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Union Disunity 

The secret deal worked out between SEIU bosses and nursing home owners denies union members the right to speak out, strike, or protect patients

Wednesday, Apr 11 2007
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“With time, my loss of Cassie began to transform the way I approached life.”

—Andy Stern, Getting America Back on Track: A Country That Works, Simon & Schuster, 2006

“It is as if he cant help conflating the fate of workers with the fate of his daughter.”

—Matt Bai, New York Times Magazine, Jan. 30, 2005

“When she died it broke my heart,” he says. “It just gave me the strength to say, ‘Speak out; dont be afraid.'”

“One brave thing he's done is pursue a partnership with corporate America.”

—Leslie Stahl, CBS News, May 14, 2006

In the above excerpted narrative, repeated ad nauseam in Service Employees International Union (SEIU) press materials, union president Andy Stern emerged from a personal catastrophe differently than others who face crisis in middle age.

Stern did not turn to sports cars, young girlfriends, adventure athletics, or otherwise immerse himself in narcissism after his 13-year-old daughter died from surgery complications, his wife later divorced him, and he took to dining alone in bars.

Instead, Stern has said in his book and to newspaper and magazine writers, the 2002 personal tragedy caused him to become something of a combined Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King, a futuristic innovator applying his genius to empowering disenfranchised workers in his 1.8-million-member SEIU, where Stern became president in 1996.

The union left the umbrella of the AFL-CIO in 2005, based on the idea that the old trades federation was a stodgy, backward-looking organization not focused enough on growth.

Key to Stern's characterization of himself as a new, different type of labor leader is his assertion that the SEIU is leaving behind the old class-struggle-style unionism pitting employees against bosses. In its place is a modern template where workers and employers seek to advance interests they hold in common.

"Employees and employers need organizations that solve problems, not create them," Stern wrote in A Country That Works. "Nursing home owners and SEIU leaders are formulating a new national labor-management committee and new state-based relationships to promote quality and employer economic stability. In California, the industry and union worked with the legislature on a plan to enhance quality in nursing homes, stabilize the work force, and provide more resources for direct patient care."

However, there's another trove of literature describing the recent history of Stern's SEIU, one that's quite different than the Cassie-focused genre popular in newsstands and on bookshelves. It's contained in secret for-top-union-officials-eyes-only contracts, memos, lobbying agreements, and analysis reports obtained from various sources by SF Weekly. They illustrate the details of a sweetheart deal between the SEIU and California nursing home companies that impair, rather than empower, workers and patients, while inflating dues-paying union ranks.

These documents suggest Stern's post-Cassie leadership of the SEIU shares little in common with Martin Luther King, and doesn't involve much real innovation. Instead, it's merely a re-hash of the sort of sweetheart company-union labor deals that have marred the reputation of trade unionism throughout history. It has involved trading away workers' free-speech rights, selling out their ability to improve working conditions, and relinquishing their capability to improve pay and benefits, in order to expand the SEIU's and Stern's own power.

As testament to how little interest Stern's SEIU has in explaining to the public, or to union workers, the inner workings of its modern, employer-friendly style of leadership, 10 requests for interviews to officials at Stern's Washington headquarters, and to union officials in Northern and Southern California, went unanswered.

In spite of the official silence, union memos obtained by SF Weekly also point to a serious rift between Stern and Sal Rosselli, president of SEIU United Healthcare Workers West, an Oakland-based 140,000-member local representing workers in California hospitals, nursing homes, and other health facilities. The fight is over whether the union should continue its current, Stern-backed strategy of expanding membership by giving up workers' rights, and the rights of patients they serve, through "partnerships with corporate America" such as the nursing home pact mentioned in A Country That Works.

Or should the union seek to expand the old-fashioned way, through recruitment, political pressure, picketing and other protests, lawsuits, alliances with advocacy groups, and pointing out corporate abuses to the press?

Officials with Sal Rosselli's UHW-West have apparently taken a strong stand saying corporate-friendly alliances aren't the panacea Stern makes them out to be.

And documents I've obtained suggest that regardless of the image crafted by his own brilliant public relations, Stern has tread a route common among men who've suffered crippling late-life personal setbacks. He's become ornery in his old age.


Sal Rosselli won't answer questions when I call him on his cellphone. And judging from the wall of silence I've received from some other officials in his local, he's apparently instructed the rest of his staff to do the same.

Notwithstanding, secret SEIU documents I've obtained have made me come to respect Rosselli's style of union leadership. Leaked SEIU contracts, memos, and reports, as well as off-the-record interviews with some union insiders, suggest Rosselli has been engaged in a showdown with Stern over the rights of unionized health care workers, and of the patients they care for.

According to a recent report prepared by UHW-West, Stern's brand of corporate collaboration has done little for the SEIU besides inflating the membership rolls with workers who've received hardly any benefit from union membership.

At issue is a 2003 agreement between the SEIU and a group of California nursing home chains. According to this pact, its terms would be kept secret, and otherwise "be held in confidence to the full extent allowed by law." Notwithstanding, I received two copies of the misleadingly named "Agreement to Advance the Future of Nursing Home Care in California," from different sources last month. I have also obtained a copy of a similar agreement recently negotiated between the SEIU and nursing home chains in Washington state, which involves similar tradeoffs between the SEIU and nursing home chains.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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