What happens when 91 percent of eligible Service Employees International Union members refuse to vote, as the two options given to them exclude the option many of them say they want? Just ask the international executive board of the SEIU. After the embarrassing nine percent vote, the SEIU board voted January 9 to merge three locals and create a single union of long-term home care and nursing home workers statewide.
The locals to be merged into the new union of 240,000 workers are Local 521 in San Jose; Local 6434 in Los Angeles; and United Healthcare Workers-West in Oakland, whose leadership has become the target of SEIU International President Andy Stern by criticizing his corporatist strategy of trading workers’ rights and powers for an easy road to membership growth.
The SEIU claims that the new union of a quarter-million long-term care workers would be better able to build unity and resist spending cuts due to California’s growing budget deficit, a consequence of the collapsing real estate market. Among the services to be cut back by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal is the In-Home Supportive Services program, which serves 400,000 infirm and low-income Californians.
“Under the reorganization, California long term care workers will be among the most powerful political and economic forces in the state — positioned to fight draconian budget and wage cuts and to press for meaningful long term budget solutions in Sacramento,” said Michelle Ringuette of the SEIU in a press statement.
The UHW, with 65,000 members who labor in long-term care, opposes the SEIU’s bid for consolidation. The UHW says that it has a stronger track record than other health care locals and that, if the point were really to improve workers’ conditions, the thing to do is for workers to join the UHW, not for the SEIU to abolish it. On January 9, UHW President Sal Rosselli and 71 of the union’s elected officers sent a letter to Stern, requesting permission for members to vote on disaffiliating from the SEIU.
This UHW letter notes that the SEIU constitution provides a procedure for a disaffiliation vote within 60 days. So why not hold the vote? At the same time, however, the constitution forbids officers from supporting this ballot. According to the UHW, Stern requested the inclusion of this language into the constitution last year: “no officer of a local union . . . shall support or assist any efforts to dissolve, secede or disaffiliate from the International Union.” Those who violate this language are subject to disciplinary action.
Recent coverage of the SEIU vs. UHW conflict in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times has omitted this free speech issue. That omission influences the view of both unions in the court of public opinion.
Meanwhile, the UHW members’ vote to disaffiliate from the SEIU may become a moot point. Consider this. “National SEIU officials are expected to launch a hostile takeover of UHW” in a matter of days, according to a January 18 press release from Sadie Crabtree of the UHW. It looks like they are already making the first move for that.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento.