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Enemy number one of the American Worker sits with a cup of iced tea in front of a San Francisco coffee shop, looking hardly menacing at all.
He's short, slight, and courteous; with his ruddy, goateed face, he resembles a kindly version of Vincent Price. He doesn't run union-busting Wal-Mart; he's no antilabor Republican congressman. He's Sal Rosselli, the one-time nursing assistant who in 1988 led an insurgent movement to usurp the old guard in a San Francisco health care workers' union local, and today is the leader of an upstart union attempting to achieve the greatest American labor upheaval in 70 years.
Rosselli is the head of the optimistically named National Union of Healthcare Workers (which so far represents only people in California), which is vying to represent 43,000 employees at Kaiser Permanente facilities. Kaiser workers, including nursing assistants, respiratory technicians, pharmacy technicians, and office staff, received ballots on Sept. 13. If NUHW wins, Rosselli says the next step is to put the squeeze on Kaiser bosses, then demand more benefits and better pay while shaping workplace standards and rules as the nonprofit chain expands.
"Under Obamacare, Kaiser is expected to explode with growth, possibly in New York, New England, and Chicago," Rosselli says, adding that if he wins the union election whose votes will be tallied this month, his hopped-up, idealistic Kaiser-employee union members will help inspire workers in those states to organize, too.
His cause is celebrated in San Francisco liberal circles, with progressive power brokers such as Democratic Party chairman John Burton, Democratic County Central Committee chairman Aaron Peskin, San Francisco Building and Trades Council president Larry Mazzola, political Svengali Clint Reilly, and prominent antipoverty activist Randy Shaw couching Rosselli as the new hope of the unionized left.
"If workers find their way to the truth," Shaw recently wrote in an online column on Beyond Chron, "NUHW can prevail."
The problem is that Rosselli isn't fighting the Man. Kaiser workers are already unionized, and enjoy one of the best contracts in the health care industry, according to academic labor specialists.
To prevail, NUHW has to persuade a majority of voting Kaiser workers to reject their current union, the 2.2-million-strong Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The vote is the biggest union election since 1941, when workers voted to join the United Auto Workers at Ford's plant in Dearborn, Mich. But that was about becoming unionized, not choosing between rival unions.
Rosselli used to be an SEIU leader himself. But he was cast out following an internal shakeup in which its Washington-based national leadership seized control of its 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West affiliate. Rosselli made powerful enemies in SEIU's ranks in 2007 when he expressed second thoughts about the union's national expansion strategy. He believed that the union had been giving up too much to employers, while compromising patient rights. Last year, Rosselli and his former SEIU lieutenants formed a breakaway union, whose hopes are pinned on enlisting workers at 350 Kaiser medical facilities around the state.
But outside the insular world of San Francisco progressivism, where activists often occupy themselves with shrubs rather than forests, the SEIU is no villainous foil to Rosselli's heroic crusade. It is the largest, fastest-growing union in the country. While other labor organizations' membership has shrunk over the past decade, SEIU's has grown. SEIU has organized janitors, hospital workers, and home care workers to provide a little sunshine for the otherwise-gloomy modern U.S. labor history.
The union has become a major political force, and is expected to spend $44 million supporting favored Democratic candidates during the fall election campaign. If workers at the menial-wage Wal-Marts of the world are ever to be unionized, if Congress is ever to be coerced into making U.S. labor law more amenable to workers, if the decline of working-class living standards is ever to halt, many reasonable labor observers believe it will be SEIU leaders who lead the charge. It won't be Sal Rosselli.
"The SEIU has been one of the brightest spots in the labor movement in recent years," says John Logan, professor and director of labor studies at San Francisco State University. "The way they've been characterized in this dispute doesn't ring true."
Indeed, the Kaiser election has been distinguished by venomous rhetoric, in which troops on both sides have accused each other of corruption, lies, incompetence, and even criminal collusion with the employer.
"It's been very tense," says Rene Santiago, a NUHW-supporting EKG technician at Kaiser's hospital on Geary near Divisadero. "People you were normally able to work with will now be like, 'Whose side are you on?'"
The respective leaders present a stark choice. "David Regan is a thug," Rosselli says in reference to the SEIU national vice president sent to California to oversee the healthcare affiliate he once led. Regan called the accusations that the union has used overbearing tactics to beat back the NUHW "utter lies."
But the questions that will be decided once the rhetoric and vote-counting subsides go deeper than choosing sides in the playground. Kaiser workers have been asked to choose an old-line brand of labor unionism that aggressively organizes workplaces; bargains for higher wages, health benefits, and fair workplace treatment; and then threatens to strike if workers don't get their way. Call this the Fight-the-Power model.
Or they can opt for a brand pioneered by former SEIU president Andy Stern, who preached that labor's greatest hope lay in striking deals with employers that might mean reduced benefits, pay, and workplace rights in the short run, but would mean a larger, and therefore stronger, labor movement in the future. Call it the Work-with-the-Power model.
Some would prefer that labor stop squabbling over tactics. "There are bad times, and there are extremely bad times," Logan says. "This is an extremely bad time to have a dispute like this. It's bad for unions. It's bad for employees. It's bad in reputational terms for organized labor."
Wearing a blue medical smock over her red NUHW T-shirt, catheter technician Deborah Jones stands in front of the Kaiser Permanente hospital on Geary Boulevard on a late September Wednesday at lunchtime, when farmers' market vendors crowd the plaza in front of the main entrance.
Plain-spoken and stout, Jones doesn't look like royalty. But in the workaday world, she is. Taking overtime pay into account, she says she earns around $100,000 per year. Her health care, and that of her two children, is completely taken care of. No copays. Prescription medicine, no matter how dear, is hers for $5. In her opinion, well-paying jobs at Kaiser exist thanks to contracts negotiated by the SEIU team led for two decades by Rosselli.
"I'd like to see our old leadership return," she says. "I'd like to see our voices heard, and see the union back under local control."
Until recently, Jones was a contract specialist, overseeing shop stewards who ensure that contractually negotiated workplace rules are followed by the employer. But when SEIU overseers learned she sympathized with Rosselli's breakaway NUHW, she said she was removed from her position. "They took away all of our local leadership with the exception of two people," she says.
She says their replacements, appointed by the national SEIU headquarters, are slow to respond to worker grievances because they spend all their time campaigning for the SEIU. During much of the past year, Jones says, Kaiser seemed to let SEIU campaigners have the run of the place, despite work rules that limit nonstop campaigning.
The NUHW even filed a lawsuit, which in many respects was a microcosm of Rosselli's larger beef with Stern for being too cozy with employers. The complaint said some Kaiser workers campaigned full time against NUHW, rather than doing their real jobs, with knowledge of Kaiser bosses. NUHW wanted the courts to intervene and halt the alleged collusion between Kaiser and SEIU, and to stop paying employees who spent work hours campaigning.
Kaiser has asked a judge to dismiss the suit. A decision on that motion is pending. Because the case hasn't been resolved, the union election has proceeded without judicial intervention. However, if NUHW loses, the union could challenge the validity of the election based on the allegations made in the lawsuit.
The NUHW claims that the SEIU has spent $40 million fighting the Kaiser campaign. Regan says the accurate figure is $4 million. Rosselli says the union has sent more than 2,000 paid staff members to preach to Kaiser workers. Regan says the union has simply protected what is theirs. "We have mobilized members of this organization to defend ourselves. That's what we've done," Regan says.
Whatever the case, the union campaign seems to have turned Kaiser's hospital on Geary Boulevard into something of a European-league soccer stadium, except that aggressive partisans aren't split onto opposite sides. Santiago says she had been interrupted so many times by SEIU campaigners that she told co-workers she felt she was being harassed. "So then they go up in employees' faces, and say, 'Am I harassing you?'" she recalls.
The message from the SEIU has been that the union has negotiated strong wage and benefit packages, despite meddling from the NUHW, and that workers will lose those comforts, including recent 9 percent raises, if they choose a new union.
Jones says that's false; the existing contract remains in force after the election, when leaders of the new union sit down and bargain a new agreement.
NUHW leaders, meanwhile, tell workers that the SEIU negotiated into the current agreement the creation of a "benefits committee." The committee's real purpose, they warn, is to increase the amount workers pay for health care. This, Rosselli says, is one of numerous examples of how the SEIU under current leadership has been giving ground: "As a patient, you want employees with longevity in health care, not a revolving door."
Rosselli was supposed to be a doctor, not a labor organizer. He worked his way through San Francisco City College, completing premed requirements with plans for medical school, cleaning city office buildings as a member of an SEIU janitors' union. He liked what he saw of organizing, and put his medical school plans on hold to plunge in. During the early 1980s, he became staff leader for the SEIU's Theater and Amusement Janitors Union, mentored by eventual SEIU president George Hardy. "He instilled me with the idea that the work we do can change workers' lives," Rosselli recalls, "by establishing a proper balance between the rights of workers and of private capital."
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.
"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.
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."