Unhealthy Union

Could there be a secret deal with Arnold on health care that will inflate union rolls?

Rarely do I find myself wishing the best for a journalistic competitor. But I'm hoping that an early obituary on California health care reform, run inside the B section of last Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle, ends up being spot-on.

That's because if legislating is akin to making sausage, the ongoing health care reform negotiations among Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Democratic state legislators, labor unions, insurance companies, business lobbyists, and other Sacramento meat-packing types seemed poised to produce a legislative version of unappetizing chopped offal.

A power struggle inside the California state council of the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) seems to hint at just how far negotiations may have drifted away from the goal of obtaining quality, affordable healthcare for all Californians, and toward an unappetizing mishmash of special-interest sops.

Longtime San Francisco Democratic activist Sal Rosselli, head of the 140,000-member UHW West SEIU, the union's northern California health care industry local, announced last week that he'd leave his post as president of SEIU's state council as a result of what he characterized as an internal palace coup over the issue of health care reform. Rosselli has recently clashed with national SEIU boss Andy Stern over how far the union should go in pursuing Stern's preferred strategy of appeasing industry groups in exchange for allowing the unions to add new members more easily.

Rosselli earlier this year came under fire for opposing a Stern-backed deal, whereby the SEIU could add members at certain nursing home chains as long as the union agreed to give away rights such as the ability to complain to regulators when nursing home practices endangered patients' health.

In the current scuffle, Rosselli has locked horns with Stern's California proxy, Tyrone Freeman, head of the SEIU's Southern California–based United Long Term Care Workers' Union, over whether or not to support Schwarzenegger's version of health care reform — a version critics call a concession to insurance companies and other industry groups.

The two union rivals last week waged a public battle of words on a Sacramento Bee politics blog, in the form of dueling public letters to Stern. In the letters, Rosselli staked out a position from the left opposing a Schwarzenegger proposal that critics say does more to preserve insurance and pharmaceutical companies' profits than to provide universal health care to poor Californians. Freeman, meanwhile, argued for supporting Schwarzenegger's proposal in the name of "pragmatism" — without specifying what the ultimate pragmatic payoff would be.

Health care reform, Rosselli wrote last Monday, should include "a definition of the basic benefits that people must receive at a price they can afford ... benefits that should include doctors' visits, preventative care, hospitalization, and prescription drugs ... cost controls which include bulk purchasing of prescription drugs, a public insurer to compete with private insurance, preventative medicine, and more information on cost and quality," thus outlining objections liberal groups have voiced against Schwarzenegger's proposal for a $14 billion health care reform package.

The next day, Freeman fired back, touting his boss's famed strategy of cutting deals with, rather than confronting, industry groups.

"SEIU International has rightly recognized that old methods and tactics don't work — that we are facing a new day that requires, not compromise, but a different type of dialogue, where approaches are no longer strictly adversarial, but, in contrast, seek to find common ground. This isn't acquiescence, it's pragmatism, and it's the road to opening doors, where for years they've been closed," Freeman wrote.

Left missing from this airing of internal SEIU dirty laundry was an answer to the question of what exactly is inside the "door-opening pragmatism" that Stern and Schwarzenegger have apparently agreed to.

Union insiders, however, have told me an answer may lie inside what would seem to be an unrelated piece of legislation Schwarzenegger vetoed in October. Assembly Bill 1164 would have allowed SEIU to bring into its membership rolls some 100,000 Californians who operate day-care services for children from their homes, by setting up a state government bargaining entity.

"You start following the bread crumbs, and knowing how the governor wants a health care plan, and how much the SEIU wants to get its tentacles into the child-care arena, and it all just made sense," said a lobbyist who had opposed the SEIU's child-care bill.

Dan Reeves, chief of staff to Assembly member Kevin De Leon, the SEIU child-care bill's chief sponsor, said a version of the bill will likely be reintroduced next spring.

So if the governor and Sacramento Democrats somehow pull a health care– reform rabbit out of the hat during the next couple of weeks — bolstered by SEIU backing of Schwarzenegger's proposals — organized-labor insiders tell me they'll be on the lookout for a possible governor's signature on a bill next spring to add 100,000 child care workers to union rolls.

Would the SEIU really trade away the chance for meaningful California health care reform in exchange for more union members?

In sausage-factory Sacramento, it's possible.

Cruising south of Tasmania, heading toward a planned clash in Antarctica with Japanese whalers, legendary environmental vigilante Paul Watson recounts a supposed victory in his years-long campaign to battle brigandage on the high seas.

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