One, the former UHW has a very capable steward’s system and member involvement at Kaiser. Two, the trusteeship is an affront to thousands of staunch unionists and their allies in California where NUHW has won the backing of some prominent liberal politicians and many key unions, including San Francisco’s big hotel local.

Three, many among the SEIU staff, imported to California or back in the East and Midwest, are demoralized and do not see NUHW as a true enemy. Thus, if the NUHW can win just a few NLRB certification elections and restart the dues flow, then it will have sufficient resources to hire key staff, “organize” among a wider group of workers, and prevail in California over the still alien group of leaders imported into the state by SEIU. Recent NUHW victories at Los Alamitos Medical Center in Southern California and at an assisted living facility in the Portola Valley indicate that this strategy may be working. There is no reason, short of resources, that NUHW cannot prevail, irrespective of whether they choose to return to a reformed SEIU.

The larger significance of NUHW, however, can be found in possibilities. At this moment, it would be accurate to describe the NUHW effort as a process of reclamation. In other words, the establishment of NUHW is a form of resistance to an unjustified trusteeship. There is an attempt by the sacked leadership of UHW to rebuild the union and to reclaim what was ‘occupied’ by the International. This point cannot be overemphasized: It illustrates why the fight between NUHW and SEIU is not a question of an old-fashioned “raid” but instead a process which seeks to reestablish an ongoing, democratic, and highly successful trade union whose health and outlook is essential to any revitalization of trade unionism, on both a state and national basis.

In the most common circumstances of raiding, an existing union will target the workers represented by another union and seek to steal them away. (In South Africa, this is called “poaching,” probably a more accurate term.) In the AFL-CIO this is supposedly restricted by Article 20 of the AFL-CIO Constitution. For those unions not in the AFL-CIO, however, there are no such restrictions. Thus, it is not uncommon for certain unions to grow precisely by raiding bargaining units of already represented workers.

NUHW bears no resemblance to the traditional raider. In fact, one could argue that their activities do not represent a ‘raid’ at all, but instead are more akin to an insurrection. Specifically, the activities of NUHW are aimed at regaining representation over units of the old UHW that are controlled by the trustees. There is no indication that NUHW has its eyes on any other part of SEIU. What it may be considering, however, is a broader, national effort to develop and implement the idea that the former UHW leadership had embraced some time ago when it sought the construction of a truly national union of healthcare workers across all the usual employer and occupational boundaries.

But the first question is whether the reclamation effort will succeed and the trusteeship be defeated. The next question is whether reclamation can evolve into union transformation.

And what of SEIU?

The NUHW insurgency has created a crisis within SEIU. While the leaderships of most SEIU locals have failed to stand against the trusteeship–and in some cases actively collaborated with it–there are varying opinions at the staff and local level. A number of resignations from the International staff, the SEIU’s California State Council, and some locals have taken place, revealing clear disaffection with current policies. In other cases, staff people who were deployed merely went through the motions rather than throw themselves into an active and energetic re-organizing effort.

Even if it does defeat NUHW, it is unlikely that SEIU will regain the stature that it once had or resolve the internal conflicts that have risen in recent years. The problem for the SEIU, as well as for many of the other unions in the service sector, is that they are essentially staff-drive entities, legal/administrative constructs that are organizational hybrids. They stand halfway between fundraising and propaganda vehicles like and the self-organized auto workers who once made institutions like UAW Local 600, representing tens of thousands at Ford’s River Rouge complex, a watchword for working-class militancy and union democracy.

This tension is apparent in all the service sector unions, where an influx of college-educated activists has revitalized organizing, research, and political mobilization, but where the conditions for genuine internal democracy, i.e., locals that really are local, an elected leadership with actual bargaining power, and the development of an organizing cadre that is responsive to the membership rather than a distant organizing director, remains elusive.

Although some SEIU locals have had histories of varying degrees of internal democracy and transformational politics, the SEIU has looked askance at such localist examples of democratic participation–not because the leadership of SEIU is hostile to mobilization or democracy in any formal ideological sense, but because it has had other agendas that all too often seemed to conflict with a decentralized and democratic structure. Efforts to democratize and transform the union controlled and led by rank and file members have been largely absent. This absence represents a major obstacle for a full renovation of SEIU.

All this has engendered something of a leadership cult within SEIU, a tendency present even prior to Stern’s assumption of leadership in 1996. Thus, whether it is Stern, Burger, or a local union president, it is the progressive leader that puts forward a militant and imaginative program and calls for the members to embrace it. Such a scenario guarantees a degree of hero/heroine-worship as well as a tendency to suppress dissent in the name of union solidarity. If truth rests with only one person, how can dissenters be anything other than traitors?

An alternative scenario is that NUHW becomes a catalyst for more widespread change within SEIU. There are reasons to believe that this is quite possible. The actual cost of the SEIU civil war may, at some point, quite literally break the bank and force a realignment of priorities. Local union leaders who have otherwise been unswerving in their loyalty to SEIU leadership may have to examine the checkbook and reconsider their position.

Less cynically, the issues that are at stake in the NUHW insurgency may indeed spread. While the SEIU leadership seems to be going out of their way to continue to demonize NUHW, it is far from clear that this assault is having much impact. What does seem to be the case is that many local leaders and staff activists are keeping their heads down and trying desperately to stay uninvolved in the civil war.

Yet the ideas contained in the NUHW insurgency are contagious. It is not just a question of union democracy, but of how labor is to organize itself in order to confront and defeat major employers and push social policy in a more progressive direction. In this conflict, a structure of democratic participation is not just a moral imperative, but an organizational weapon that sustains struggle and insures that the union remains part of a larger movement for social justice.

NUHW, therefore, offers a challenge not only to SEIU but to the basic question of what constitutes a union in the 21st-century, when the power of employers is aimed at eliminating any sense of worker control and empowerment. One hopes that humility and class consciousness will lead SEIU leaders to understand that their trusteeship of UHW, their current war against NUHW and the bargains they seek to strike with some corporate entities do little but diminish the concept of unionism in the eyes of workers and their allies at a time when we desperately need a social justice movement and social justice unionism.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Executive Editor of, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice.

Nelson Lichtenstein teaches history at University of California Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy. He is the author, most recently, of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, a portion of which was adapted for this feature.

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