Employee Free Choice at Work: Checking Out of Stern’s Hotel California

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) wants its members to believe that their union is just like the alluring but ultimately nightmarish hostelry immortalized by The Eagles.   It’s a place of permanent imprisonment only “programmed to receive” workers and their dues money, not let either go elsewhere when the rhetoric of “progressive unionism” wears thin and the rank-and-file becomes restive.  According to proprietor Andy Stern, once you’ve checked into SEIU, you can never leave.

Tens of thousands of Stern’s disgruntled “guests,” who work in west coast health care facilities, are about to disprove this claim.  Their bags are packed and they’re headed out the door of Stern’s “Hotel California,” as soon as federal (or local) labor law permits.  After a bruising internal battle — in which an estimated ten million dollars of their own money was used by Stern to undermine and attack them — rank-and-filers in Oakland-based United Healthcare Workers (UHW) have formed a new union of their own.  Launched on January 28, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) is seeking to retain bargaining rights long held by UHW, until Stern placed it under trusteeship the day before.

Workers made a collective decision to flee SEIU after the long-threatened take-over of its third-largest affiliate.  As previously reported in CounterPunch, Stern began brandishing this club last March.  When UHW had the audacity to question SEIU’s management-friendly approach to health care organizing, bargaining, and politics, the SEIU president launched a multi-faceted counter-insurgency campaign.  Now, several hundred out-of-state SEIU staffers have been dispatched to California as a full-time occupation force.  At huge expense to the union treasury, their mission is to replace 100 elected UHW leaders, purge UHW’s own 500-member staff, seize the local’s offices and assets, and inform employers that they should no longer deal with UHW representatives about any labor-management issues.  According to Stern, this highly disruptive intervention in a well-functioning local is necessary “to restore democratic procedures” and “protect the members’ interest.”  After “UHW has been stabilized” — which could take 18 months to three years, based on past SEIU practice — “elections for new officers will be held.”

Not surprisingly, UHW hospital, nursing home, and home care workers aren’t waiting around that long.  As Kaiser Permanente receptionist Eleanor Mendoza explained to the Los Angeles Times last Tuesday,  “We knew [trusteeship] was coming, and now we have to get real and decertify.”  According to Mendoza, “You can’t have people from the other side of the United States running the union.”

Over the past two years, UHW members made a valiant effort to change the way SEIU is run, using tactics borrowed from Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and other reform groups.  Their fight took a new turn Jan. 25 when key UHW activists gathered at five California locations to consider Stern’s final pre-invasion surrender demand.  A day before these emergency meetings, UHW leaders had received the following ultimatum from Washington: within five days, either agree to move all 65,000 UHW “long term care” members into a new Stern-created entity with appointed leaders (and little accountability) or face trusteeship.  Elsewhere in labor, such a transfer would be highly unusual if the workers affected hadn’t okayed it beforehand.  But, for SEIU members, Stern’s directive was just “business as usual.”  In recent years, no group of dues-payers in America has been treated more like pieces of furniture by top union officials.  Under Stern’s regime, you can be moved here, there, or anywhere as part of top-down restructuring that always purports to create “new strength” for workers.

At their extraordinary mass meetings on January 25, five thousand UHW shop stewards showed what really creates union power — collective action by an energized rank-and-file.  They voted nearly unanimously to reject Stern’s coercive demands.  All three UHW constituencies — hospital workers, nursing home employees, and home health care aides — vowed to remain united in UHW, which has negotiated good contracts by relying on rank-and-file participation and workplace mobilization.  (Their preferred organizational unity between “acute care” and “long-term care” members is, in fact, the usual configuration of SEIU health care locals around the country.)

On January 26, UHW’s popular president Sal Rosselli made a last bid for reconciliation.  He called a press conference and offered a counter-proposal: UHW’s 65,000 at-risk members should be granted the right to vote on the transfer sought by Stern.  Before this balloting was held, however, the workers needed guarantees that Stern’s new statewide “long term care” local would be democratically structured and responsive to its projected 240,000 members.  The predecessor for this yet-to-be-formed “mega-local” — SEIU Local 6434 in Los Angeles — provided lousy representation under Stern-imposed leaders like Tyrone Freeman.  Last September, Freeman was ousted for embezzling $1 million and then replaced by another Stern appointee.  With both 6434 and UHW under trusteeship now — and three other recently consolidated locals also operating under Stern-appointed “interim presidents” — about 80 percent of the union’s 600,000 members in California have no elected leaders.

Rosselli ended his last press briefing as an elected SEIU official with a carefully worded statement declaring that UHW members would resist trusteeship by all means, up to and including SEIU decertification.  Using that particular “D” word always sends a shiver through any union bureaucracy lacking political legitimacy and a real workplace base.  Despite the trend in SEIU and other American unions toward less (rather than more) internal democracy, replacing an incumbent union — no matter how bad — is often viewed as a strategic dead-end or a dangerous exercise in “disunity.”  Yet, forming a rival union (or joining a competing labor federation) is widely accepted elsewhere in the world as a fundamental expression of workers’ “freedom of association.”   As I learned while working with CWA members in Quebec in the late-1980s, the dynamic of competition actually makes incumbent unions much more responsive to workers, even in smaller bargaining units.  (At that time, Quebecois unionists could choose between several different labor federations and petition for an election to switch bargaining representatives far more easily than in the U.S., due to labor law differences here and our national AFL-CIO’s “no-raiding” rules.)

UHW’s defection will nevertheless upset labor-oriented academics, liberal magazine editors, and Huffington Post bloggers.  Some of these folks, like American Prospect‘s Harold Meyerson, remain so enthralled with Stern that they’ll excuse any organizational mis-conduct by SEIU; in a February 1 commentary, Meyerson praises Stern’s ability “to establish a rapport with non-union liberals and intellectuals” (like himself) and dismisses Rosselli’s challenge as an opportunistic attempt to “play the democracy card.”  For Stern boosters, the pink champagne will always will be on ice — as long they keep praising their benefactor or, at the very least, don’t sign any “open letters” in the New York Times criticizing SEIU trusteeships.  But if trade unionists and intellectuals, who favor the Employee Free Choice Act to aid union organizing, really believe in “employee free choice,” how can they argue that dissatisfied dues-payers shouldn’t use the option of joining a new labor organization?  Particularly if their existing one won’t even let them choose their own local union or its leaders?

The path UHW activists have chosen now is not easy, due to the huge amount of resources that SEIU always devotes to keeping unhappy members in captivity, for as long as possible.  Nine years ago, SEIU lost a quarter of its total membership in Ontario after workers there revolted against Stern’s attempted consolidation of eight local unions into one.  As a former Canadian staffer recalls, some of the locals involved “were already facing member backlash at the lack of responsiveness and democratic participation” within SEIU.  Stern’s province-wide merger plan “met solid objection from both members and local executive boards alike across Ontario.”  Just before a general membership vote to abandon SEIU, “the International obtained a court injunction rendering the vote non-binding and placed all Ontario locals under trusteeship.”  As this Canadian activist reports, “the vote to leave went ahead anyway, with near unanimous support. . . .  Immediately, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) raided SEIU’s Ontario bargaining units, eventually winning decert votes in 180 units, representing 14,000 members.”

In 2002-3, Rhode Island janitors, campus maintenance workers, and librarians represented by SEIU Local 134 were similarly told they had to merge with a Boston-based building service workers local that Stern had recently put under trusteeship.  When the vast majority signed a petition to keep their own local, their wishes were ignored and members started to form an independent union, the United Service and Allied Workers-RI.   Former Brown librarian and 134 business agent Karen McAninch felt compelled to support that initiative.  So, she says, “the local was trusteed and I was suspended, along with all the elected officers and stewards.”  Yet, by 2007, almost all of 134’s original bargaining units had voted to switch from SEIU to USAW-RI, when their contracts expired or pre-contract expiration “open periods” enabled workers to file labor board petitions to decertify Stern’s union.  In the meantime, USAW-RI managed to organize 150 new members at the Providence Library, while fending off a costly, harassing lawsuit filed by SEIU against McAninch and former 134 officer Charlie Wood, who were both accused of breaching their “fiduciary duty” to the International union.  (USAW’s legal defense was aided by fundraising appeals in both Labor Notes and Union Democracy Review).

Post-trusteeship litigation also got messy when 2,000 Bay Area janitors tried to bail out of SEIU in the summer of 2004.  In response to yet another Stern take-over, they formed United Service Workers for Democracy (USWD) to oust their old bargaining representative, SEIU Local 87, and win the right to negotiate with San Francisco cleaning service contractors.  SEIU flooded downtown office buildings with out-of-town organizers — just like the crew of Stern loyalists now occupying UHW — but the janitors still won their decert vote by a 2 to 1 margin.  Undeterred, SEIU seized Local 87’s property, sued USWD’s lawyer, and tried to thwart management recognition of the new union — a strategy sure to be pursued again when NUHW challenges SEIU’s claim to represent 85,000 workers at Kaiser and other major hospital chains.

In several other places, including SEIU nurses’ Local 1991 in Miami, the collection and brandishing of “decert cards” has been used by local leaders as a key bargaining chip, to forestall further Stern trusteeship threats or forced merger attempts for an agree-upon period of time (a deal similar to the written agreement that facilitated USWD’s eventual return to the SEIU fold, much to the chagrin of some janitors).  In 2005, the threat of an impending decertification campaign even enabled 2,300 workers at the University of Massachusetts to leave SEIU peacefully for the greener pastures of the state teachers association (but only after a protracted struggle against the unpopular and inept Stern-appointed leader of public employee Local 888).

Can NUHW do what USAW-RI, SEIU’s Canadian dissidents, and other groups have already done, albeit on a smaller scale?  There are people with years of experience in health care organizing who think that NUHW will fare better than most defectors.  One is Jerry Brown, the now retired, longtime president of SEIU’s 20,000-member health care affiliate in Connecticut and Rhode Island.  A former member of Stern’s international executive board, Brown praises Rosselli for standing up  “for the rights of members to determine their own future and run their own union, to fight for better standards and engage in militant action if they chose to.”

According to Brown, “Stern and other SEIU leaders have now centralized all important national bargaining and organizing in D.C. and effectively neutered the power of the members to bargain with their bosses.  The result will be and has been already a series of sweetheart contracts that take away or severely limit the right to strike and other traditional union rights like seniority and workplace grievances.”

To Brown and other longtime SEIU-builders (most of whom are not free to speak out as he is doing now), the UHW takeover is a painful, “horrible development for SEIU and the entire labor movement.”  Once Stern’s colleague and discreet in-house critic, Brown now says publicly that: “Stern et al are a disgrace and we should mobilize to help the new union and the thousands of courageous UHW members who have stood up to SEIU.”

Supporters of “employee free choice,” inside and outside of SEIU, are already responding to Brown’s appeal by sending checks made out to “Fund for Union Democracy” to: The Fund For Union Democracy, 465 California Street, Ste. 1600, San Francisco, California 94104

For more information on that effort, contact <donations@fundforuniondemocracy.org>.

For the latest news on the California health care workers’ union that’s now being created within the Stern-controlled shell of the old, see www.nuhw.org, the website of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (also known as “the New UHW”).

Steve Early has aided union organizing, bargaining, and strike activity since the mid-1970s.  His forthcoming Monthly Review Press collection, Embedded with Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home, includes his reporting for CounterPunch on UHW’s “Purple Uprising In Oakland.”  Copies can be ordered at <monthlyreview.org/books/embeddedwithorganizedlabor.php>.  Early can be reached at <Lsupport@aol.com>.