Stern Reprimand

SEIU members in Northern California challenge the national boss over his collaboration with employers

A once-secret power struggle between one of the Western United States' most powerful labor leaders, and America's most famous union boss, has broken out into the open. United Healthcare Workers West leader Sal Roselli has sent letters to union members denouncing a union organizing strategy backed by Service Employees International Union boss Andy Stern.

The rift presents the biggest challenge yet to Stern's "Third Way" of organizing, in which unions collaborate with, rather than confront, employers. Given that the Stern path includes secret agreements that limit workers' rights, while endangering patients' rights as well, I applaud Roselli's new stance.

"Now, our voice is in jeopardy," wrote Roselli, in a May 29 letter signed by 15 top officials of the 140,000-member, Oakland-based United Healthcare Workers West, which represents nursing and other healthcare workers in Northern California.

In his letter, Roselli argues for the importance of democratic union decision-making.

"Some in the national SEIU are negotiating an agreement with nursing home employers — in California and nationally — and have repeatedly excluded UHW nursing home members and elected representatives from the process. These agreements could restrict our nursing home members' voices on the job and be implemented without affected members even having the right to vote," Roselli wrote.

The national office of the SEIU responded to my questions about the content of the letter with a statement challenging the claim that the nursing home agreements are undemocratic.

"SEIU has established a Nursing Home Unity Council where every local union, including UHW, is represented. Members through their locals on the Unity Council make decisions about any future national and state agreements with nursing home employers, and members will have the opportunity to vote on those agreements," the statement said.

On April 11, I wrote about a rift between Stern and Roselli over the details of a sweetheart deal between the SEIU and California nursing home companies that impair, rather than empower, workers and patients.

At the heart of the nursing home alliance deal was a cold-blooded tradeoff, where the SEIU would use its California Democratic Party lobbying clout to remove quality-of-care requirements from legislation boosting Medi-Cal funding for nursing homes. Alliance labor contracts, meanwhile, severely limited workers' clout at the workplace.

Since I began writing articles explaining and criticizing this agreement, I've been denounced as anti-union by some, while being cheered on by SEIU members, who've bristled at what they believe is Stern's non-democratic style of leadership.

"Our concern is that if Andy Stern gets away with this thing with the nursing homes, each of the other divisions will do the same thing," said Carol Criss, a medical transcriptionist at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara, who is the UHW-West shop steward at that facility.

Criss said she's collected 2,400 signatures at her facility, demanding that Stern abandon proposals that would put Washington-based national union representatives in charge of local contract bargaining. She said she hopes to collect 70,000 signatures from workers at various facilities.

"Stern wants working relations with corporate America where they would accept unions, but they would be weak, ineffectual unions," Criss said.

Now, it seems, my criticisms that this deal sells out patients and workers alike have become the official position of UHW-West.

Advocates of nursing home patients view the new turn of events as a triumph for patients' rights.

"I think it's a brave action on the part of the United Healthcare Workers," said Pat McGinnis, who heads California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. "They're up against a powerful national union whose philosophy is corporate collaboration, and to get new members at any cost."

Jaime Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, likened Roselli to Marcus Junius Brutus, who took a leading role in the assassination of the dictator of Rome.

"This is a hopeful sign. And let's hope Brutus succeeds," Court said, "and the Caesar changes his ways and starts to feel the boot in his butt. Stern demands this Trotskyite kind of loyalty regardless of how popular his policies are. This is a democratic challenge based on democratic principles. Stern can ignore consumer advocates. He can ignore patient advocates. But when criticism comes from within one of the strongest unions of California, he's either going to have to change his business model, or get out of some of the businesses he wanted to control."

UHW President Sal Roselli would not comment for this article. Roselli rival and Stern ally Tyrone Freeman, head of SEIU Local 434B in Los Angeles, representing home care and nursing care workers, did not return a message left with his secretary requesting comment.

Let's hope this battle's outcome includes a strong, democratic union, an end to the cynical nursing home alliance agreement, and better conditions for nursing home patients in California.

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