Local Union Leader Rosselli Blasts SEIU Boss Andy Stern

Somewhere in California there's a woman alone in a nursing home with bedsores that grow more painful and life-threatening by the day. And down the hall there's an orderly who would like to do something about her but can't, because during some shifts he's one of just two care-givers on a ward with dozens of patients.

"California nursing homes are sweatshops, [and] a terrible place to live," said Sal Rosselli, president of California's largest healthcare workers' union local, Oakland-based United Healthcare Workers–West, during an online interview last week with the magazine Labor Notes.

While Rosselli's statement might sound like ordinary pre-strike cant, his words are actually much more radical than that.

Rosselli's criticisms are directed at America's most famous labor leader, Andy Stern, the celebrity president of the two-million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU). According to Rosselli, Stern's expansion of the union has cost workers the ability to complain or fight to improve conditions.

"People join unions because they want to change their lives," Rosselli told Labor Notes. "Workers in struggle create real moral authority, and other people see it and it makes them want to join unions, too. The same is not true with these top-down deals ... where the union agrees to prenegotiated contracts that severely limit workers' bargaining rights and voice."

I've written before about these SEIU deals (see "Partners in Slime," June 30, 2004, and "Union Disunity," April 11, 2007), where the union agrees to prohibit workers from complaining about conditions in exchange for being able to recruit more members in nursing-home chains. I've also described how this strategy privately angered workers and organizers in California, the union's greatest stronghold.

But last week Rosselli turned this once-secret dispute into an open rebellion. This is no minor quarrel. Until recently, he was the head of the 600,000-member SEIU California state council; he resigned earlier this month as a member of the policy-setting national SEIU executive committee, while retaining his post as president of United Healthcare Workers–West, the 150,000-member SEIU branch representing California hospital, nursing home, and home-care workers.

Rosselli's new dissident movement has the potential to derail Stern's ambitious plans to expand into home daycare, alliances with overseas unions in countries such as China, and collaborative agreements with companies such as Wal-Mart, which joined with SEIU last year to push for broadened healthcare coverage. By painting SEIU's national leadership as bent on undermining workers' rights, Rosselli's renegade battle could harm efforts by SEIU to present a united front during a crucial presidential campaign. Last week, SEIU endorsed Barack Obama, and is mobilizing members to work on his primary and general election campaigns.

Rosselli announced his resignation in an open letter claiming that Stern has focused on growth at any cost. Rosselli's local has also launched a new Web site, www.seiuvoice.com, accusing Stern of expanding union power at workers' expense. Rosselli also issued a series of statements in response to inquiries from SF Weekly in which he made public for the first time his accusations of a Stern power grab. SEIU's national press office did not respond by press time to my request for an interview with Stern or his representatives.

Stern's supporters may protest that this is a bad time to open a national discussion about whether the key Democratic Party ally has been instrumental in curtailing workers' rights. But after a decade in which the poor have gotten poorer, the sick have received less care, and organized labor has made few inroads into making things better, I can think of no better moment for a long-delayed debate over whether Stern's vision of expansion at any cost is truly in the best interest of workers.

During an election year filled with calls for "change," it may seem ironic that an anachronism within an anachronism might be a source for change within the Democratic Party.

To the extent organized labor appears in the press as something other than a component of a political or business story, it's portrayed as outdated and irrelevant — unless the story happens to mention Stern. He is known for pursuing a "collaborative" rather than adversarial relationship with employers. As Stern's fame has grown, his supposed modernization campaign has become the most-covered story in the labor movement.

Rosselli, meanwhile, is a longtime activist little known outside the old-line labor city of San Francisco, despite leading a behemoth California healthcare union. He is a former nursing home worker who was president of the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Democratic Club in the early days of the AIDS crisis. In 1988, he led a dissident faction in the local healthcare workers' union that blamed decline in membership on "30 years of international control," referring to the union's top leadership. Rosselli defeated a slate of candidates who had been handpicked by the national SEIU and has been one of California's top labor leaders ever since.

In the storyline of the current U.S. labor movement — as depicted in piles of Stern magazine profiles — Rosselli is the kind of old-fashioned leader that history might forget. But it's Stern's cheap-trick "modernization" that should be left in the dust.

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