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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:

  • That just as a rank and file committee was entering negotiations to represent 16,000 Catholic Healthcare employees Stern appointed his own consultant to take over.
  • That Stern's appointees bargained in secret with the California Nursing Home Alliance, and barred representatives of Rosselli's UHW even though it represented 74% of the employees.
  • That Stern and other international officers manipulated per capita voting procedures in elections of officers of the California State Council.
  • That Stern removed a UHW vice president from the Homecare Workers executive board for raising questions about allocation of union funds.
  • That Stern manipulated voting procedures in bargaining with Tenet Healthcare "to thwart the will of the members and achieve your desired outcome."

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.

More resources on Change to Win and SEIU:
See Benson's Union Democracy Blog for several articles
Stern Employees International Union
Reflections on the SEIU Convention in Puerto Rico
Andy Stern is slipping off the pedestal
SEIU needs a public review board
On the eve of the SEIU Convention
Opposition wins most delegates from big SEIU local
Fight in Ohio between SEIU and California Nurses revives old issue: When employers welcome unions at the NLRB
On "democratic" centralism: Stern's illusion and democracy's nightmare
Healthcare leader raps Stern; quits SEIU board
SEIU rearranges 600,000 into mega locals
Debate on Union Democracy and Change to Win
If you can't woo 'em, sue 'em! An ingenious twist in punishing dissent in the SEIU
SEIU's Unite to Win blog reviewed.
Local 509 asks questions about democracy in the SEIU
New Unity Partnership:Sweeney Critics would bureaucratize to organize.
Service Employees: Mass. merger in Local 888.
Benson's Union Democracy blog.
Student Labor Activists support union democracy.
Articles on the Labor Notes site on NUP from various sources.
See UDR articles on the Carpenters (UBCJA) for case studies in merger and bureaucratization.
Several articles on the New Unity Partnership are available on the BC Carpenters website.
Find articles on the consolidation of power in the Carpenters union on the main UDR page.
An exchange on union democracy between Herman Benson and Steve Fraser, on the website (click on Fraser's name for a link to his article)
Links to rank-and-file websites in the NUP unions: Carpenters, Hotel and Restaurant Employees, Laborers, Needle Trades (UNITE), Service Employees (building services, public employees).


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