In the final moments of a historic campaign, an old political hand pulls an outlandish stunt that will either damage him, or help make him one of the most powerful men in the world. Sarah Palin or the briefly suspended campaign notwithstanding, John McCain wasn't the one behind America's maddest recent gambit for power last week. That dubious honor belongs to Andy Stern, leader of the two-million-member Service Employees International Union.
Stern ordered hearings at the San Mateo fairgrounds this past weekend as a prelude to attempting to unseat the leadership of United Healthcare Workers-West, a 150,000-member bargaining unit led by local dissident Sal Rosselli. When I spoke with Roselli Thursday, he was preparing to defend himself against what he called spurious corruption charges of misappropriating union dues. The resulting standoff has required hundreds of Rosselli's staffers and members to stay in California fending off a possible takeover instead of traveling to swing states to campaign for Barack Obama as planned. Members of Stern's staff have likewise been tied up attending to members during this dispute — rather than electioneering — raising the question of whether the Stern-Rosselli feud could materially affect the vote count in close states such as Ohio, New Mexico, and Florida. "This is diverting potentially huge resources from huge elections across the country," Rosselli said.
Labor activists and observers are scratching their heads: Is Stern mad? Doesn't the next month of presidential campaigning represent a historic crossroads for organized labor?
Despite appearances, Stern isn't bonkers. Rather, America's most powerful labor leader finds himself in an unusual and ironic position where his own political interests may run contrary to those of the labor movement itself. Stern could conceivably find himself harmed, rather than helped, by an Obama victory.
While an Obama win combined with strengthened Democratic control of Congress would be a boon for workers overall, a Democratic takeover just might undermine Stern's unique corporate-collaboration strategy for growing his union. If elected, Obama has said he would sign a bill making it vastly easier for unions to recruit members — potentially adding millions of workers at businesses such as McDonald's, Wal-Mart, and health care facilities.
Stern's approach to labor recruiting, however, was created specifically to weather antilabor times. Rather than confronting union-busting employers, he is known for cutting backroom sweetheart deals with corporations and politicians in which employers agree to allow the union in as long as they keep quiet about working conditions and don't ask for significant wage increases. Rosselli earned Stern's enmity earlier this year by opposing one such pact.
If employers' bargaining positions are weakened by pro-labor policies during the next four years, Stern's strategy could become irrelevant. Traditional organizers such as UHW-West known for negotiating higher wages by threatening to strike could see their stock rise at Stern's expense.
In this light, there's a Machiavellian logic to the idea that Stern would force Rosselli to keep hundreds of SEIU footsoldiers in California to defend against a takeover attempt. That's true, notwithstanding the tens of millions of dollars the SEIU is likely to spend during this electoral cycle.
For organized labor, the 2008 presidential and congressional elections aren't about vice-presidential moose hunting or Barack Obama's middle name. They're about a largely overlooked labor bill, which John McCain said he'd veto and Obama said he'd sign.
The Employee Free Choice Act legislation in Congress would curtail anti-union drives by allowing for the unionization of any workplace where more than half the employees have asked to join. As things are now, if more than 50 percent of employees sign union cards, they can choose to form a union, but employers are not obliged to recognize it. Rather, they can call for an election requiring certification by the National Labor Relations Board. Union leaders say this provides an opportunity for employers to intimidate, coerce, and even fire workers who try to form unions. Under the proposed law, if 50 percent of workers plus one in a shop sign valid union cards, the NLRB is called to investigate the petitions, the union can be certified as a collective bargaining agent without an election. The bill also includes penalties for intimidation.
With union-busters' hands tied, we could see the rapid unionization of large, low-paid workforces. In this sort of union-friendly landscape, SEIU would be compelled to reconsider its strategy of cutting collaborative deals with employers. In fact, Rosselli became the target of Stern's wrath earlier this year when he went public opposing one such deal with nursing home chains that allowed the union to recruit among certain nursing home orderlies — as long as the union signed an agreement promising not to complain to the media or regulators about patient abuse or neglect. Since then, Rosselli has fashioned himself as a populist, fighting corporate sellouts in the labor movement like Stern, earning plaudits from labor leaders around the country.
In the new world of labor relations proposed under the Employer Free Choice Act, Rosselli's militant style of organizing could get hundreds of thousands of takers — with little need for help from Washington-based dealmakers such as Stern. Stern could find himself atop a rapidly growing labor movement less firmly under his control. So for now he has made a priority of maintaining maximum possible control within his own union.
Stern's representatives say the San Mateo hearings on whether to oust Rosselli on corruption charges have nothing to do with politics. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall will decide whether there exists sufficient evidence that Rosselli misused union funds to call for his ouster. Marshall will then make a recommendation as to whether the local unit should be taken over by the national union. If the national union gets the go-ahead, Stern will decide whether to replace Rosselli and his lieutenants in a legal procedure known as trusteeship. The SEIU last week issued a statement suggesting no decision will be made until after the November elections: "We believe that this process will best serve our members and place the union at the leading edge of the reform effort in the labor movement."
The hearings follow disclosures that union leaders in Los Angeles and Michigan who allegedly diverted union funds to family members are now the subjects of a federal criminal investigation and a Congressional inquiry launched by Rep. George Miller. Stern has characterized his move to oust Rosselli as part of a union-wide cleanup of corrupt elements.
"It's not true," said Rosselli, stepping out Thursday from preparations for the hearings. He said Stern's attorneys have already sued the California health care unit based on the misuse of funds charges, and the lawsuit was dismissed in federal court without a hearing. "He's using this to divert attention from real corruption problems with appointees," Rosselli said of the current proceedings. "There's no fact to any of the accusations they're making against us."
In response, on Sept. 17 a group of local SEIU workers sued Stern in San Francisco federal court, claiming his moves against Rosselli were aimed at suppressing workers' free speech rights. Rosselli's unit also filed charges within the SEIU, accusing Stern of waging a "personal vendetta" against Rosselli, and "collaborating with anti-union employers to undermine UHW's organizing and collective bargaining efforts."
Employer collaboration has allowed Stern to rapidly expand his membership during the union-busting Bush years, emboldening him to break with the AFL-CIO in 2005 and declare his deal-cutting revolution the future of trade unionism.
If an Obama presidency would reward old-fashioned union organizing where workers are rewarded for threatening, cajoling, picketing, and even striking against their bosses, it's fair for Andy Stern to ask, "What's in it for me?"