On Jan. 27, after a long, fierce battle over union strategy and organizational democracy between the national leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and one of its biggest and most successful local unions, SEIU President Andy Stern took control of the dissident 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers West (UHW-West).
But Stern’s trusteeship of UHW seems unlikely to end the conflict. Ousted UHW President Sal Rosselli announced the next day that nearly 100 UHW leaders had resigned from SEIU to form a new union – the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) – that will encourage UHW members to split from SEIU and join their new union.
Within five days, workers at 11 hospitals and 51 nursing homes, employing 9,000 UHW members, filed petitions to decertify SEIU as their union and recognize NUHW. And NUHW was preparing many more filings in the following days. In most cases, majorities of workers signed, and NUHW asked employers to recognize the new union.
The battle began roughly two years ago when UHW leaders criticized SEIU for negotiating an agreement with nursing home chains that restricted workers’ rights in exchange for limited employer neutrality in organizing campaigns. Relations worsened after SEIU attempted to remove 65,000 long-term care workers from UHW and put them in a new statewide local of nursing home and homecare workers. And UHW further criticized SEIU for accommodating employers to win new members, rather than empowering workers in aggressive, democratic locals.
“The core issue and root cause of [UHW officers’] repeated misconduct…has always been their disagreement over the creation of a single long-term health care local in California,” says SEIU Vice President Eliseo Medina, appointed as one of two UHW trustees.
SEIU says that its convention approved the strategy for jurisdictional consolidation across the country, and that UHW was selfishly thwarting that process. “In a democracy, you cannot decide that you will only comply with those decisions you agree with,” Medina says.
UHW leaders say they favored a statewide local uniting all healthcare workers, as SEIU has established in most parts of the country. Their strategy, they argue, has led to success both in organizing and negotiating higher standards for hospital and long-term care workers. The union’s growth, bargaining and political success is, Rosselli says, “because we have this ideology that there is no limit to empowering workers.”
Rosselli insists that members in each local should have the right to vote and decide if they want to merge with others – which is what the locals that formed UHW-West, as well as the big UHW on the East Coast, did.
In December, a large majority of UHW members boycotted and protested a SEIU-organized advisory vote that did not give them an option of continuing as UHW.
“We’re telling Congress [that] workers should have a free choice [to join a union],” Rosselli says, “but as SEIU members, we don’t have free choice.”
As the conflict developed, UHW leaders claim, SEIU staff and leaders attacked Rosselli and UHW. Last September, Stern appointed former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall to determine whether UHW should be placed in trusteeship. Stern charged UHW with setting up a separate nonprofit fund with union dues and a trust account with attorneys that could be used to fight a potential trusteeship, as well as charging improper use of an international union database of convention delegates.
Although UHW denied any impropriety (saying the fund was for political education) and returned the money to the local in advance of the trusteeship hearing at Stern’s request, Marshall found that UHW did “engage in financial malpractice.”
But in a rare twist in trusteeship hearings, Marshall recommended against imposing a trusteeship on those grounds.
Rather, he advocated for it only if the local did not agree on surrendering its long-term care members.
UHW agreed to most of the conditions set by SEIU’s executive board, but counter-proposed on the crucial jurisdictional issue that UHW long-term care members should be able to vote on whether to join the new consolidated local. They also sought protection of other rights for UHW and its members, mediation of differences, and a long-term plan for creating a statewide local of all healthcare workers.
But SEIU chose to trustee the local, citing Marshall’s findings on financial wrongdoing (even though he said those were not grounds for trusteeship). SEIU also cited UHW leaders for failing to cooperate on transferring jurisdiction over long-term care workers, and for “fostering or failing to counteract efforts to decertify bargaining units.”
SEIU may have recognized Trusteeship would be difficult. Bill Ragen, one of the trustees, wrote last year in an email to other SEIU officers: “It’s like Iraq, easy to get in and then a slog.”
Yet the international union appears to have seriously underestimated the battle and the depth of anger at its policies. At the same time, it is engaged in several fights with the California Nurses Association, which could informally ally with the new NUHW.
The escalating conflict leads many in the labor movement to worry about disastrous consequences for workers in California, for SEIU and for the labor movement.
“The main beneficiaries of this conflict are anti-union employers and politicians who have geared up to use this conflict against our efforts to pass legislation to help workers, especially the Employee Free Choice Act,” wrote Marshall, referring to legislation that would help workers form and join unions.
And former SEIU and International Union of Foodworkers official Paul Garver calls the trusteeship “at best a catastrophic blunder by the leadership of a union I personally spent many years helping to build.”
The dispute involves substantive strategic differences, mixed with an organizational struggle for power. But SEIU’s resort to trusteeship as a way of resolving differences is likely to bring far more pain than gain to SEIU’s members and the rest of organized labor.
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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.