Voting on Labor: The New Company Store

by cho and rba

Fresh off the nasty battle with Labor Notes Conference attendees in Michigan last month, SEIU leader Andy Stern may meet new opposition from yet another group, this time an internal challenge, at the May 31st through June 4th SEIU national convention in Puerto Rico.

Ultimately, the controversies seem to be this: Stern believes that the only way to build negotiating power that benefits laborers is to build the union membership and make deals with the employers. CNA, United Healthcare Workers--West, and some of the housekeeping and service locals see such deals as ultimately bad for workers in the long run.

In Puerto Rico next week, the SEIU faces the powerful California local United Healthcare Workers West, led by Sal Rosselli, which is wary of losing its local control. They intend to challenge Stern with resolutions to limit the expansion the national staff's power. Nelson Lichtenstein, in a recent Los Angeles Times article, reports Rosselli as saying: "I want a movement of workers governed by workers for workers to be in control of their relationship with their employer, to be in control of the political direction of their union." Lichtenstein suggests that "the very meaning of unionism will be bleached out of the SEIU unless local voices are once again made potent."

Indeed, that earlier Michigan dust up between the SEIU and the attendees at the Labor Notes Conference presaged these very same issues. Angered by the California Nurses Association's leafletting actions in Ohio, the SEIU stormed the conference to protest the choice of Rose Ann DeMoro, CNA's leader, to give the keynote address. David Moberg at In These Times provides a recap of the Ohio SEIU-Hospital Management vs. CNA events leading up to the Michigan skirmish:

After Ohio hospital workers received the [CNA distributed] leaflets attacking SEIU and the arrangement the union struck with management for an election, SEIU called off the vote. ...CNA argued that the election—formally requested by management, not the union, as part of a deal to guarantee management neutrality—was so flawed that it deserved to be challenged. And if SEIU really had support from workers, CNA argues, it could have won the election despite the leaflets. “When a union election is called by the hospital, you have to question what that means,” says Geri Jenkins, a member of the CAN/NNOC Council of Presidents. “Is it a deal to do business, or a voice for workers? Fundamentally, what we’ll lose [with such deals] is the right to advocate for our patients.”

To protest the keynote, the SEIU bused in purple-clad activists who stormed through the conference:


According to eyewitness accounts, the most aggressive leaders of the group—some with purple bandanas on their faces—hit and kicked some of the Labor Notes staff and supporters who were blocking the doors. But another line of conference attendees locked arms to hold back the rest of the crowd. At least one woman, a retired auto worker, fell as an SEIU protester tried to slip past her and cut a gash in her head.


Bill Fletcher, former assistant to the president of SEIU, witnessed part of the standoff. "Nothing I saw leads me to believe the intent [of the SEIU people] was to harm, but the intent was clearly to disrupt the gathering by almost any means necessary," he says. "This was not just a protest." He was troubled to find that some protesters seemed to have no idea why they were involved in the action. And he argues that SEIU--which other unions criticize for raiding their members, just as several health care unions criticize CNA for its raids on nurses -- lost much of the support it may have had.

The CNA shares Rosselli's concern that Andy Stern has entered dangerous territory in his flirtation with employers and global capitalism. But it's not just health care workers and nurses who argue against Stern's vision of working with employers to create the 21st century's version of the Company Store... or in this case, the Company Union.

Food and housekeeping service employees are another group which believe their union's colluding with their employers to eliminate the right to strike, prevent organizing activities at some locations, and restrict leafleting or holding rallies without prior presentation to a company labor-management committee.

Kris Maher in a May 10th Wall Street Journal article entitled Unions Forge Secret Pacts with Major Employers reports that the SEIU is one of two labor unions which have confidential agreements with large companies, giving the employers "the right to designate which of their locations and how many workers the unions can seek to organize."

Later in the same article, Maher reports that SEIU President Andy Stern, although a long time progressive and liberal activist, responded to criticism of the deal, by stating "the unions sought the agreements after realizing the traditional organizing compaigns at individual sites were proving ineffective."

However, some think that Stern's vision for the SEIU too closely resembles a company union, which, like its precursor the company store, plays its own role in keeping the laborer shackled in debt to the owners. In the 21st century, those owners are the global extreme capitalists (see Naomi Wolfe's The Shock Doctrine) who view profit as the only thing of value in our society. Community health, social well-being, family, faith, dignity in work -- all these are value-less to the neo-liberal gone extreme.

Workers who don't understand that they are being co-opted thus unwittingly contribute to their own enslavement.


Notes of Interest

  • Hat Tip to Dopeman's commentary Dueling Nurses, Dueling Unions which got us trying to figure out what was the brouhaha about.
  • One of the tools being used to reduce the ability of nurses to unionize is documented in How Bush's Labor Board tries to eviscerate Nurses' ability to unionize:
    On October 4, 2006, the National Labor Relations Board declared that hospital RN’s across the country who exercise professional clinical judgment in the interests of patents are “supervisors” and thus ineligible to join unions. AB 1201 would ensure that California’s direct care nurses preserve their collective bargaining rights, thereby preserving their rights under their existing contracts to challenge hospital staffing and effectively advocate for quality health care for their patients. The bill will passed out of the Assembly Labor Committee and is pending a hearing in Assembly Appropriations.

Further Information on the Players

  • The California Nurses Association's signature issue has been Nurse / Patient ratios. From wikipedia:
    Founded in 1903 as the California State Nurses Association, the California Nurses Association is well known for its long history of advocacy for direct care registered nurses and patient care protections, and as a leading advocate of single payer Medicare for all healthcare in California and the United States.

    Under [Rose Anne] DeMoro's leadership, CNA has also gained attention for its sponsorship of landmark legislative and regulatory reforms, including the nation's first mandated registered nurse-to-patient ratios which were sponsored by CNA. The ratio law, which requires hospitals to maintain a minimum number of nurses in all hospital units at all times to assure patient safety, was signed in 1999 by then-California Gov. Gray Davis. The ratios were implemented in 2004.
    On May 9, 2008, the Public Broadcasting System television show with Bill Moyers ran a segment about the CNA, saying that the group so favored a single-payer health care system that they would support neither remaining Democratic presidential candidate (Clinton, Obama), because those candidates health care plans still include an insurance industry that takes 30% of every health care dollar for non-healthcare purposes.

  • Andy Stern's progressive and liberal bona fides are well-documented. His goal is to strengthen labor's voice and has succeeded in creating what some call the fastest growing union, no small feat in these anti-labor, pro- big business times.
    But Wikipedia also notes that some feel Stern is too cozy with employers and management:
    Currently, Stern is involved in a controversy over the future direction of SEIU, because he believes that union density (the percentage of the workforce covered by collective bargaining contracts) should be the primary goal of SEIU - getting more workers organized into SEIU.[2] But critics of this perspective argue that Stern's method of doing this are undemocratic.[3] They point to the proposed terms of the new contracts - 20-year deals that forbid striking and allow grievances and arbitrations only over terminations (excluding wage rates, hours, working conditions, leave time, sexual harassment, etc).

    Most significant for critics is most workers in a bargaining unit would not get a vote on such contracts, only a few people that would be chosen to bargain for them. One union that has been very vocal about Stern's proposed changes in negotiations is SEIU UHW, a California local headed by Sal Rosselli, the second largest in the country. SEIU UHW has charged Stern with wanting to dispense with union democracy in favor of fast growth that leaves union members without a voice in their workplaces and their collective bargaining contracts. The issue of union democracy is expected to a major point of contention at the SEIU convention in June 2008.

  • Wikipedia also provides background information about Sal Rosselli and the United Health Care workers. Rosselli recently resigned from his position on SEIU's national Executive Committee. In Dan Clawson's article SEIU: How Democratic?, Clawson describes the resignation as protest against the course being pursued by the SEIU.
    Union democracy can be a similarly contested concept. It's worth considering some of the national SEIU practices that trouble dissidents. Central to the debate is the many ways the national SEIU leadership can intervene in the activities of an existing local, together with the creation of mega-locals. Everyone agrees that if a local is outright corrupt, or mob dominated, the national union needs to intervene to clean up the mess and restore democracy.

    However, national SEIU leaders intervene in union locals for many other reasons. If a local is ineffective, and fails to organize new members, it might be put into trusteeship. If nearby locals have overlapping jurisdictions, with each local containing both building service and hospital workers, new locals may be created to bring together all the hospital workers in one local and all the building service workers in another local. In practice, however, both the criteria for such actions and the ways they should be carried out are neither clear nor straightforward. What workers have a community of interest? When does it make sense to move workers from one local to another? Which locals are ineffective, and by what criteria? To what extent do the answers to those questions depend on an assessment of the local leadership -- and in making that assessment, is it possible to separate out considerations of the extent to which the local leaders support national SEIU leaders' policies?

  • On May 20th, 2008, rank and file members filed lawsuits against the 10 members of the Board of the United Health Workers - West. According to SEIU's website:
    Rank-and-file members of SEIU California affiliate United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW-W) today filed a lawsuit against two dozen of UHW-W’s top officers, demanding the return of nearly $200,000 in dues money that was illegally transferred from the UHW-W treasury into an outside, off-the-books fund and which is still unaccounted for.

    The lawsuit, being filed today in United States District Court for the Central District of California, is brought by UHW-W members Michelle Collins of Los Angeles, and Katherine Gayle of Lancaster, CA, on behalf of all UHW-W members. The suit was filed after UHW-W officers failed to respond to a request that all of the money be returned.

    In May 2007, the executive board of SEIU United Healthcare Workers West (UHW-W) instituted a plan to divert up to $6 million – nearly 40 percent of UHW-W’s net assets -- into an outside fund created by and controlled by the local’s top ten officers. The ten officers are UHW-W President Sal Rosselli, Executive Vice President Jorge Rodriguez, Secretary Treasurer Joan Emslie, and seven members of the local union’s executive board. Between May 2007 and February 2008 at least $3 million of the authorized $6 million from the local union treasury is known to have been diverted to this fund.

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