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From the March/April 2008 issue of Union Democracy Review #172
Healthcare leader raps Stern; quits SEIU board
The president of the 140,000 United Healthcare Workers in California resigned from the executive committee of the Service Employees International Union in February. Sal Rosselli, in announcing his move in a stinging letter to Andy Stern, SEIU international president, denounced "the undemocratic practices we in the UHW have experienced firsthand." Rosselli charged, too, that "An overly zealous focus on growth, growth at any cost, apparently has eclipsed SEIU's commitment to its members."
For 12 years, Rosselli noted, he and Stern had "worked together constructively." Four years ago, Rosselli had been selected by Stern for membership on the union's ruling executive committee. But since then, relations between the two have unraveled.
In January last year, Rosselli criticized as "company unionism" a deal negotiated by Stern with California nursing homes. In January this year, Rosselli refused to participate in the election of officers of the 650,000-member SEIU California State Council, or to run for reelection as its president, accusing Stern of rigging the process to guarantee the success of his own handpicked choices. Now, as the SEIU convention looms in May, Rosselli's resignation ratchets the conflict up several notches.
In his letter, Rosselli lists some of the "undemocratic practices we in UHW have experienced firsthand," charges which included the following:
In a reply to Rosselli for the executive board, three of its members ignore his charge that democratic rights are eroding in the union. They rest their reply on ten years of union history. It is important, they insist, to "remember four historic changes cin our union since 1996." The first: Local union leaders "have been called upon to act as the collective national union leadership." The second: Emphasis on organizing the unorganized. The third: The need to restructure the union "to match" the power of regional, national, and global employers. The fourth: In that restructuring, to "unite" members by merging locals in the same industry.
When that program was first proclaimed, it was greeted in a glow of enthusiasm. Everyone in the union fell in line, especially social-justice unionists, expecting a momentous advance toward a new and vibrant unionism. Newspapers and magazines, labor and not so labor, featured Andy Stern as the bold, innovator of a fresh new labor movement: The NY Times and the Wall Street Journal among them.
But the bloom is fading. After ten years of experience, discontent became evident as the implications of the Stern approach became clearer. The fear is that he is creating an authoritarian union strictly controlled by a centralized, tightly controlled officialdom. Rosselli's resignation is the most dramatic evidence of that fear; but it is not the first sign. Around the country, local activists have begun to express misgivings about the stifling mood settling over the union.
The three who wrote for the executive committee would declare all discussion closed. They admonish Rosselli, "Just as we expect members of our local unions to unite behind a common strategy after there has been a full debate and a majority has reached a democratic decision, we as leaders must do the same." Apparently, the SEIU would freeze union life into a newly resurrected version of rigid 'democratic' centralism, a system under which democracy dissolves into authoritarianism. But Rosselli's supporters ask: What full debate? What majority?
In the touted referendum on SEIU reorganization, according to reports, only about 2% of the membership actually voted. In 'democratic' centralism at work, Stern ordered all union officers and staff, local and international to support the plan and forbade the use of any union resources or staff to block it. Six rank and file leaders of Rosselli's UHW write, "During that reorganization, 95% of our UHW members were barred by the rules from voting." At the time, few were alerted to the disastrous effects, or intentions, of the plan on union democracy. In any event, now they know and now the SEIU international convention is coming in May this year. If now is not the time to encourage discussion, when is? By resigning from the SEIU executive committee, Rosselli throws off the restraints of SEIU centralism and frees himself as a leader to speak his mind.
SEIU leaders justify their methods by the need to confront employers' power with union power. Employers today, they write Rosselli, "are regional, national, or global in scope. We all have recognized that to match their strength we too have to be united on a larger scale." But must members' rights be curbed? And must the labor movement be bureaucratized in order to confront employers' power?
History proves otherwise. In its battle to organize mass production, the CIO faced a richer, more powerful, more centralized, more anti-labor adversary than the SEIU will ever encounter. It reorganized a new labor movement on militant industrial lines. Neither that reorganization nor that power of anti-labor conglomerates prevented the CIO from infusing its new labor movement with a reinvigorated union democracy. Apologists for the SEIU would turn that experience upside down. They hold out the promise of organizing as a pretext for disparaging union democracy.
resources on Change to Win and SEIU:
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