California Local and SEIU Battle; Stern Seeks Trusteeship

Andrew SternWhat began as a war of words is evolving into a war of actions. And by all appearances, the rift between the Service Employees International Union and a major California health care affiliate is bound to escalate further. On Wednesday, January 21, Dave Regan, a top SEIU official, flew out to Oakland on a mission from Washington, D.C. headquarters: Remove Sal Rosselli from the helm of United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), a local now claiming some 150,000 members. The international union is alleging that Rosselli, a bitter critic of SEIU President Andrew Stern, has engaged in financial malpractice. Rosselli, for his part, denies all wrongdoing. Maybe it’s not the kind of help he wants, but his loyalists now are displaying a willingness to storm the barricades.


Rosselli over the past couple years has been publicly crossing swords with Stern. He’s denounced him for consolidating power out of his Washington offices and obsessing over boosting union membership at the expense of negotiating sound contracts. Stern hasn’t spoken much in response, but he’s made clear through his actions that he wants to replace Rosselli and impose an interim trusteeship on the UHW. Regan, a Stern loyalist, heads SEIU District 1199, which represents health care workers in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. His trip to California was prompted by reports the previous day of an invasion and burglary of a union office in the East Bay Area community of Alameda. Up to as many as 50 UHW members allegedly forced their way into the Service Employees office, and with less than friendly intentions. An SEIU spokeswoman said that the mob – or dissidents, depending on one’s viewpoint – “harassed and assaulted the staff, stole materials and damaged office equipment.” What’s more, a similar incident occurred the next day at the SEIU’s Los Angeles office.     


What was the purpose of these take-no-prisoners actions? According to office employees, it was to steal documents relating to the SEIU’s effort to remove Rosselli. A few months ago, Andrew Stern hired Carter-era Labor Secretary Ray Marshall to serve as outside hearing officer in order to determine whether to impose a trusteeship on the local. Back in August, SEIU headquarters issued a statement accusing the UHW of engaging in “a pattern of financial malpractice and fraud.” Apparently, Rosselli had directed certain people to divert $3 million from local coffers to bankroll an anti-Stern campaign. Local activists presumably stormed the SEIU offices in an effort to eliminate incriminating evidence. The international union’s statement amplified a lawsuit it filed in Los Angeles federal court in April.


Rosselli downplayed the Alameda incident. “There was no forced break-in,” he said. “It’s a union office that our members are members of. There was no damage, to my knowledge. I don’t know about documents that were taken.” But it’s difficult to dispute the accusations. Alameda local police confirmed a report filed the next day stating that “40 or 50” United Healthcare Workers-West workers went to the SEIU building and that “there was some pushing and shoving.” The UHW already has gone the legal route. Union Corruption Update a few months ago reported that 28 elected local officers filed a complaint in federal court this past September accusing SEIU leaders of suppressing their rights.


A trusteeship may come any day now. The last thing Stern and other Service Employees officials want is Rosselli’s local formally disaffiliating from the international union and its Stern-led federation, Change to Win, headed by SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger. With 150,000 members, the UHW is a major component of the larger Service Employees union, now with 2 million or more members. The union’s executive board is going on the contents of the Marshall report. “We’re acting on Ray Marshall’s recommendation. We’re not acting on whether I think [trusteeship] is right or wrong,” remarked Stern.

In a real sense, the internal SEIU battle is a replay of the 2005 schism between Andrew Stern and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney that led to the formation of Change to Win. Sweeney, the more traditional labor leader (and himself former SEIU head), argued that lobbying, research and legislation are prerequisites for expanding membership. Stern argued for the reverse: that radically increasing membership is necessary for putting union-friendly laws and policies in place, even if that means temporarily cultivating close relations with anti-union employers. The difference in strategy might seem arcane to outsiders. But it makes a big difference to Sal Rosselli and Andy Stern. (Wall Street Journal, 1/22/09; other sources).