Labor Pains

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

But the SEIU never reached its imagined high-water mark. In 2008, the Los Angeles Times broke the story that the Southern California affiliate — which was supposed to take over 65,000 home care workers represented by the UHW-West affiliate once run by Rosselli — had allegedly routed $400,000 into businesses owned by the wife and mother-in-law of affiliate leader and Stern protégé Tyrone Freeman.

This spring, the Center for Investigative Reporting produced an article showing that the nursing home alliance agreement had been a bust. In exchange for the ability to obtain watered-down collective bargaining agreements in several facilities, SEIU lobbyists had obtained $880 million in additional state subsidies. The idea was that the money would be spent hiring more workers. Instead, much of the money went straight to nursing home chains' profits.The alliance didn't just sell out elderly patients and their attendants: it was also a taxpayer rip-off.

Stern abruptly resigned as SEIU president in April, two years before the end of his term, saying he wanted to focus on his personal life. He was replaced by his deputy, Mary Kay Henry. On Sept. 28, the Associated Press reported that the FBI and the U.S. Labor Department were investigating Stern in a corruption probe.

Rosselli told SF Weekly the day after the story came out that he expected the investigation to produce further embarrassment for the SEIU. "It goes very deep," he said.

On Sept. 30, Stern told the New York Post that the AP report was false, and hinted that Rosselli was an anonymous source behind the story.

In response to an inquiry, Sadie Crabtree, the NUHW's communications director, e-mailed a statement to SF Weekly. "We're not the story. The story is the widespread SEIU corruption during Stern's administration," she wrote. "The AP, the Los Angeles Times, and Bloomberg would not have run these stories without off-the-record confirmation from federal authorities."

Rosselli says that if the NUHW wins the election, he'll bring Kaiser bosses to the table to demand a better deal for workers. He'll demand the elimination of the benefits review committee. And he'll move to organize other Kaiser facilities when, as he believes, the nonprofit health care chain begins expanding eastward.

SEIU vice president Regan, for his part, says he has no contingency plan for losing to the usurpers. "Honestly, it's not been contemplated," he says. "I've always had great faith that the members are going to be sort through the chaos, and confusion, caused by the previous leaders. I'm confident we can put this chapter behind us, and not have the union turn into a circus for arcane political arguments among people who ought to know better."

After a century of fighting brutal opposition from employers, American organized labor has evolved a tendency to regard critics as enemies of the worker, even when they're not.

Could Rosselli's vision be correct? Will enlivened grassroots worker participation, and a repudiation of secret deals with employers, spark a U.S. labor revival?

"It's so unprecedented to have such a large private-sector representation vote for the first time in 70 years," says labor journalist Steve Early, author of the upcoming book The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, "so it's hard to predict the outcome."


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