Labor Pains

A fight between two unions here could set the course of the U.S. labor movement.

Rosselli led strikes against the Golden Gate Fields raceway, and helped organize a boycott of movie theaters. While working as a nurse's assistant in Oakland in 1988, he successfully ran for president of SEIU Local 250, which eventually became the SEIU's United Healthcare Workers West. In 2004, he was elected a national vice president.

This was a heady time to join the elite of the SEIU, whose charismatic leader, Stern, was plotting to form a new labor federation, Change to Win, that would split the SEIU and other major unions including the Teamsters off from the AFL-CIO. The break was touted as a chance to fully test Stern's theories of labor organization in which unions would add membership by negotiating deals employers wouldn't consider so onerous.

In 2004, California became a proving ground for the Stern model. In the nursing-home industry, several for-profit corporations ran facilities that were notorious for low wages and patient neglect despite billions of dollars in Medi-Cal subsidies and state regulatory agencies supposedly charged with ensuring quality care. The SEIU offered the nursing home chains a seemingly irresistible deal: If they would soften their policy of running aggressive anti-union campaigns, the SEIU would obtain for them even more state government subsidies and guarantee lax regulation.

Rosselli with workers during the last week of voting.
J.P. Dobrin
Rosselli with workers during the last week of voting.
Regan discuses SEIU strategy 
at a Petaluma conference. 
Rosselli describes him as “a thug.”
Robert Durell
Regan discuses SEIU strategy at a Petaluma conference. Rosselli describes him as “a thug.”

"We joined that alliance because of 20 years of not being able to organize [nursing] homes," Rosselli recalls. "These were sweatshop employers, squeezing every dime, and nothing had worked up to that point. That's why I decided to join the alliance."

Three years into the agreement, he and his union officials had second thoughts. "We felt we needed to get more money in the system," he says. "But we left too much money on the table with the employer."

Rosselli and other leaders of the SEIU's West Coast health care affiliate eventually took their critique of the nursing home alliance to union members. The agreement hadn't led to union growth, and it hadn't led to better wages, according to an internal report authorized by Rosselli.

Acrimony increased when UHW-West leaders accused the SEIU's national leadership of hijacking negotiations between the union and Tenet Healthcare Corporation, a hospital chain. Stern responded aggressively, yanking Rosselli from leadership positions, and, in 2009, seizing control of the union, and firing Rosselli and his lieutenants.

The fired leaders formed the breakaway NUHW; the SEIU responded with a lawsuit saying that Rosselli and his leadership team improperly used member dues to form their new union. When a jury concurred with the allegation, Rosselli said he found posters at Kaiser workplaces depicting him in prison stripes behind bars.

Mark Brenner, a labor journalist and director of the national newspaper Labor Notes, said the SEIU exploited the public's ignorance of the technical aspects of labor law to blow the judgment out of proportion. UHW membership voted to authorize its members to resist an SEIU takeover. And the SEIU argued that employee time spent on that task was stolen money. "In the Alice in Wonderland world of labor law, doing what the union members ask you to do has put 20-some people in hock for $1.5 million," Brenner says.

In June, amid a series of union elections that gained the NUHW 6,000 members, leaders of the new dissident union petitioned for a vote to represent 43,000 workers at Kaiser Permanente in California. After months' worth of legal maneuvering and delays, the vote tally is scheduled to begin Oct. 6.

Ana Barajas, an ultrasound specialist at the Kaiser Permanente hospital on Geary, says that if the NUHW doesn't win, it will be "sad."

The SEIU, for its own part, hasn't had trouble finding workers who'd just as soon the NUHW went away. "I will not support a union that is willing to risk my healthcare and benefits," the SEIU's website quoted Kaiser OB/GYN specialist Virginia Bolanos as saying.

But some observers lament the crusade will do little to increase workers' clout. Press coverage of the Kaiser election has echoed with booing and hissing from the academic sidelines.

"It's tragic that with so many workers wanting to be organized into unions, so much energy and money are being devoted to the fight at Kaiser," The New York Times quoted Stanford labor law professor William B. Gould IV as saying.

If the NUHW wins and goes on to plunder other SEIU affiliates, employers will benefit. "Historically, fights within unions have been used by employers to their advantage," UC Irvine labor law professor Catherine Fisk told the Los Angeles Times. "It's the classic divide-and-conquer strategy."

SEIU's Regan has harsher words for Rosselli's crusade. "It's been a total travesty what [Rosselli] did to members of this organization," he says. "Members of this organization are about to say loudly and clearly that we are claiming this organization for ourselves, and you don't get to harm it anymore."

This year was supposed to be an ascendant one for the SEIU. The dissident movement led by Rosselli would be crushed. The Employee Free Choice Act, federal legislation that would make it easier for unions to represent workers, would sail through both houses of Congress, because the SEIU had spent $80 million on the 2008 elections to ensure a supportive U.S. Congress.

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