Thursday, November 13, 2008

Statement to the SEIU Ethics Commission

After three prominent leaders of the Service Employees International Union were charged with misappropriating hundreds of thousands of dollars from their local union treasuries, the SEIU set up an ethics commission to recommend measures that the union might take to guard against such misdeeds. The commission includes representatives of the union itself and eminent individuals independent of the union. Herman Benson, for AUD; and Ken Paff, for TDU were asked to submit suggestion to the commission. Benson submitted the following statement to the commission and was interviewed by a commission sub-panel on November 12.

To: Members of the SEIU ethics commission
From: Herman Benson

Since I am unable to attend the meeting in Washington and I know the limits of participating by phone, I herewith transmit my thoughts and suggestions. I would like to thank the commission for this opportunity to participate in its deliberations.

I am not completely clear on what this commission is charged with bringing back to the union. If it is asked simply to bring back a code of commandments that should guide the ethical and moral actions of union officers and members, that task would be easy and should not take long. Codes already proliferate throughout the labor movement; the SEIU has a modest code of its own. The existing codes could easily serve as the basis for elaborating and strengthening an even more impressively formulated code. However, the bare existence of even the best of these codes has had an inconclusive effect on actual life in unions. The neglected problem has been enforcement.

If, on the other hand, the commission aims, not only to suggest a new and better code, but to propose the creation of mechanisms and institutions that might enable the union to enforce adherence to high ethical standards, it takes on a heavy responsibility not easily fulfilled.

In episodic situations, unions have occasionally been able to deal with misappropriation of money and "ordinary" corruption (as far as I know, never with organized crime), but there has never been a successful, sustained, effort with lasting results from within the labor movement itself. In 1957, the AFL-CIO tried with its Ethical Practices Committee and Codes. Recently Ed Stier tried in the Teamsters union. Both were failures. Unfortunately, the labor movement has had to depend upon the U. S. Justice Department to police it against massive theft and organized crime infiltration. Why has the labor movement been unable to adequately police itself? I've thought long and hard about this vexing question.

As I see it now, the weakness of any internal union effort stems from two sources: 1.The power relationships within unions make it politically awkward and inconvenient for even well-meaning union leaders to act against suspect elements in the power structure. That reality permits corruption to fester and makes it difficult to eradicate. 2. In resisting corruption, even with the best will in the world, unions lack the weapons routinely available to law enforcement authorities: wire taps, extensive surveillance, FBI etc. files, subpoena powers, threat of contempt charges.

I mention all this, not to disparage or discourage action but only to make clear how big a job this commission, or any body inside the labor movement, faces. It seems to me, you must be ready to propose measures that go beyond what is conventional in the labor movement or may be downright unpopular. As Obama might say: the old way has failed: we might at least consider the new. In that spirit, I offer my own thinking which I would sum up as follows:

1. We need an authority, within the union which can free itself from internal union politics and can rise above the familiar maneuvering and conflicts for power, prestige, and perquisites. We need an appeals or enforcement institution that is completely independent of any union's own administrative structure, not beholden to any established officialdom, and under certain conditions, free to overturn decisions of the union president or international executive board. 2. Lacking the tools of government law enforcement authorities, we can depend upon the hundreds of thousands of good union activists, whose eyes and ears and dedication to the labor movement, can make them effective guardians of integrity. But for that, we need to create the kind of genuine democratic atmosphere within the union that encourages members to speak their mind without fear of denunciation or retaliation.

In that connection, I offer the following observations:

I: The implementing or enforcement body

Here, the commission can begin by considering the Public Review Board of the United Auto Workers. After the ACLU proposed the creation of such boards in the labor movement, the UAW set up its board upon the initiative of Walter Reuther in 1957; it remains an effective functioning body. The remarkable feature of this move is that it represents the voluntary relinquishing by a union leadership of a measure of its authority to a body composed of individuals outside of the union and independent of its power structure. As an authoritative appeals committee, it offers recourse to members against decisions of the union's highest officers, including the president and international executive board. It is limited only by its inability to review UAW official collective bargaining policy. Its decisions are readily available to UAW members and the general public. (See Articles 32 and 33 of UAW Constitution)

To remain effective, any such a review board must be composed of individuals of unquestioned integrity. If its members were chosen for their deference to the union leadership or dependence upon it, the board would lose all credibility. The UAW has passed this test by selecting people who are pro-labor, civil libertarian in outlook, and eminent their own careers. UAW-PRB members are nominated by the international president, subject to approval by the international executive board, and finally elected at the UAW convention. They serve a term of five years. Any vacancy in mid-term is filled from nominations by the board itself.

I would make at least one suggestion to strengthen the board's reputation for independence. The union president should make his selections from a whole roster of nominations submitted by organizations like the ACLU, NAACP, the UAW Public Review Board, the Association for Union Democracy, the Public Citizen Litigation Group. In that case, while the union retains the right to choose the members of the board, it does so from among panel members chosen by pro-labor civil libertarians independent of the ruling union administration.

After 50 years, the UAW Public Review Board remains unique in the labor movement. (The small independent Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers did emulate the UAW, but I don't know if its Public Review Board survived after the union affiliated with the Carpenters.) The labor movement has remained indifferent at best; some unions have been hostile. The UAW attributed the failure of negotiations for its merger with the IAM and Steelworkers to its insistence upon retaining the PRB. If this commission is to recommend a genuine Public Review Board, roughly modeled upon the UAW's, it must be ready to stand against the prevailing prejudices.

II: The content of any code:

To be taken seriously and be effective, any code must make clear that it is just as concerned to protect membership democratic rights as it is to protect the union against corrupt practices and conflicts of interest. Existing codes spell out, in detail and at length, rules for preserving financial integrity. But where they even refer to union democracy, it is only in passing, briefly, perfunctorily. That imbalance reveals what a union considers important …and what it does not.

The court-enforced consent decree that monitors the Teamsters union calls not only for eradicating corruption, but for encouraging democracy in the union. The Independent Review Board which is responsible for enforcing the consent decree, armed with the power of the court and government law enforcement, has done an excellent job in freeing the union from mob control. But it remains indifferent to appeals from members who complain against violation of their rights. Somehow, democracy falls by the wayside. In the interests of integrity, that kind of neglect should end.

We should be concerned with bolstering union democracy, not only because it is a value in itself or because it tends toward a better and more effective labor movement, but because in the context of this discussion it can be a powerful weapon for defending integrity. Local members and local leaders ---all union activists--- can detect what's happening in their unions sooner and far more effectively than any outside formal investigators. But the atmosphere in the union and the receptivity of the top leadership must encourage them to speak out, knowing that their questions and misgivings will be received, and they need not fear intimidation and retaliation.

It would be disingenuous of me not to admit that I feel that this would require a massive change of mood inside the SEIU. The demand that all elected and appointed representatives, top to bottom, speak with "one voice," the heavy-handed denunciation of Sal Rosselli for the very act of criticizing official policy, and the threat to trusteeship his local all run counter to what is required. The need is to change the mood. For this commission to ignore that reality would be to undermine its effectiveness.

III: The scope of any enforcement body's responsibility and authority

Based on what I have learned over the years, I'd like to lay out what I think are the choices.

What should we expect of any enforcement body, public review board or any other? The alternatives, as I see it, are between 1. to act essentially as a review body, authorized to protect due process and fair play in the union by offering appeals recourse against decisions by the union's own officers and committees, or 2. in addition to or instead of the above, to exercise police powers that would require it to initiate investigations, prefer charges, and perhaps to conduct trials and impose penalties on its own authority.

In public government, Federal courts are appeals bodies. The Department of Justice is the policing agency. Inside the labor movement, the UAW Public Review Board hears appeals. In the Teamsters union, the Independent Review Board is a policing body.

As I remember, when the UAW Public Review Board was in formation, --- this was a moment when the McClellan Committee hearings had exposed widespread corruption in the labor movement --- Walter Reuther suggested that the board might take on responsibility for policing the union against corruption. But the prospective board members demurred because they felt it went far beyond their intentions.

The cost of an appeals board is easily within the resources of a union like the SEIU. Retainers for the members, a full time executive director, and a modest supporting staff would do the trick. But to add policing functions would require much more.

The costs of the Teamsters IRB, whose policing responsibilities include investigating, pressing charges, conducting trials, and sentencing, are borne by the union. Because the IRB is appointed by a Federal judge, it has access to government law enforcement and information gathering facilities which would not be available to any SEIU created body.

If the SEIU wanted to set up a special board both to police the union for corruption like the Teamsters IRB and to act as an appeals body to protect members rights, I think it would need an extensive and expensive investigatory and clerical staff. If the commission and the union decided that such a board was necessary, and the union is ready to bear the costs, I would be ready make suggestions for its functioning. However, I am not ready to recommend the creation of an enforcement board with such broad responsibilities. I favor a board more like the UAW PRB.

Obviously, this commission was created because the union felt it proper to respond to the revelations of misappropriation of hundreds of thousands of dollars by officers of some West Coast union locals. But no responsible person I know of charges that the SEIU is systemically riddled with corruption. The SEIU is not the Teamsters union. I am convinced that if union democracy is protected and encouraged such problems could be adequately handled within the union's own constitutional procedures for charges, trials, and penalties, with this addition: a genuinely impartial public review board with ultimate appeals authority. (In California, there must have been some union members who blew the whistle. The point is to encourage and protect member like them.)

IV: Addendum on democracy

Without lengthy supportive explanation, I would like simply to list some of the provisions that should be included in any code of democratic procedures. I realize that many (most?) are quite controversial. However, they will indicate what I feel is necessary to lift any formulations above the level of holiday homiletics:

1. As a minimum, the rights provided in the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act with additions and modifications in what follows.

2. Abolish all meeting attendance rules as a qualification for running for office when they automatically disqualify 90% of members. Since the reality is that only about 5% of a local's members attend meetings, these rules serve no real purpose except to help entrench a tiny minority in office.

3. End the requirement of 24 months continuous good standing as a qualification for candidacy in local elections. The rule serves to disqualify good, active, long term union members who inadvertently fall a few days in arrears or are disqualified by manipulations of the local financial records. Substitute a requirement for, say, one or two years membership with the right to get in good standing at the time of nominations.

4. Encourage the election of job stewards

5. Establish "battle" pages in union publications and on union websites where opposing and dissenting view can be expressed. Follow the example of the United Federation of Teachers, which provides whole pages to rival slates in local elections.

6. Allow members to establish their own independent web sites without imposing niggling or repressive restrictions.

7. Give local unions due process and their day in court by permitting the use of locals' own resources to challenge what they feel are the improper imposition of trusteeships.

8. Provide for membership ratification of contracts after full information is afforded to voters with a reasonable period for discussion.

9. Comply with LMRDA Section 105 which requires unions to inform members of their right under the LMRDA.

10. Require exclusively public employee locals to comply with the relevant provisions of the LMRDA.

11. Provide for the voiding of union elections where the violations of fair procedures are so egregious that they make a mockery of the democratic process.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In search of legal defense against illegal trusteeships

In March 2008, the UHW-W executive board deposited $500,000 into a trust account with its attorney to provide for legal defense of the local's autonomy and of the democratic rights of its members and officers against the imposition of an illegal trusteeship. In scheduling the trusteeship hearings, Stern charged, "This is an inappropriate use of union monies." The charge that local funds may not be used to fight a trusteeship, formulated and reformulated with repetitive emphasis, constitutes Stern's main indictment of Rosselli's local. Catch 22! The UHW faces trusteeship because it established a special fund to defend the local and its elected leadership against an illegal trusteeship!

The puzzling difficulty faced by UHW-W, and which establishing a legal defense fund partially surmounts, lies in federal law which provides that any trusteeship imposed by an international union is presumed to be valid for the first 18 months. Once a trusteeship is established, the international takes over the local treasury so that none of its members or elected officers have access to their own local's funds to defend their rights. Starved of money, they find it almost impossible to mount an effective legal case. Meanwhile, the international officials can dip into the union's ample resources to defend their every action. Unrestrained for 18 months, armed with all the international and local levers of money and power, free to employ fear, favor, propaganda, and persuasion, the international moves to create its own political machine in the local and eliminate its annoying critics. Stern's trusteeship and internal charges are obviously intended to bring down Rosselli and simultaneously to deprive him of any means of effective legal defense.

Is it permissible for a local union to set aside money, safe from seizure by the international, so that it can be guaranteed funds to mount a legal defense against trusteeship? That question has arisen before, not in the SEIU but in the Teamsters union. It has never been adequately resolved.

In 1996, when Ron Carey was still IBT president, some 60 Teamster units had already been trusteed, some by the Independent Review Board and some by Carey. Three big anti-Carey locals, fearing trusteeships, each put money into a kind of escrow fund, totaling $400,000 for all three, held in trust by their attorneys. Like Rosselli's fund in 2008, their fund in 1996 was intended to guarantee that they could pay for legal defense against the trusteeship they feared. Like Stern in 2008, Carey in 1996 charged that the fund violated the union constitution and went to court against it. The controversy was never settled, because the three locals backed off and restored the money to the union treasury. But while the battle was still alive, here is what we wrote in Union Democracy Review [No. 106]:

"...what is involved in this dispute is not the right of the international to impose trusteeships but the right of a subordinate body to an adequate defense against the imposition of a trusteeship that may be improper. By protecting legal defense funds from instant seizure, the local body, at least temporarily, gets its day in court. A valid trusteeship might be delayed, but only to allow for a period of genuine due process.

"What is involved here is a matter of important principle that transcends the immediate situation in the Teamsters union. Carey, we are convinced ... uses the weapon of trusteeship on behalf of integrity and democracy. Even he might err in the future. And anyone is capable sometimes of abusing power, even in a worthy cause. But that's not even the greatest danger. Suppose he is defeated and replaced by an old time dictator. If Carey were to try to defend his local by setting up a legal defense fund for protection against repression by, say, a new gang, surely we would all rise to his defense.

"... the issue goes beyond the Teamsters union to affect the broader labor movement. In most cases that come to our attention... trusteeships are imposed to stifle democracy.... Even with a defense fund initially at its disposal, a local is guaranteed only its first day in court. ... The defense fund makes at least a minimal due process available in trusteeship cases. True, the idea is advanced by a suspect old guard. But if we had thought of it first, it would already have become a minor weapon for union democracy."

Now, twelve years later, while SEIU democracy is endangered, the issue returns.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

California labor intellectuals call on Andy Stern to respect constructive dissent in SEIU

AUD recently received this letter by email:

An Open Letter of Concern to Andy Stern
About United Healthcare Workers-West
From California Educators, Academics, Writers and Worker Advocates

November 9, October 2008

Mr. Andy Stern
Service Employees International Union
1800Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036

Dear Andy Stern:

On May Day, 2008, more than 100 scholars, writers and activists, many of them longstanding supporters of SEIU, wrote to you and urged reconsideration of any plan to place United Healthcare Workers-West in trusteeship. That public letter said: "Putting UHW under trusteeship would send a very troubling message and be viewed, by many, as a sign that internal democracy is not valued or tolerated within SEIU."

The letter endorsers were told, at the time, that no such plan existed and that UHW statements about this matter were simply not true. Such reassurances were received in a personal message from SEIU EVPs Eliseo Medina and Gerry Hudson and in a letter signed by 47 other SEIU leaders.  As recently as July, the threat of an international union take-over of UHW was dismissed as a "myth" by SEIU IEB member Stephen Lerner (in an exchange of views posted on MRZine).

Now, we've learned that you indeed ordered UHW trusteeship hearings. These began in San Mateo on September 26 and 27 and are scheduled to resume and conclude next week in San Jose. Moreover, you have gone ahead despite an enormous outpouring of opposition from UHW members and others, including the protest in Manhattan Beach by 5,000 SEIU members opposed to the arbitrary removal of 60,000 UHW-represented workers to Local 6434 in Los Angeles. More than 8000 members protested at the San Mateo hearings. At the same time, the media has reported very serious allegations of corruption involving Local 6434 President Tyrone Freeman, which have led to his removal by your office and an on-going investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor that could lead to criminal charges against him. It would appear that those home care and nursing home workers faced with the possibility of forced transfer from UHW to Freeman's local have had good reason to resist.

We in California have, of course, a great deal at stake in the outcome of these disputes. The trusteeship fears of UHW seem to be very well-founded. While a clean-up of 6434 may require outside intervention, we believe that a simultaneous, unjustified take- over of 150,000 member UHW would be a disaster for the California labor movement (and SEIU nationally).  It would further disrupt current contract negotiations with major health care
employers, while also impeding much-needed political action to defend state worker jobs in health, education and other public services. As the May Day letter endorsers did last spring, we urge you to "avoid such a tragedy"--by respecting the autonomy and constructive dissent of UHW.


Frank Bardacke, Writer, Labor Educator and Founder, Third World Teaching Resource Center
Martin Bennett, Professor of History, Santa Rosa Junior College, Executive Board, North Bay Labor Council
Jeff Blankfort, Radio Host, KZYX, Mendocino Public Radio
Gillian C. Boal, Rare Book Conservator, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley
Iain A. Boal, Professor of Social History, UC Santa Cruz
Gray Brechin, Visiting Scholar in the Department of Geography, UC Berkeley; Project Scholar of the California Living New Deal Project.
Bob Brenner, Director, Center for Social Theory & Comparative History, UCLA
Summer Brenner, Environmental Justice Activist, Berkeley
Charles Briggs, Professor of Anthropology, UC Berkeley
James Brook, poet, San Francisco
Jose Calderon, Professor, Sociology and Chicano Studies, Pitzer College
Jamie Court, President, Consumer Watchdog
Mike Davis, Writer and Professor, Creative Writing, UC Riverside
A. J. Duffy, President, United Teachers of Los Angeles
Judy Dugan, Research Director, Consumer Watchdog
Barry Eidlin, Sociology, University of California, Berkeley
Richard Flacks, Professor of Sociology, University of California Santa Barbara
Jack Gerson, Executive Board and Bargaining Team, Oakland Education Association
David Goldberg, Treasurer, United Teachers of Los Angeles
Charlene Harrington, Professor of Sociology and Nursing, UC San Francisco 
Dan Hodges Chair, Health Care for All-California
Ramsey Kanaan, PM Press, Oakland
John Kramer, Professor of Political Science, California State University Sonoma
Karl Kramer, Treasurer, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement - San Francisco, Campaign Co-director, San Francisco Living Wage Coalition
Jack Kurzweil, Former President (San Jose State University Chapter), 
California Faculty Association, SEIU 1983
Sasha Lilley, Program Director, KPFA
Dr. Arthur Lipow, Center for Global Peace & Democracy, Alameda
Jeff Lustig, Professor, Political Science Dept. CSU Sacramento.
Joseph Matthews, Attorney
Nathanael Matthiesen, Sociology, University of California, Irvine
Tom Mertes, Administrator, Center for Social Theory & Comparative History, UCLA
Franco Moretti, Professor of Literature, Stanford University
Claudia Moura, Professor, Social Science, Santa Rosa Junior College
Betty Olson-Jones, President, Oakland Education Association
Raj Patel, Writer, Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley
Richard Perry, J.D., Ph.D. Professor of Justice Studies
San Jose' State University
Vivian Price, Coordinator, Labor Studies, California State University, Dominguez Hills
Melvin Pritchard, Professor of History, West Valley College
Tom Reifer, Sociology, University of San Diego; Associate Fellow, Transnational Institute
Teri Reynolds, MD, PhD, Past delegate, Alameda County Medical Center Committee of Interns and Residents/SEIU
Bill Shields, Chair, Community and Labor Studies, City College of San Francisco
Faith Simon, Mendocino Institute
Norman Solomon, Institute for Public Accuracy, Author, War Made Easy
Vanessa Tait, author, Poor Workers' Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below,
Member, UPTE-CWA Local 9119, UC Berkeley
Kay Trimberger, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, California State University Sonoma
Richard A. Walker, Chair, California Studies Center, UC Berkeley
Katharine Wallerstein, Executive Director, The Global Commons Foundation
David Walls, Professor of Sociology, California State University, Sonoma
Michael Watts, Professor of Geography, UC Berkeley
Cal Winslow, Fellow, Environmental Politics, UC Berkeley, Director Mendocino Institute
Eddie Yuen, Author, editor and radio producer

*affiliations listed for identification purposes only

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

To A... great and A...glorious

My oath on accepting appointive office

To A... great and A...glorious
Accept my pledge most meritorious
I will obey your every word and note
If not, you can cut my throat

(with thanks to an unknown libertarian poet)

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Who really controls the SEIU trusteeship hearings?

The SEIU retained Ray Marshall, former secretary of labor, to preside over the hearings on President Stern’s proposal to place the UHW-W under trusteeship. Marshall is assigned to the job so that the proceedings will presumably be impartial. But who really calls the shots? We ask this question because the OLMS office of the U.S. Labor Department wrote a request to Marshall (note: to Marshall not to the SEIU) in which it wrote:” As you are aware, we requested that an OLMS investigator be present to observe the hearings. It is our understanding that after consultation with the SEIU International Union, you will not honor our request."

If Marshall is really running the hearings, why did he have to consult with the SEIU before denying the request? Odd.

But that is not the end of the story. The SEIU seems to have changed its mind (perhaps after the media got on to the story.) Two days later, the DOL was informed, “SEIU would be willing to accommodate a request by DOL to attend the upcoming hearing….” But the letter came not from Marshall but from Judy Scott, SEIU general counsel. Marshall had dropped out of the loop. That’s why the question is appropriate: who is really in charge?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

SEIU needs more democracy not more codes

Paul Garver is disappointed because I did not respond more positively to reports that Andy Stern's ethics commission might request my comments for proposals to strengthen the SEIU ethics code. He writes, "Why don't we accept Andy Stern's offer the spirit of giving this process a genuine test?"

But what is there to test? An ethical practices code can be helpful in resolving ambiguities and fine points. Can a business agent accept a $25 holiday gift from an employer? $50? $1000? Can a union rep. hold stock in a major corporation represented by the union? In a small family owned business? (The SEIU already has a code of ethics.) But that's not what triggered this moral crisis in the SEIU. We are confronted here essentially by the outright misappropriation of hundreds of thousands of dollars of union money to enrich union leaders and their friends and family. Does a bank need an ethical practices code to inform tellers that it's wrong to steal money from the till? Is it necessary now to remind SEIU officers that they must not steal, and that we really, really mean it?

From that standpoint, all this talk about appointing a new commission would be a simple waste of time, but then, time exists to be wasted. But this is more than a time-waster. It is an evasion. The real problem is that these officials were originally appointed, not elected, to their powerful positions by Andy Stern himself; they were endowed with authority over mega locals and a staff which they, in turn could appoint. And in their locals, as in the SEIU, an atmosphere of intimidation has been created which makes members, appointed staff, and even elected local officers afraid to speak out. In that atmosphere, where democracy recedes. corruption festers. The problem in the SEIU is not the lack of an ethical practices code, it is the suppression of the democratic spirit. At least, that's how I look at it.

But there's even more is at stake. The problem is the undermining of democracy. And while Andy Stern shifts attention to an ethical practices code, he himself is making the problem of democracy even worse! He is now trying to destroy Sal Rosselli, president of United Healthcare Workers-West, who criticizes his policies. In fact, Rosselli has been the only critic with enough influence and resources to constitute any serious opposition to Stern. Unlike Stern's own appointees, Rosselli has never been charged with trying to enrich himself or friends. The attack on Rosselli derives from his political opposition to Stern.

And so, because the talk of a new ethics code is a waste of time, and is an evasion of the real problem of democracy, and because it can serve as a cover for a new attack on democracy, and because I fear being used in any effort to divert attention from these sordid facts, I could only react with skepticism.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

How could Andy Stern's appointees manage to rip off the SEIU?

Someone explained to Steve Greenhouse, N.Y. Times labor reporter, that the SEIU was plunged into a corruption scandal because "Mr. Stern [international president] ... has been preoccupied with politics, unionizing more workers, and combining locals into larger, more powerful groups –actions that critics say have led to less accountability for local leaders."

You get the picture? While Stern is rushing from California to Connecticut to China in a crusade to save the workers of the world, and merging local to local to mobilize them against global capitalism, and organizing those millions of workers, and preparing the political assault against reaction in Washington, ---while his back was turned and his attention riveted on all those momentous tasks --- some unethical aides could take advantage of his preoccupation by stealing money. ( We note, in passing, that despite those onerous social burdens, Stern could squeeze out the time to prepare charges against Sal Rosselli.)

Can honesty in the SEIU depend upon Stern keeping his own eyes, and, ears, and hands on everything and everyone? No, they are asking too much of any single human being, even Stern. This is a union of !,800,000 members, tens of thousands of representatives, elected officers, appointed staff, and hundreds of locals. No one person can police all that. True, Stern did appoint to high positions those who are now accused of enriching friends and relatives. But even the best of leaders can misjudge some people.

On the other hand, Stern did promote dozens of good decent, talented, honest, idealistic people. In fact, back in May, on the eve of the SEIU national convention, when Stern first seemed to be threatening a trusteeship over Rosselli’s local, 101 pro-union writers, scholars, and educators wrote to Stern, “Putting UHW under trusteeship would…be viewed by many as a sign that internal democracy is not valued or tolerated within the SEIU.” Forty-seven top SEIU leaders, including Dennis Rivera and George Gresham, who had succeeded Rivera as head of Local 1199 in New York, replied, “On the specific issue you raise, we agree that trusteeships should never be used to limit democratic debate in any union. In the case of the SEIU your letter addressed a straw man since no such retaliatory trusteeship is under consideration nor would we ever approve one. In fact, the only talk of trusteeship has come from UHW-W itself.”

Their revulsion against retaliatory trusteeship seems to have been enough to give pause to Stern, but only enough to delay him for four months, not to stop him. Ironically, three of those 47 now stand accused of ripping off the union. But enough of the others are decent unionists of integrity who should be counted on to stand up against crooks; and there are hundreds of others in local leadership at all levels who must be revolted by the epidemic of scandals. Surely with all those open eyes and ears, dozens of good unionists must have known or suspected. Why did they have to wait for exposures by the press? Why did no one in the leadership at any level speak out boldly and demand action? There's the nub of the problem.

Those have it all wrong who advised Greenhouse that the difficulty is that Stern was so preoccupied that he couldn't do enough. The problem is not what Stern couldn't do. The real problem is what he did do. He undermined the spirit of democracy in the SEIU.

He appointed the heads of huge locals and gave them time to create their own political machines. They, in turn, established a structure that made it virtually impossible for any rivals to organize against them and endowed themselves with authoritarian powers. Stern and his ideological mentors created an atmosphere of organizational and moral intimidation throughout the union. They insisted upon a humiliating loyalty oath from all appointees. They demanded that all SEIU representatives at all levels, local and international, elected or appointed, paid or unpaid, speak always with "one voice"; and that voice could only be, not their own, but the voice of Andy Stern and his coterie. In that heavy atmosphere, intimidation was king, no one in any position of organizational responsibility felt free to speak out. Without the oxygen of democracy, in that closed container, corruption festered. And when one did speak out, Sal Rosselli, against an aspect of official policy, Stern mobilized his full as president to try to crush the critic.

It's not that Stern couldn't pay enough attention but that he paid too much attention to bureaucratic centralization and none to democratic rights. Once the spirit of democracy was quelled, Stern's authoritarianism spawned corruption.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

AUD Proposes Democracy as a Weapon Against Corruption

PRESS RELEASE -- Association for Union Democracy, Inc.
September 3, 2008
Media Contacts: Herman Benson, Kurt Richwerger (718) 564-1114 (AUD)
AUD Proposes Democracy as a Weapon Against Corruption

In today's New York Times, the Service Employees International Union announced plans for an internal ethics commission to address recent corruption charges facing several top union leaders. The union indicated that it would consult the Association for Union Democracy as part of its efforts.

The Association for Union Democracy is very willing to bring our forty years of experience to bear in assisting the SEIU, but what the SEIU faces is a moral crisis involving both democracy and corruption.

We believe it is essential to ensure protection for democracy and dissent within unions. Our experience shows that democracy is the linchpin for preventing corruption.

An internal panel of the kind proposed by SEIU President Andrew Stern would simply mull over the niceties of still another code and would be more than a waste of time; it would be an evasion. What the SEIU needs now is to establish a board composed of respected individuals, independent and completely outside the union power structure - a kind of supreme court endowed with the power, in defense of member rights, to overrule decisions of the international president and the international executive board in those circumstances in which members' democratic rights could be endangered.

The need is not to devise a code of ethics, the need is the genuine practice of democracy. The basic code of ethics was delivered on Mount Sinai in the commandment "Thou shall not steal." Everything else is a refinement. If the SEIU feels it needs an amplification of its own code to remind its officials of that commandment, it need only copy one of the many excellent codes already available. The problem in the SEIU is not that it lacks an ethical code, but that it has evolved a bureaucratic system of organization and, despite any code, has created an atmosphere of authoritarianism that obviously spawns corruption.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Andy Stern is slipping off the pedestal

By imposing a trusteeship and a monitorship over two mega West Coast locals, Andy Stern, SEIU international president, subjects twenty percent of the entire international membership to his disciplinary domination. They make up almost half the union's membership in health care, the SEIU's most important area of concentration. Two locals, but how different their stories! In one, Stern initiates action against a rival and critic. In the other, he is forced to act against one of his own key supporters who stands accused of defrauding his local of around a million dollars. Disruption on this scale might normally reveal an international administration in disarray. Ironically, however, just three months before, Stern emerged from the union's convention with his program overwhelmingly endorsed and his presidential powers expanded.

In one case, Stern has imposed monitors on the way to full trusteeship over the 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West. Its local president, Sal Rosselli has been a forthright critic of Stern’s policies. The charges against Rosselli are based upon actions he is accused of taking in his battle with Stern. Neither he nor his colleagues are accused of trying to enrich themselves or anyone else. Stern’s move against Rosselli show that he is ready to exercise his constitutional powers as president to undermine, perhaps destroy, a political rival.

The other case is quite different. Stern has imposed a trusteeship over the 190,000-member United Long-Term Care Workers Local 6434. Its president Tyrone Freeman, accused of paying out around a million dollars of the local's money to enrich his friends and relatives, has stepped down temporarily. He is also accused of assuring his automatic “election” without opposition simply by making nominating requirements so difficult that no rival could qualify.

Freeman is more than a supporter of Stern; he is virtually a creation of Stern, who appointed him to head this huge local. How close to Stern? Just before the scandal broke, the Stern administration was about to transfer 65,000 members out of Rosselli’s local and turn them over to Freeman’s! And so, the protégé implanted in power by Stern, cultivated by Stern, and a close ally of Stern is forced to step aside, charged with arrant fraud.

The action against Rosselli’s UHC-W is particularly disquieting because for so many months Stern and his colleagues had adamantly denied that it would take place.

Back in May, on the eve of the SEIU national convention, when Stern first seemed to be threatening a trusteeship over Rosselli’s local, 101 pro-union writers, scholars, and educators wrote to Stern, “Putting UHW under trusteeship would…be viewed by many as a sign that internal democracy is not valued or tolerated within the SEIU.” Stern replied that he found their talk of trusteeship “puzzling.” In May, in a Federal suit against Rosselli and nine other UAW-W officers, the SEIU denied any intention of trusteeing the local. Its complaint informed the court, "In particular, in May 2007 the defendants began to fear, contrary to fact, that SEIU was planning to appoint a trustee to run the affairs of the local union and remove them from office...."

Forty-seven top SEIU leaders, including Dennis Rivera and George Gresham, who had succeeded Rivera as head of Local 1199 in New York, wrote that the letter of the 101 writers was full of misinformation and misunderstanding. “On the specific issue you raise, we agree that trusteeships should never be used to limit democratic debate in any union. In the case of the SEIU your letter addressed a straw man since no such retaliatory trusteeship is under consideration nor would we ever approve one. In fact, the only talk of trusteeship has come from UHW-W itself. ”

A straw man? Their revulsion against retaliatory trusteeship seems to have been enough to give pause to Stern, enough to delay him for four months but not to stop him. Stern was free to move because their disapproval could be ignored. He can ride over Rosselli and he can override the misgivings of 47 top SEIU leaders. Rosselli is in danger because he would not remain subservient to Stern. Were those 47 leaders consulted before Rosselli was attacked? Did they approve the looming trusteeship?

On August 25, Rosselli got the message from Stern, "Notice of Hearing on Whether a Trustee Should be Appointed at SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West." Pending the hearing, Stern dispatched two monitors to watch over the local's affairs.

How the scene has changed in the four years since an earlier SEIU convention! Then, it was Stern, labor’s white knight, the progressive champion of the underdog, the fresh new face of organized labor, open to new ideas, a new voice. Then, inside the SEIU, a unanimous vision. Now? Second thoughts are inevitable.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

SEIU needs a public review board

...without it, fair play is impossible.

A few members of Sal Rosselli’s own local, United Healthcare Workers-West, have brought charges against him and his administration, accusing them of assorted acts of retaliation against supporters of Andy Stern, international president of the Service Employees International Union. The complainants fear that they can never get a fair trial in their own local because the local is controlled by Rosselli, and he is embroiled in an intense internal union battle with Stern. They ask Stern to use his power as international president to bypass the local trial process, assume original jurisdiction, and proceed with a trial under international auspices. Stern has agreed. And so the trial of Rosselli will proceed under the aegis of Stern, his bitter enemy.

But if Rosselli’s critics can’t get a fair trial under Rosselli, how can Rosselli be guaranteed a fair trial under Stern?

Someone has written that neither Stern nor Rosselli is an angel. True, angels are so few. The difference here, however, is that one non-angel has the overwhelming union constitutional power to damage the other. But not vice versa.

It was already clear before the recent SEIU convention. It obvious now: The SEIU needs a public review board.

The SEIU does not have to invent the wheel. The United Auto Workers has had a public review board for fifty years. The board is a kind of Supreme Court within the union to guarantee due process. It has the authority to overturn disciplinary decisions of the union’s top international executive board and president. Most important of all, it is composed of independent persons, pro-labor, civil libertarians, eminent in their own right in their own professions. And because they are independent and outside the union power structure, not beholden to the union establishment, the board and its members serve as an important deterrent to arbitrary authoritarianism.

Which is precisely what the SEIU needs to protect union democracy at this point in its history where two sides are bitterly pitted against each other. We have no way of knowing how the newest charges against Rosselli will end. We do know that the need to defend due process will continue. The SEIU needs an impartial public review board, not simply to assure genuine due process for Rosselli, but to protect internal union democracy for all.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Employer rights and worker deaths in construction

By Herman Benson

Towering cranes are shooting up all over New York City where building construction is booming and some construction workers are dying. A few fall off scaffolds, I-beams, and window ledges; one is buried and suffocated in an illegally dug collapsing trench.

After two huge cranes fell in mid-town Manhattan --- one within days of the other --- killing workers and bystanders and crushing nearby apartments, city officials and contractor VIPs say something must be done about it. But what?

We need more and more inspectors, some say; and they must inspect more often and more honestly. After hurried investigations, a few unlucky inspectors take the rap; they lose their jobs for having, on occasion, reported falsely or taken bribes, although few of the offenses had any direct causal connection with the accidents.

More inspection by honest inspectors? It's bound to do some good, but not much, because there's a limit to what any inspectors can accomplish, even the best, by appearing, with or without warning, on the site where all that complicated equipment, with thousands of parts, is assembled. They can't go over every one of those straps, ropes, and cables; those wheels, pulleys, and gears; those nuts and bolts that hold everything together. Were the right-size rods inserted, hammered into place, and properly fixed to hold the connected units together? Were all the scaffolds securely fixed to the walls? Was someone satisfied with dangerous cost-cutting shortcuts?

Those few dozens inspectors, even if honest can see only so much. But there are others, not dozens but thousands, who can do more: the construction workers actually at the work sites on the job, those who put everything together and actually use all that equipment. Their lives are at risk when safety precautions are ignored. When there's death in an accident, occasionally a bystander is victimized; always it's at least one construction worker, often more. But no one in a position of authority encourages them to watch over the work and speak up when they know working conditions are dangerous. (When we suspect a danger from terrorists, all citizens are urged to report what they see.) No one calls on those workers who have most at stake --- their lives --- to blow the whistle on the lethal dangers in construction.

Employers want only employees who will work swiftly and keep their mouths shut. Without protection, non-union workers --- especially the undocumented --- will continue to be helpless until they are organized. But unionized workers should feel free to speak out; their unions should protect their right to work in safety. But they have a problem.

Construction workers, even unionized construction workers, have no real job security. Jobs are transient, not permanent; when one project is finished, they look for another, often with a different contractor. The problem is that virtually all union contracts give employers right to reject any applicant for work, even those dispatched from the union hiring hall. This contractual right to reject is unqualified; the employer need give no explanation; the rejected worker has no recourse to any grievance procedure.

As a consequence, unionists who insist that contractors comply with the terms of their union agreement, or who file grievances soon find that they are blacklisted wherever they apply for work. If you win a grievance against one employer, you may find it impossible to get work from any employer. Under these conditions, construction workers who protest unsafe conditions, risk everything. Many are forced to become "travelers," roaming the country for work where their reputation as good union members is still unknown.

The most loyal union members can be victimized by the employers' arbitrary right to reject. In the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, local officers and union activists have been trying for years to get rid of that onerous provision in their contracts. At the IBEW convention in 2001, over the opposition of their international officers, the delegates directed the IBEW leaders to end the unilateral right to reject and replace it with a provision that required "good cause" for any rejection, Nothing happened. In 2006, the convention delegates repeated their demand for the change. Again, nothing happened. And so, in the IBEW as in most of construction, a union whistleblower has no contractual protection. Until that changes, nothing dramatic is likely to change in making construction work safer.

[AUD has collected some action proposals from IBEW members regarding the "right to reject" -- MN]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Fight in Ohio between SEIU and California Nurses revives old issue: When employers welcome unions at the NLRB

By Herman Benson

An angry battle in Ohio between the Service Employees [SEIU] and the California Nurses Association [CNA] calls attention to a proposed new regulation by the National Labor Relations Board that would make it easy for consenting employers to accept, or even welcome, unionization without disturbing their workers with a hostile, confrontational campaign.

Up to now, either a union or an employer could petition the NLRB for a collective bargaining election. If a union, utilizing its rights under the National Labor Relations Act [NLRA], wants to force recognition from a company, it must work hard to win over the work force. It must submit a petition to the NLRB signed by at least 30% of the work force and then win a majority of the votes in a collective bargaining election, usually hotly contested by an anti-union employer.

Under certain conditions, an employer can ask for a collective bargaining election: It may contend that an existing union no longer truly represents its workers, or it may want to resolve the demands of two or more competing unions that claim to represent its employees. In that case, the NLRB can move promptly to schedule an election: no petitions from workers are required. It is the employer, not the union or the workers, who wants this election.

Under the proposed regulation, the NLRB would provide a new swift and easy route to collective bargaining. Where the union and the employer are both willing to cement relations, they can jointly submit a consent petition to the NLRB. No need for the union to collect signatures on petitions; it need not submit evidence that it actually represents any workers. In the course of the election, no need for a campaign to convince the mass of workers, or even to keep them informed, no controversy, no class warfare, only cooperation.

For the union it’s a great opportunity. It need not spend its limited resources of time and money to campaign or even to collect signatures. In this uncontested election without fanfare, few are likely to be aroused or to vote. With just a few dependable supporters to vote yes, the union can coast in as the exclusive bargaining agent for the whole work force. The majority can come to work the day after the election to discover that, painlessly, the blessings of union representation have been bestowed upon them. No drawn-out battle, no hard feelings provoked, no enthusiasms inspired. It is simple, not a confrontation but an arranged marriage.

Up to now, unions have been campaigning for a system which would grant exclusive bargaining rights to unions without facing an election once a majority of the bargaining unit signs cards authorizing the union to represent them. But the union still has to work hard to get at least that 30% on petitions; and right wing anti-labor groups, in full-page ads, charge that unions, afraid to face a democratic vote of the membership, prefer to “coerce” workers into signing cards. The new NLRB system makes better public relations; it follows the formal rules of voluntary democratic decision, free of possible intimidation. In these parlous times, when unions fight to hold their own, when the need to organize the unorganized is so urgent, the new NLRB system seems like a union leader’s dream. Could anything be wrong?

Yet, when the SEIU sought precisely such an election in Ohio, it was forced to pull back after facing resistance from the National Nurses Organizing Committee of the CNA. (The CNA is an AFL-CIO affiliate; the SEIU is an affiliate of the rival Change to Win coalition.)

The election was requested by the Catholic Healthcare Partners to cover over 7,000 workers at nine hospitals in the state. The employer had agreed that, after the expected election result, it would recognize the SEIU as the representative of all its employees --- registered nurses as well as all other hospital employees. The SEIU, which had supported the employer’s request, was the one union on the ballot. Since the request for the election was submitted by the employer, neither it nor the SEIU was required to present any evidence that any workers actually sought union representation. Although the proposed NLRB regulation has not yet been adopted, this election would, in effect, have been the kind of consent election which the new regulation contemplates. However, it was not to be.

Everything was all set, but a few days before the scheduled election, organizers from the National Nurses Organizing Committee of the CNA turned up. In literature addressed to nurses the NNOC urged them to vote no. Management, they argued, “gets a sweetheart union that will not focus on issues important to Registered Nurses. CHP [the employer] gets increased profits and inferior RN contracts. The SEIU’s back room deals result in contracts that are among the worst in the nation…. Less than 2% of SEIU’s members are Registered Nurses. SEIU is not a professional nurses union.” Thrown off balance, the SEIU pulled out. On March 11, the day before the voting was scheduled to begin, the election was canceled.

SEIU President Andy Stern denounced the CNA action as “nothing more than a flimsy cover for out-and-out union busting that we normally see from employers, not organizations that claim to care abut workers.” The SEIU argued that the consent election was the outcome of three years of negotiations with management. “At any time during those three years,” wrote one SEIU nurse, “the CNA could have presented their union, compared themselves to SEIU and asked us to make a choice. But they didn’t.” The CNA replied that if the SEIU had real rank-and-file support, it could not have been scared off by a few leaflets; the SEIU’s withdrawal, it argued, proved that a cozy deal with management was in the making without employees’ support.

Regardless of who was right or wrong in Ohio, this dispute pitted one legitimate union against another, demonstrating that the kind of consent election foreshadowed in the new NLRB proposed regulation may not be as simple as it seems at first glance. On one hand, the NLRB would offer a painless way for a genuine union to gain entry and win over an uninterested workforce to unionism; as Walter Reuther might have put it, to unionize the unorganized. But, on the other hand, there can be dangerous complexities. There is more here than meets the eye.

The problem arises because the labor movement has had a long sad experience with various maneuvers that allow employers to set up counterfeit compliant ‘unions’ as a protective barrier against genuine unions. In the early years of the New Deal, management sponsored powerless employee representation systems: company unions that were subservient to employers. The aim: to ward off the rising new unionism of the mid-thirties. Even now, unscrupulous employers, to keep out good honest unions, sign collusive collective bargaining contracts with crooked characters who offer sweetheart deals. The new NLRB regulation could give the protective cover of respectability and legality to such collusive arrangements.

What the old company union arrangements have in common with the proposed NLRB-sanctioned system is this: a suspect ‘ union’ can slip in easily, no need for worker involvement. Of course, there are bound to be employers somewhere who, not overly preoccupied with profits, are in business for the benefit of humanity and insist on fair play and unionism. Someone once somewhere did discover such aberrant employers. But normal red-blooded American employers expect something advantageous in return for voluntarily welcoming the arrival of a union. When an unscrupulous employer signs up with racketeers, it gets a guarantee that it can pay substandard wages and can be sure of protection against the arrival of a genuine union.

In Ohio, however, management was dealing with the SEIU which everyone knows is not a company union, is not a racket ‘union’, but is a bona fide, mainstream labor organization that has already taken the lead in organizing low-paid workers and lifting their standards: unskilled, minorities, immigrants.

Nevertheless, honest and well intentioned as it may be, even the SEIU must offer something to employers to soften their hearts to frictionless union penetration, and it does. It offers gentle terms, nothing too demanding, a friendly atmosphere; Andy Stern, SEIU president, would not annoy them too much with individual grievances. In justifying these lenient compromise transactions, the SEIU argues that, in the search for organizational “density” in its “market,” the union must get its foot in the door. Presumably once it achieves that coveted “density,” it will go for broke in its “market.” Maybe.

The trouble is that the SEIU is not always breaking ground in an untilled field. Other unions are already organized in some of those "markets," unions that are already battling to defend high union standards. They argue that, just as bad money drives out good, soft unionism drives out hard. They charge that in its efforts to grab its own market share, Stern’s SEIU sometimes undercuts their standards. What appears like “density” to Stern looks like dilution to the others.

The differences that pitted the CNA against the SEIU in Ohio have erupted inside the SEIU itself, creating a bitter split between the Stern administration and one of the union’s largest locals, United Healthcare Workers-West, the 150,000- member SIU local of healthcare workers on the west coast. In 2003, under Stern’s leadership, the SEIU signed what were called “template” agreements with an association representing 284 nursing homes in California. The agreement presumably gave the SEIU new entry to about 40 of those homes. But at a price considered outrageously prohibitive by Sal Rosselli, president of UHW-W. According to Rosselli, the units created under those template agreements “may come close to becoming …company unions.” Rosselli’s local was disturbed by the impact of the agreement on the whole nursing home industry in California, with over 1100 nursing homes. According to UHW-W, one of the nursing home operators under contract with the local, presumably at high standards “told us that if we want to achieve high standards in the industry … we need to [get] rid of the ‘template’ contracts” which allow competitors to maintain lower standards.

When the California Nurses showed up in Ohio, Stern asked the AFL-CIO executive council to repudiate the CNA, its affiliate, and tell it to back off. The council refused. But it also refused to explicitly endorse the CNA intervention. The council faced a rough choice; it was impossible for it to make a satisfactory decision. The new NLRB regulation will probably pose the same unwelcome choice for unionists; they are bound to meet it with that same ambivalence.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

On ‘democratic’ centralism: Stern’s illusion and democracy’s nightmare

By Herman Benson

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union and labor’s latest celebrity, seems to be resurrecting a neglected ideology: the concept of a militarized ‘democratic’ centralism. For him and his followers, the hope of imposing it upon a newly invigorated labor movement may be a utopian illusion. For union democracy, it is a nightmare. Hints, but only hints, of his underlying philosophy were implicit in his schemes for reorganizing his own SEIU and the whole labor movement. But its trend has become manifest as he is apparently moving to crush critics on the west coast, impose a repressive trusteeship over the 140,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West, and cut down Sal Rosselli, its president.

In February this year, Rosselli resigned from the SEIU International Executive Committee so that he could feel free to criticize what he charged was the “undemocratic practices we have experienced first hand.” The SEIU convention was coming up at the end of May. “In good conscience,” he wrote, “I can longer allow simple majorities of the Executive Committee to outweigh my responsibility to our members to act out of principle on these critically important matters. I say this with no ill will, but with a deep sense of conviction.”[Rosselli to Stern 2/9/08]

They differ over bargaining strategy, over the role of the international and locals, over the right of the membership to veto the merger and dissolution of local unions, over whether to go easy on employers to get a foot in the door for unionism. The issues in dispute are not trivial, and the charges and countercharges are correspondingly harsh. Rosselli accuses the Stern people of “company unionism” and “top-down organizing” to beef up membership statistics by any means whatsoever. They denounce him for sabotaging the SEIU drive to organize, for falsifying the record, for hypocritically benefiting from policies he now derogates.

This is no idle talk at a cocktail party; it is a serious difference over policy. He attacks vigorously; they reply in kind. So far, routine. That’s what democracy is for, to allow an outlet even for the bitterest of debates. But the problem is that Rosselli’s critics go beyond denouncing him for criticizing. They would make his very right to criticize illicit. And, because they are armed with organizational power, they would resolve the dispute not simply by democratic decision but by suppression. The irony is that they wrap autocratic intentions in the flag of a democratic “majority”. Rosselli, they insist, must go along with the “majority.” But a majority in power can always take care of itself. The essence of democracy is to preserve an orderly means of opposing a majority.

In replying to its self-posed question, “What is real union democracy?” The SEIU’s anti-Rosselli web site, “Fact Checker,” pandering to the bias against any genuine spirit of democracy asks, “Is democracy abiding by majority rule just when you like the outcome but ignoring it when you don’t?” But democracy, as we practice it in America, cherishes precisely the right of a minority to oppose the majority. ‘Fact Checker” continues in line with what has become official SEIU ideology, “ Is it democracy when 11 out of 12 workers in an industry are not even at the table?” What they mean by this muddle is what they have suggested before more clearly: members must abstain from exercising their union democracy until most workers, now nonunion, are organized. By that standard, union democracy must wait patiently for a long time, perhaps forever.

They use the boilerplate language available to any overbearing union official annoyed anytime by any critical dissident. Mary Kay Henry, international executive SEIU vice president, writes in the course of a long attack on Rosselli [ website 3/25/08], “he is giving employers ammunition to use against workers….”

Three members of the SEIU international executive committee found Rosselli’s decision to speak out impermissible. “Just as we expect members of our local unions to unite behind a common strategy after there has been a full debate,” they wrote, “and a majority has reached a democratic decision, we as leaders must do the same.” There it is. Once a “democratic decision” is reached everyone, members and leaders, must swallow their opinions, keep quiet, and toe the line. We discuss, we decide, we unite, you shut up, we remain a fighting force. If you open your mouth against the line we discipline you. (How some might love to apply this principle to the Iraq War! The irony in this case is that, as they wrote, the SEIU was on the eve of an international convention to open in three months. If now is not the time for that democratic discussion, when?) [Regan et al to Rosselli 2/11/08]

That same tone now permeates life in the SEIU. In 2006, as the SEIU was about to run a membership referendum on creating those huge California megalocals, Stern turned the union into one advocacy monolith to guarantee a favorable outcome. He ordered, “All local unions, union officers, and assigned staff must fully cooperate in the implementation and transition process to assure that this decision is carried out in an orderly fashion…. No union funds, resources or staff may be used to oppose, interfere or undermine in any way the IEB determination in this matter.” (The referendum carried, but according to one report, only 16% of the membership voted.)

In the same spirit, applicants for appointment to the executive board of the new 45,000-member Local 521 had to sign an oath of loyalty to the union administration, including these assurances: “I will not … engage in personal attacks on other members, staff, or leaders at unions meetings, in the press, or other literature, or venues…. Once a decision has been made, I will support that decision to members and others…I will not …take … legal action against the union for actions they take in their legal role as leaders as long as I remain a member of this appointed board or committee.” Come weal, come woe; high or low, no one can remain in any official union position and ever ever act against any misdeeds by other officials.

Here then is how the labor movement would operate if the system being implanted by Stern could take root and flourish:

A policy is adopted, say at the international convention, the union’s highest constitutional authority --- for the sake of argument we make the generous assumption that it has been a ‘democratic’ decision. Then for the next five years until the next convention (four years for the SEIU) every union institution and representative, must fall in line. No criticism permitted: every hired staff employee, every elected officer in every local and in the international, every steward appointed or elected, every editor and PR spokesperson, every executive board member of every local must propagate the vaunted ‘democratic’ decision. None can oppose it or publicly express misgivings on pain of swift dismissal. Stern envisions a monolithic disciplined army of thousands, all spouting the politically correct official line. After five years, during which everyone sang the same notes in harmony, comes the next convention; and at last, presumably, democracy’s brief moment has arrived.

Proceedings at the convention, as always, are carefully manipulated by the administration. Under the Stern regimen, those in power will already have been safely protected against criticism for the previous five years. If, at the convention, venturesome critics are unusually resilient, if they are not demoralized by five years of deadly uniformity, if they are lucky enough to get the floor and keep it before the question is called, they might get five minutes in the sun, maybe even seven or ten. Then it is all over. The delegates, people who knew how to stay on top during those five silent years, adopt the new official policy. The period for ‘democratic’ debate is over. Time to unite and fight and bite your tongue. Five new silent years loom.

But is this bureaucrat’s dream likely to come alive? Perhaps in part, but never in full panoply. By now, websites and the Internet afford too many ways for members and officers alike to evade the proscriptions on democracy. Federal law offers some protection for civil liberties for members in their unions. Stern will never have full scope for the fulfillment of his dream; nevertheless, as we see in California, federal law and the union constitution still provide ample means for chilling dissent.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Stern’s threat to trustee west coast SEIU local poses danger to democracy in labor movement

By Herman Benson

Andy Stern, international president of the Service Employees International Union threatens a trusteeship over the United Healthcare Workers-West and the removal of its president, Sal Rosselli. The reach of the imminent trusteeship is awesome: With 140,000 members, this local enrolls about one-tenth the total membership of the whole SEIU. It represents registered nurses and non-professional healthcare workers in scores of institutions. Rosselli, its president, is an eminent figure in the labor movement and in the politics of California. He had been SEIU state president and a member of the union’s international executive committee. Inside the SEIU he has been a vigorous critic of Stern’s policies, actually the only outspoken critic with a strong power base in the union. Wipe out Rosselli, and Stern, with an unchecked monopoly of power, can continue to move anywhere in any direction without restraint.

But it is not the scope of this trusteeship that would make it unique. Over the years, hundreds of union subsidiary bodies have been trusteed by their international unions. Most have been relatively small locals taken over by their internationals, sometimes for legitimate reasons, and sometimes to suppress a local leadership out of favor with an arrogant international officialdom. Occasionally, a major subsidiary came under trusteeship, like the 120,000-member AFSCME’s DC 37 in New York; but in that case, district and local officers had been indicted for stealing local money and falsifying a contract referendum.

What would make a current trusteeship move by Stern different from all the rest is this: for the first time since the adoption of the LMRDA in 1959, a massive trusteeship has been threatened against so major a section of a union for politically repressive objectives. This pioneering achievement can be credited as another Stern innovation. The basic reality has been buried, in recent days, by a mudslide of charges and countercharges in letters, emails, official documents, and news reports.

In January 2007, Rosselli’s local criticized a deal between Stern and California nursing homes as a case of “company unionism.” Stern was impelled, or compelled, to abandon the arrangement.

In January 2008, Rosselli refused to run for reelection as SEIU California state president, accusing Stern of rigging the rules to assure the victory of his pre-selected choices.

In February, he resigned from the SEIU International Executive Committee, freeing himself to speak openly in the union in advance of its international convention scheduled to begin at the end of May. In his letter, he wrote of the “undemocratic practices we in UHW have experienced first hand.” Since his local was entitled to over a hundred delegates, Rosselli would have been strongly represented at the convention; but a trusteeship would bar them.

On March 24, Stern confronted Rosselli with a shopping list of charges “regarding Membership Concerns and related Constitutional Obligations.” Implied was the threat of an imminent trusteeship; Rosselli was ordered to provide all related documents by March 28 and a detailed written reply to the charges no later than April 4. Not much time; Stern seems anxious to act against the local before the convention opens. As in most preliminary justifications for union trusteeships, the request for documents and statements appear to be simply a showcase exercise to comply with the law’s requirements for due process and to display a proper respect for PR opinion. The selected victim is usually convicted in advance. In this instance, the seven charges against Rosselli foreshadow a predictable outcome.

Stern’s SEIU is currently in competition with the California Nurses Association, an AFL-CIO affiliate. In Puerto Rico, the SEIU is trying to supplant a militant independent teachers union which is under attack by public authorities. Two of the charges against Rosselli accuse him of disloyalty to the SEIU by ill-defined “contacts” with the AFL-CIO, the CNA, and the Puerto Rico teachers. (Actually, if anything has cramped Rosselli’s ability to prepare for this attack by Stern, it has been his insistence on demonstrating his loyalty to the SEIU by avoiding any appeal for support outside the union.)

Two of the charges, not clear to a nonmember of the SEIU, relate to a dispute over collective bargaining procedures; mixed in with these, is a vague hint at a conspiracy with the CNA and/or the AFL-CIO.

After Rosselli challenged Stern in January 2007, it seemed likely that the Stern forces would use their formal union powers to restrict the jurisdiction of his local and transfer away half of his membership. In an effort to ward off this move, Rosselli’s local polled its members to permit it to express their loyalty to their UHW-W. One charge expresses a disapproval of the referendum as “a phony ballot scheme,” In another charge, Rosselli is accused of chilling the free speech rights of his members. Since no record is cited of earlier appeals by UHW members to the international, this accusation apparently falls out of the blue. (Here the pot calls the kettle black. At AUD we know that Stern faces precisely the same accusation from a wide range of SEIU members.)

This varied assortment of charges seems like a goulash, hurriedly stirred together to make a case in advance of the looming convention.

The first of the seven charges presents defendant Rosselli with an intricate Catch 22 dilemma: The local in effect is threatened with trusteeship for taking steps to defend itself against the imposition of a trusteeship. When the local realized that, in retaliation for its criticisms, Stern was almost certain to try to trustee the local, it decided to take an advance defensive measure. (Its misgivings obviously have proven to be well founded.) And so, the local executive board voted to put money into a separate tax-exempt fund protected from seizure by Stern, with the express aim of defending membership rights.

When a trusteeship is imposed, all local assets are impounded by the international; the local loses control of its money; their leaders are cut off the payroll; and, from then on, the local members and their elected officers, stripped of cash, are deprived of effective means of defense. Without money, the local is incapable of mounting a legal challenge to the trusteeship. But that is not all!

Under federal law, a union trusteeship is presumed valid for 18 months; it has proven to be difficult, nearly impossible, to oust a trusteeship during that 18 months. In that time, the international has total control over the local administration and all its assets. It can use that time, by fear, favor, or purchase, to create its own Quisling puppet regime and to demoralize, suppress, or even expel, its critics.

However, even under a trusteeship, members retain certain democratic rights protected by the LMRDA; but in the main, these rights can be enforced only by private suit. Without money these rights become a fiction because the trustee’s victims can’t afford the costs of a federal lawsuit. The independent fund established by UHW-W, free from Stern’s control, would give members resources to resist the imposition of the trusteeship and, if it is imposed, would help defend their rights while it remains in effect. Consistent with his drive to eliminate opposition, Stern would deprive his critics of their right to self-defense. The first of the charges against Rosselli attacks the local’s right to establish this fund in defense of democratic rights.

In the flurry of controversial exchanges that have cluttered up the internet as this battle escalates in the SEIU, there have been charges and counter-charges over “top-down” organizing, collective bargaining strategy, who stands for what and where, who has the best organizing record, “density” in the market place, centralization v. democracy, mergers and local autonomy. All these are necessary and legitimate subjects for debate and discussion in our evolving labor movement. But, for the moment, these discussions cloud over what is acutely involved in the SEIU.

This conflict is not now just a power struggle between Stern and Rosselli. It transcends any legitimate debate over policy. At stake is not who is right or wrong on critical issues, but whether it is even permissible or possible to have a genuinely free discussion. The suppression of democratic rights inside many of our unions is nothing new (Subscribe to Union Democracy Review for details), but the Stern camp is elevating a common practice into an ideological extreme. Our website will discuss that subject soon.

(For more SEIU-related information, see AUD's list of links to SEIU member websites, and the blogroll on the right of this page. See also SEIU's Fact Checker website.)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hoffa soft on Obama and vice versa

By Herman Benson

There must be more to it.

If in quest of change the Democratic primaries had not lifted affairs into the loftier realm of statesmanship, we would have to conclude that this was simply another example of the tired old horse trading politics that so debases life in America. “Obama has indicated willingness to end federal oversight of the Teamsters.” So reported Robert Novak in the Chicago Sun-Times on February 24. In contrast, Bill Clinton indicated that under Hillary, the monitorship would continue. What followed was “The unexpected endorsement of Barack Obama by Teamsters President James Hoffa.” A spokesperson for the Obama office, confirming the accuracy of Novak’s report, told one reporter that the Teamsters Independent Review Board has run its course, that organized crime influence is down, and that the Teamsters are being held to a higher standard than other unions.

The IRB, empowered by court order to act against corruption in the Teamster union, has been an effective force against organized crime. It is true that, on corruption matters, the Independent Review Board has held the Teamsters to a high standard --- that difficult task has been its finest achievement, one that no other agency, government or private, law enforcement or civil, has been able to do before. But not exactly to a standard higher than expected of other unions. The Teamsters are required only to meet anti-corruption standards we should expect --- at least demand --- of other unions. If some other unions fall short, does that give the Teamsters a free pass? Senator Obama proposes to lift the moral standards of the nation’s politics. Could he begin by lowering standards for the Teamsters union?

Is organized crime influence down so far that it is time to jettison the Independent Review Board? That raises an interesting question. Valid or not, how did the Obama team reach that conclusion? It is a fair question, because there is no reason to believe that, in their busy days, they themselves ever had occasion even to think about it. They have been so preoccupied with other pressing matters. Surely they have not had time to consult the IRB itself or its investigating arm which is still busy eradicating ties between Teamster officials and organized crime. Surely they never took time to question the Department of Justice or the presiding federal judge who are giving the IRB full support and have rejected every demand that they suspend their efforts. Surely they never consulted Ed Stier, the man whom President Hoffa himself retained to come up with proposals that could demonstrate that the union would effectively combat corruption if the IRB would only go away.

Ed Stier did his part. After many months of effort, he did design a program which --- if honestly carried out --- could have served as a possible substitute for the IRB. Stier even tried to implement the proposed plan by actually acting to expose crooks in the IBT. Once Hoffa, obviously surprised, realized that Stier took the job seriously and would not serve as a mere PR prop, he lost interest. In breaking with Hoffa, Stier charged that Hoffa was actually sabotaging the anti-corruption campaign. With Stier gone, Hoffa is obviously looking for a new prop for the old PR campaign against the IRB. Along comes the Obama team in the search for votes; whoever it was that decided to go easy on Hoffa must have confined research to the Hoffa PR team.

What is involved here transcends the IRB’s responsibility to act against corruption in the Teamsters union. The Independent Review Board is a pivotal part of a federal monitorship that has given working Teamsters the right to elect their international officers in a fair election. After generations of mob control, intimidation, and murders in the union, the federal monitorship stands as a defense of the right of members to elect international officers by direct membership vote in an honest count, to the right of candidates to equal access to the union magazine during elections. Undermine that system and you undermine the right of Teamsters to control their own union.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Super-bureaucratization in SEIU: for and against

By Herman Benson

In resigning from the executive committee of the SEIU, Sal Rosselli, president of the 140,000-member United Healthcare Workers of California has made serious charges of lack of democracy in the SEIU.

As a member of the international executive committee he was bound to keep those criticisms within the limits of that tiny group. He resigns from the committee in order to be free to speak out beyond those few paid officials to the broad membership. His resignation is therefore a sign of how serious he feels those charges are. His misgivings are echoed in communications we have received from SEIU members in locals around the country.

In a long reply to Rosselli, three member of the executive committee evade those criticisms. They take refuge in recounting “four historic changes that have taken place in our union since 1996.” It is a recapitulation of how they hope to organize and reorganize the SEIU to serve the American working class. In effect, their presumed achievements and their promises to forge ahead are presented as a justification for a super bureaucratization of the American labor movement. But organizing is no obstacle to democratizing. Quite the contrary.

In the last great drive to organize, the CIO faced a far more powerful, more centralized, and more resistant employer adversary than the SEIU will ever encounter. Nevertheless, the CIO proceeded to reorganize a new labor movement on industrial lines; and neither that reorganization nor those antilabor conglomerates prevented the CIO from infusing the new labor movement with a reinvigorated spirit of union democracy. The apologists for the SEIU would reverse that experience. They utilize the promise to organize as a pretext for undercutting democracy in the labor movement.

Friday, January 18, 2008

After twelve years: Where is that labor-intellectual alliance?

The following piece first appeared in the current issue of New Politics. Comments are invited.

By Herman Benson

Cheerleading is not enough. It’s time for those scholars, artists, and writers to take another look at what’s happening in our labor movement.

When John Sweeney defeated Lane Kirkland and Tom Donahue to take over as president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, he proposed to lead the federation out of its doldrums. What resounded with promise was his call for “a reborn movement of American workers, ready to fight for social and economic justice … a new progressive voice in American life …changing the direction of American politics …a vibrant social movement, a democratic movement that speaks for all American workers.”

Sweeney’s program inspired an unusual outpouring of sympathy for the labor movement. Forty-three liberal and radical professionals, mostly from the universities, joined in a public manifesto proclaiming support for the new labor movement. “As intellectuals, educators, and professionals,” they wrote, “we want to play our part in helping realize [Sweeney’s] promise.” The 43 were followed by hundreds of others who led pro-union “teach-ins” in universities around the country attended by thousands who came to signify a newly found allegiance to organized labor: students, scholars, historians, civil libertarians, writers, free lance intellectuals, civil rights leaders, along with union staff professionals, labor leaders, and a multitude of reporters. Representatives of most worthy social causes were there. (Only grassroots union dues-payers seemed missing.) In the spirit of the times, new labor-oriented magazines proliferated in the universities.

Those who organized the rallies united to create a new organization to cement their unity with organized labor: Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ, affectionately, Sausage). It was a moment of great expectations.

Three years later, in “Falling in Love Again? Intellectuals and the labor movement in post-war America,” Nelson Lichtenstein, history professor at the University of Virginia, an author of the 1995 declaration of 43, and a founder of SAWSJ, wrote of “this alliance between a leftward tilting labor movement and a social democratic intelligentsia,” an alliance that was being consummated after decades of estrangement. He recognized that differences were inevitable. “A certain distance will … always exist between America’s critical intellectuals and the trade union movement.” Nevertheless, he reflected, it was a “healthy tension from which we can … ‘bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old…’.”

After a few years, the euphoria dulled somewhat; and then along came Andy Stern around 2004.

Stern, who had replaced Sweeney as president of the big Service Employees International Union, set out to do unto Sweeney what Sweeney had done unto Kirkland and Donahue. Under Sweeney’s stewardship, Stern declared, the AFL-CIO had failed to fulfill its promises; labor continued to decline in numbers and political power. He and his SEIU would lead the way where Sweeney stumbled. When Stern failed to convince a majority of top union leaders that he had an effective plan to rebuild and reorient the labor movement, he led a formidable group of unions out of the AFL-CIO, and along with the Carpenters which had left earlier, he founded a rival federation, the Change to Win Coalition.

But this time, unlike 1995, there was no resounding echo from intellectuals to the renewed call for another crusade. What happened to SAWSJ? It seems to have vanished as quickly as it had appeared, but without fanfare. Apparently, life had become too complicated for mere enthusiasm.

For a group that staked a claim to leadership in reinventing labor and restoring America, Change to Win was an odd multi-coupling, Earlier, three of its major affiliates had been on the Department of Justice’s list of unions most heavily infiltrated by organized crime: the Teamsters, Laborers, and Hotel workers. The Teamsters union is still under active federal monitorship. The former suspect presidents of both the Laborers and Hotel workers, under pressure of law enforcement authorities, had been forced out and replaced by leaders with a reputation for integrity; but neither union experienced any internal reform upsurge. UNITE, another C to W affiliate, defunct as a clothing union, took refuge in a merger with the Hotel Employees. The Carpenters union, even before linking up with Stern, had already reinvented itself as a model of bureaucratic super-centralization.

While Sweeney’s insurgent rise in the AFL-CIO was greeted with unalloyed enthusiasm by intellectuals who welcomed the opportunity to serve a reinvigorated labor movement, Stern’s emergence as a new kind of leader meets with a muted reception because his promise for Big Change carries a mixed message: On the one hand, his drive to organize immigrants and minorities, the super-exploited of America, inspires a sympathetic response from social-justice liberal and radical intellectuals. On the other hand, his vision of the future labor movement (if you can properly characterize his erratic oscillations as “vision”) evokes puzzlement. It projects a highly bureaucratized top-down labor movement in which the influence of the rank and file is limited. Insulated from democratic control, its leadership is free to move unpredictably. While Stern’s Change to Win delegation in China stands together with the dictatorial government’s sponsored labor organization in a slap at Wal-Mart, Stern stands together with Wal-Mart in the United States, in a joint declaration for a never defined government-sponsored universal health care system.

For unions in the Change to Win coalition, a concentration on organizing low-paid service workers comes naturally. The big industrial and manufacturing unions, which remain in the AFL-CIO, face a crisis of survival. They represent a layer of the working class that had once been reasonably well-paid and secure but now faces cutbacks in wages and jobs, global pressure from low-paid labor, plant closures, and a sharp drop in union membership. But the C to Win unions are concentrated in the expanding service sectors free from foreign competition. The Laborers – a C to W affiliate --- organizes the unskilled section of the construction industry where minorities and immigrants, legal and illegal, can find work. The Carpenters union is reaching out to organize immigrants, documented and undocumented. (See Wall Street Journal12/15/05)

The call to organize the unorganized has always been a motherhood affirmation, often proclaimed, seldom achieved. Back in 1961, in “The Decline of the Labor Movement, and what can be done about it,” Solomon Barkin, issuing an early warning signal, wrote of the need for a “transformation …as radical as that of the Thirties, when the dominance of the old crafts, with their ‘aristocrats of labor’ viewpoint, was swept away in a flood of industrial unionism.” “Ethnic, color, and religious discrimination within unions must yield before the insistence on equal opportunity for all. Unions must intensify their pressure for economic, social, and political uplift for minorities, with special vigor for our current largest minority, the Negroes.”

“There is no area,” he concluded, “where the shift in power and initiative is more urgent than in the field of organization…. Vested rights of national unions must not be allowed to stand in the way of the transcendent interests of the movement as a whole.” Barkin was the prototype intellectual, serving as research director of the Textile Workers Union. His 75-page work was published by the Fund for the Republic’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. No one seemed to pay attention. For forty years, the downward drift continued.

But now? At last there was a difference. Stern’s SEIU and others in the new coalition actually set out to put words into action. They insisted that the labor movement had to address the needs of those sections of the workforce neglected and most exploited: racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, healthcare workers.

In its concentration upon the most neglected sectors of the working class, in words and deeds, Stern’s appeal resonated among intellectuals, especially those who had criticized the labor movement precisely because they felt it had neglected the most oppressed. Many of those who had come out of the radical student movement of the sixties or were inspired by its tradition, had once looked down with disdain upon the organized working class as a privileged minority whose comfortable status depended upon sharing in the exploitation of the oppressed masses. And now, a labor movement under Stern’s guidance was directing itself precisely toward those oppressed! It was only natural that Stern would begin with the moral support of intellectuals who had responded to the early appeal from Sweeney. He could enroll in his campaign civil rights campaigners and students who had been active in a roster of worthy social causes.

But it turned out that there are more things in the Stern-SEIU philosophy than enrolling the oppressed.

Stern emphasizes that the labor movement must increase its numbers massively if it is to be taken seriously as a political force. He is determined to get those numbers willy-nilly, not bound by any rigid preconceived rules on how that mass is to be recruited, retained, and deployed. It seems like a variant of an old watchword: peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must; almost anything goes.

If employers resist, Stern’s SEIU will mobilize mass demonstrations, call strikes, and rally support from the community groups like ACORN to pressure them to accept unionization. In the course of those battles, the union usually does more than improve its enrollment statistics; it raises the wages of those immigrants, women, and minorities who serve as underpaid janitors, sweepers, cleaners, and semi-skilled maintenance workers. It is this aspect of life in the SEIU-inspired Change to Win assemblage that has impressed older radicals and has provided young idealists with the opportunity to do something socially useful. But nothing is perfect --- there is the other side.

For employers who are willing to cooperate, Stern displays a soft side. If they accept unionization peaceably, he will hold out the hand of cooperation and provide a pliable brand of unionism. As he told reporter Kris Maher of the Wall Street Journal, “We want to find a 21st century new model that is less focused on individual grievances, more focused on industry needs.” That spirit of making unionism acceptable to employers was incorporated into agreements he signed with a West Coast nursing home employers association which agreed to accept the unionization of 42 of its affiliates if the SEIU agreed to stay away from 185 of its nonunion affiliates.

Stern looks to work with amenable employers to restore union power. On a broader arena, he hopes to join with big business somehow to restore America’s economic position in the world. And not with your ordinary CEO. “Mr. Stern told me,” writes Alan Murray in the Wall Street Journal (5/30/07), “that he much prefers working with the buyout kings than with their public company counterparts. ‘Í’ve been incredibly impressed,’ he said, ‘Compared with most of my meetings with company CEOs these men… have much more understanding of what we are trying to accomplish’.” It makes sense. Freewheeling managers of masses of workers and freewheeling managers of masses of capital can understand one another.

This is a man hard to pin down. He is, by turns, militant and acquiescent. He is for “social change” but in close cooperation with buyout capitalists. He renounces labor’s dependence upon Democrats --- which warms the blood of many progressives --- but he projects not a rebellious surge toward independence but a willingness to work with Republicans. The element of ideological consistency that holds these contradictory ideas together is some notion of restoring labor’s power, but in concert with cooperating employers. The cement that solidifies his base and enables him to fly off in all directions is good old-fashioned centralized bureaucracy. .

Consider Stern’s dismissal of the importance of “individual grievances.” In a reasonably democratic union, dues paying union members will naturally demand proper attention to their grievances, a concern which may not seem vital to impatient leaders who, remote from the job site, are preoccupied with what they are convinced are bigger things. If job stewards are elected by the rank and file (in an honest count), if local officers are truly dependent on the members because they face the real possibility of organized opposition, they will be sensitive to membership demands and less likely to jump to attention at orders from above. That helps explain why the Stern forces disparage the advocacy of union democracy and rely heavily on appointing officers of huge new locals.

Stern wrote, “Workers want….strength and a voice, not some purist, intellectual historical, mythical, democracy.” As Steve Lerner, a Stern braintruster, put it, “Considering union democracy as only a question of how a union is governed is too narrow…. If only 10% of workers in an industry are unionized, it is impossible to have real union democracy because 90% are excluded.” However, if members must wait for democracy in their unions until democracy permeates industry, they may have to wait forever.

To pursue a flexible maneuverist course, to be free to jump from here to there, Stern would create or recreate the labor movement in the kind of bureaucratic mold that allows the leaders on top to free themselves from interference by the rank and file below and deploy the new union power as they see fit, presumably in the best interests of those oppressed and voiceless masses below awaiting liberation into the future industrial democracy. In that view, industrial democracy appears not as an achievement of democratic unionism but as a far off pie-in-the-sky substitute for it.

To achieve great goals, Stern seems convinced, unions must be bureaucratized. Locals are merged into new huge sprawling units with geographically extensive jurisdiction; and, as permitted by federal law, the officers of these new locals are appointed, not elected. The structure becomes so broad and so complicated that it is difficult for any local-wide caucus, independent of the officialdom, to take shape. The room for rising outside of the power structure is narrowed. It becomes increasingly difficult to achieve any paid position without approval of the top officialdom.

Monopoly control over all paid staff is carried to ultimate perfection in the Carpenters union, an affiliate of Change to Win. In that union, no one, appointed or elected, can hold any paid position in the locals or councils without the endorsement of the top Executive Secretary Treasurer of the council. Locals are not permitted to pay their own elected officers. The SEIU has not reached that peak of organizational perfection, but it moves inexorably in that direction.

In June 2006, the SEIU announced that its International Executive Board had decided to merge all 600,000 members in California into a few new mega locals. The decision was to be submitted to a statewide membership referendum. We have heard of show-trials. This was a projected show-referendum. Anyone in a position of authority was required to support the IEB decision; none of them could oppose it. As the directive put it:

“All local unions, union officers, and assigned staff must fully cooperate in the implementation and transition process to assure that this decision is carried out in an orderly fashion…. No union funds, resources or staff may be used to oppose, interfere or undermine in any way the IEB determination in this matter.” We assume that any rank and filers, without office, could use their limited individual resources to campaign against the plan on their free time and try to reach those 600,000 scattered over the whole state.

Local 521, with over 45,000 members is one of those new locals with an appointed, not elected, leadership. (Five two one = five locals into one.) Applicants for appointment to the new executive board must signify their acceptance to an eight-point “Code of Conduct” which in addition to various harmless declarations includes the following: “2. I will not …engage in personal attacks on other members, staff, or leaders at union meetings, in the press, or other literature or venues. I will be mindful that e-mails could become public, and will not disparage other leaders, staff, or members in any such way that could become public either intentionally or not… 3. …Once a decision has been made, I will support that decision to members and others. I am not giving up my right to speak and make my position clear, but as a member of the board or committee, I will support the decision once it has been made. 4. I will not …take … legal action against the union or its leaders and other committee members for actions they take in their legal role as leaders, as long as I remain a member of this appointed board or committee.”

Where critics are effective in making their case, unload the opponents. In Massachusetts, where the SEIU completed its familiar surgical process of carving up and rejoining the parts of nine locals into one new 13,000-member Local 888, complete with an appointed officialdom, University of Massachusetts employees organized a caucus to campaign for the kind of democratic setup they had enjoyed in their old locals. After a thousand members petitioned the international for the right to elect officers and stewards, the SEIU solved its problem by getting rid of 2,300 of those university employees. They were subtly encouraged to leave the SEIU and join the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

As small locals were merged into large locals and large locals into jumbos, complaints mounted from rank and file activists and local officers of a “top down” management style by condescending leaders, often appointed from above. But these objections could be discounted as gripes from the usual suspects: from inveterate malcontents or from old-fashioned dreamers who are comfortable only in intimate units and who feel out of place in the newly centralized power machines.

But others began to ask questions. Under the auspices of the Committees of Correspondence a group of two dozen labor activists, a few in the upper ranks of their union hierarchies, met in New York in February 2007 for a full-day discussion on how labor could advance an effective program on health care, immigrants’ rights, and the war in Iraq. This is a group that enthusiastically shares Stern’s emphasis on the need to organize minorities, women and immigrants. Nevertheless even though the subject was not on the agenda some participants, according to an official report on proceedings, expressed misgivings over “some leaders” embracing “partnerships with employers– possibly another term for class collaboration.” One union official feared that “some unions which have a militant history are losing their democratic and militant character.” Another “addressed ‘commandism’ on the left and within labor.”

Jerry Brown was president of the SEIU’s big New England Health Care Local 1199 and prominent in progressive causes. He is not keen about opening disputes in the labor movement to public scrutiny. In a review of a book by Andy Stern, Brown writes, “My only caveat about leaving the AFL-CIO was that the dispute was carried out in the pages of the New York Times, on 60 Minutes, etc.” Now retired however, he seems somewhat free, if reluctantly, to mention some of what’s been bothering him. After paying due respect to author Stern, his talents, and his contributions to the movement, Brown speaks his own mind on the key issues where he thinks Stern “goes off track.”

On partnership with employers: “What is not explained is that the most successful efforts are the payoffs for years of struggle, strikes, and other conflicts with employers, conflicts that engaged many members and built strong membership organizations. In contrast, the SEIU recently has entered into cooperative relationships” that deny “employees many of the basic workplace protections and rights that most traditional union contracts provide.”

“Unfortunately, some of these ‘alliances’ are highlighted by Andy as examples of a new way of thinking about our role and mission.”

On democracy and the rank and file: After paying tribute to Stern for leading “rallies, sit downs, marches, and even strikes,” Brown goes on, “Unfortunately, our approaches in other industries does not involve the members at all until…. we deliver the employer some benefit…. We have to ask ourselves if these methods can produce a real democratic workers organization or if it is more likely that they will produce a ‘membership’ that is as alienated from the union leadership as it is from the employers…. the very antithesis of true rank and file unionism.”

On “consolidation of unions into ever larger units”: “Larger is often better…. But how do we do this and still have workers make the crucial decisions in their own workplaces…. How do we make sure there is real democracy in choosing and electing union officials? Andy continues to stress the importance of consolidation…. He does not address the necessity of preserving effective democratic processes….”

Summarizing the issues: “Without a question …discussion and debate should take place at every level of SEIU.” [Extrapolating the advice for the intellectuals, discussion should flow at every level in and around the labor movement.]

But how many troops do these critics have? So far, all these complaints might be ignored by Stern or others impressed by raw power. Rank and filers speak with a small voice; radicals are reduced to strong opinions; Brown has moral force but no continuing clout. But what cannot be shrugged off is an insistent dissent from within the SEIU itself, from the United Healthcare Workers-West, a 140,000-member local in California.

According to the UHW-W, the SEIU agreement with an association of 284 nursing homes in California was not simply unacceptable; it amounted to “company unionism.” By implication, the criticism transcended the immediate issues of the California agreement; and the charge came not from perennial malcontents but from the responsible leaders of a major SEIU affiliate.

In a detailed analysis of the agreement, UHW charged that negotiations had “evolved into a substitute staff-driven process” and “a fundamental lack of membership involvement, running contrary to our constitution and bylaws as well as our standard practice.” According to UHW the agreements banned the right to strike and provided only limited provisions for arbitrating disputes; employers retained the unilateral right to change the economic terms of the agreement; no provisions for paid vacations, holiday, or sick leave; no seniority; strict limits on the number of stewards, undermining “work site member empowerment and activism in the union.” In summary, according to the UHW, the units created under the agreements “may come close to becoming … company unions.”

Twenty thousand members signed petitions backing the UHW. The protests were so overwhelming that the SEIU was impelled to backtrack and reject renewal of the agreement. When so many unionists, directly affected, repudiate a key element in Stern’s way, can our labor intellectuals fail to notice?

Back in 1995, when that gathering of radical and liberal academics and their thousands of sympathizers rallied for labor “teach-ins” around the country, life seemed simple. No need for intellectuals to over-intellectualize. They responded to Sweeney’s call for change; they offered moral support to the new labor movement; they volunteered services; they helped restore labor’s image as a force for social justice.

But now there are more things than were dreamed of in 1995. Now come Andy Stern, the Teamsters, and Change to Win. They may succeed in building a stronger labor movement. Maybe. That is for the uncertain future. What is certain for the present is that they are already constructing the model of a new labor movement: more bureaucratic, more highly centralized, and more remote from the grassroots than ever before.

At other times, such a trend might have provoked concern from freedom-loving, social justice intellectuals. So far, no. If the future of the SEIU and of our labor movement merits “discussion at every level” so does the future of the intellectual-labor alliance.

A special dilemma confronts those who were drawn to Stern and the Change to Win by their experiences in the New Left or out of its tradition. They sought social change through participatory democracy. They turn now to the labor movement, especially to Stern and the SEIU, to find a powerful force for social change. But where, they might ask, is the participatory democracy?

Where do intellectuals fit in? In 1999, with the help of SAWSJ and its affiliated professors, the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute published “Faculty @ Work,” a 74-page letter-size, how-to manual for professionals in the universities who want to help restore workers’ rights to organize. The guide offered a wide-ranging program of activism: classroom inspiration for students, opportunities for internships and jobs in unions, unionization of faculty, blue and white collar staff, and adjunct teachers in universities. Above all, educators could use their prestige to rally community support for union organizing campaigns, and put pressure on anti-union employers.

Linda Chavez Thompson, AFL-CIO executive vice president, called upon “faculty and staff” to join “in making the world a little more humane, fair, tolerant, and equitable.” Sweeney wrote that “SAWSJ, students, and faculty are pumping new life into our movement.”

In the euphoria of those days, little debate was in order; everything would surely work out; labor was newly on the march; it was enough to rally support. But that was ten years ago. Since then, with a split in the labor movement, what was once posed so simply has become complex. Are those SAWSJ enthusiasts to be public relations cheerleaders? Are they to offer their talents as professional technicians? What is their role as independent-minded, critical thinkers?

Discussion on the fit between labor and intellectuals has persisted ever since there has been a labor movement.

Back in 1923, along with pamphlets by Scott Nearing, Stuart Chase, Norman Thomas, and Harry Laidler --- intellectuals all --- the League for Industrial Democracy published a 33-page work by George Soule entitled “The Intellectual and the Labor Movement.” As a guide to how intellectuals might serve unions, it is remarkably similar in spirit to the AFL-CIO manual 76 later. In his brief introduction, Laidler reminded readers that “many years ago… Peter Kropotkin wrote his famous appeal to young ‘intellectuals’ to cast in their lot with the labor movement.” I remember Kropotkin’s “Appeal to the Young,” --- which is still buried somewhere in my library--- because, at 16, I found it so inspiring. “The never-ceasing struggle for truth, justice, and equality,” wrote Kropotkin, “ will give you powers you never dreamt lay dormant in yourselves.”

But author Soule was not to be diverted into any extended discourse on misty ideals. He was preoccupied with how intellectuals might find practical entry into the labor movement and how they would handle themselves once there. He cautioned, “…the intellectual who has a romantic picture of the labor movement should remember that the rank and file of those who compose it approach it from a different ground and with a somewhat different purpose.” Once the intellectual sheds his illusions, “In the fields of trained technical assistance labor ought to expect much of the intellectual.... the intellectual can better aid the union by doing his own job well for the union than by trying to do the union’s job for it.”

Soule goes on to tell intellectuals, much like the AFL-CIO 76 years later, where they can find opportunities for professional service to unions: teach classes, provide legal, editorial, and accountancy expertise, publicity. Thirteen pages from commentators offer addresses for job opportunities and where to turn if intellectuals want to form their own unions. But in this preoccupation with technical and professional services, something was missing.

Labor needs intellectuals; intellectuals need labor. That their interdependence is once again accepted as established truth is one lasting benefit of Sweeney’s rise in 1995. But no need for a union job mart for intellectuals. In the search for a practical niche for intellectuals in and around unions, the danger is that both sides will lose sight of the basic force that binds them together.

Gus Tyler is an intellectual who was embedded in the labor movement as assistant president to David Dubinsky in the ILGWU. Back in 1973 in the American Federationist he wrote (even while cautioning against exaggerating the power of intellectuals) “… the anti-establishment intellectuals who can be found on the campus, or in the media, or in social work…. are educated, fairly affluent, articulate, and genuinely influential, they are a meaningful force in shaping public opinion in this country….” It is that ability to help shape public opinion that makes intellectuals so valuable an ally; they provide a public stamp of moral approval for unionism and thereby reinforce its political and social power in the nation.

Liberal and anti-establishment intellectuals share with labor the goal of social change; they want a more just, more democratic, more equalitarian society. The labor movement offers the social power that can transform ideals from dreams into reality. That combination, the power of unions and the aspirations of intellectuals is the basis of their alliance.

In January 1997, the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations invited academics who were in New Orleans for the annual conference of the Industrial Relations Research Association to a discussion on how to participate in “restoring and renewing historic ties between the labor and academic worlds.” In issuing the invitation, Sumner Rosen wrote of the hunger among students and teachers for a force on the side of economic and social justice with which they could connect.”

The intellectuals’ chief value to the labor movement derives not from their talents as professional technicians or skilled PR writers --- unions have been hiring all that kind of help they need--- but from their reputation for sharing peoples concerns, for impartiality, for independent-mindedness, wearing no one’s collar. (By jealously defending their “tenure” rights, academics preserve that reputation.) With their endorsement, the labor movement frees itself from the image of a narrow self-interest group and comes forward as a broad people’s movement. That contribution is the intellectuals’ key service to the labor movement; no other group can provide it as effectively.

Unions cannot buy that kind of service because once bought, it depreciates. People who suspect the motives of a hired mouthpiece can respect an independent voice. Intellectuals remain a valuable ally only by remaining independent and critical. Once they become kneejerk apologists, their value deteriorates. A successful alliance requires mutual respect: allies working in unison, but freely and independently.

There’s the rub. Can union leaders, always super sensitive to anything that might challenge their authority, even remotely, tolerate intellectuals who feel free to speak their mind. On the other side, will intellectuals, (aware of that depressing quality of labor leadership) refrain from speaking out frankly for fear of losing access to established union power? These questions are posed now precisely because this is a time of rapid change in the labor movement when discussion should be free and frank. There is the opportunity: expansion of union economic and political power. There is the danger: intensified bureaucracy and the suppression of union democracy. These are serious questions.

Intellectuals spring to the defense of one of their own against attack from employers. Kate Bronfenbrenner, an academic at Cornell, is one of the most prolific and insightful commentators on our emerging labor movement. Around 1998, she testified at public hearings on a bitter strike at Beverly Enterprises and sharply criticized the nursing home company. Outraged by what it charged was irresponsible meddling by an academic, the company delivered a stinging protest and filed suit against her. Because she was not a tenure-track faculty member at Cornell she was vulnerable; the fear was that the university might buckle under company pressure and invent a pretext to drop her from the rolls. Hundreds of professors, around the country, signed petitions on her behalf. Cornell got the message: it ended by coming to her defense; her job was saved.

But how different the course of events when the need was for protest against pressure from influential labor leaders.

In 1988, after another series of building trades scandals, the Cornell ILR Press published the interim report of the governor’s Organized Crime Task Force on corruption and racketeering in the New York City construction industry. It was a remarkable product. It placed the blame for corruption impartially on crooked employers and union officials; if anything, more on employers: “Corrupt contractors are equally, if not more culpable than corrupt union officials.” It noted that union members themselves were victimized and recorded the efforts of reform leaders to oust racketeers. It pointed to union democracy as an antidote to corruption: “One possible strategy involves fostering union democracy by assuring workers control over their unions and assisting them in imposing accountability on their union officers. Democratic structures and procedures …can make more likely the election of officials who work on behalf of their members rather than their own self interest.”

Two years later, the task force’s final report was ready, but this time Cornell refused to publish it. High officials of the New York State Federation of Labor had denounced the publication of the earlier interim report. Cornell yielded to the pressure. No outcry of protest from academics, not even a public whisper. The final report had to be published by the NYU Press. (Its author, James Jacobs, is an NYU law professor.)

(In some respects, the final report was more remarkable than the first. It concludes with a tribute to union reformers: “…’dissident’ workers in many construction unions are willing to raise their voices against incumbent racketeers…. We conclude by dedicating our Final Report to these courageous men and women whose faith in American values, institutions, and laws has been an inspiration to us during our labors on this project.” P. S. Governor Cuomo postponed publication of the report for many months until an election was over. Then it was released without fanfare, filed, and forgotten.)

No academic protest against Cornell’s cave in? But, one might demur, that was five years before those 43 intellectuals cemented their alliance with labor. Consider then the case of Robert Zieger, who, in 2001 submitted a paper to Labor Heritage, entitled “‘Black and White, Unite and Fight’? Race and Labor in American History.”

Labor Heritage is a glossy official AFL-CIO magazine that exudes a scholarly aura and makes space available to academics, especially to those who recount great labor struggles of the past canonized by time. Robert Zieger, a labor history professor at the University of Florida, is the author of “The CIO: 1935-1955,” (a 500-page major work acclaimed as a “classic” by David Brody) and of “American Workers, American Unions, 1920-1985.” His credentials as acceptable writer for Labor Heritage received an inadvertent boost from Dan LaBotz who, reviewing Zieger’s CIO book in the Marxist Against the Current, (9-10/95) criticized him as a labor establishment spokesman. “This …history is fundamentally an apology for the labor bureaucracy,” wrote LaBotz.

He had presented his piece, Zieger explains, “to promote dialogue between academics such as myself and men and women active in the labor movement.” It was accepted by Labor Heritage ---at first. But to his surprise, some months later, Michael Merrill, director of the George Meany Center, informed him that, in an editorial change of heart, it was rejected. What bothered Merrill was not some individual inadequacy of Zieger’s work but a heretical deviation from what was acceptable to the AFL-CIO. Merrill conceded that it “does clearly and concisely present the currently prevailing conventional wisdom within the academic community about the labor movement's record on race.” But he noted that the paper “does not fit with the new editorial direction” and that it “does not …give sufficient credit to the diversity of [the labor movement’s] record, especially in the AFL era.” It was a blunt warning to “the academic community” to toe a politically correct line if they want access. The implication is depressing: if labor’s keepers of the seal cannot permit criticism of its past record, how much more intolerable will they find any frank criticism of its current practice.

Zieger suggested that fellow academics “take my sobering experience into account.” They didn’t. There was no petition outcry against this union-imposed censorship.

What is the role of intellectuals in the new alliance? As hired hands or volunteer professional technicians, their value is minimal. In all their books and articles that abound from university presses, we don’t read much about their practical work out in the field. They don’t go out to organize. They don’t spend time in the union office. They don’t handle grievances. They don’t canvass for votes. Some of their students, while still young and vigorous, may volunteer for the grueling work; but those professors, those academics, are celebrated for their writings and lectures on labor history, on the significance of new trends, estimates of progress, on the broad future of the labor movement as a force for social justice. They can best fulfill a role as labor’s advocate when they also serve as labor’s conscience.

Both sides of this alliance have a problem. Labor leaders want to bask in the glow of support by eminent intellectuals. But, jealous of their power in their unions, they are sensitive to anything that might question it. They set limits; they want unalloyed endorsement, not frank criticism.

Those professionals and academics who have answered the union call --- in the hundreds or thousands --- are convinced that the labor movement, at last, is going their way. They are eager for access to that power. Unions pay tuition fees for union members to attend their classes. They direct their students to unions as paid interns. Unions back their publications. Eminent labor leaders endorse their conferences. Unions finance research projects. To safeguard those connections, which seem so vital to the cause of social justice, they need only to submit to a measure of censorship, preferably self-censorship, which is something that Robert Zieger discovered to his dismay.

But there are flaws in the adjustments so essential to this happy coexistence. If labor leaders insist that intellectuals toe the official line, they risk destroying their credibility as impartial advocates in the public arena. If intellectuals submit to those limitations, they risk losing their soul.

All these overhanging questions arise because Andy Stern, a would-be savior of the working class, is constructing a new labor movement based on ambiguous and contradictory principles: organize the oppressed but insulate union power from the influence of the rank and file.

The rising sector of the labor movement can be aggressive and then compliant; it focuses attention on neglected minorities and then treats them with contempt; it declares independence of the Democrats and seeks arrangements with the Republicans; it hails democracy in industry but derogates democracy in unions.

Objections can be anticipated: “We must be realists, not dreamers. There can be no perfect democracy. Unions must be centralized for battle against a powerfully organized foe. If workers can sometimes be manipulated into unions from above, why not? Sometimes it is necessary to maneuver or compromise or cooperate with employers. If in this dog-eat-dog world all this is necessary to build a stronger labor movement, so be it. Etc., etc.”

It is not merely a question of scrutinizing the validity of the details of Stern’s program or practice. Obviously I have my opinion; others will have theirs. Each move taken by itself may be the cleverest scheme in the world. There have always been persuasive arguments for freewheeling realism, compromise, and opportunism. However, after all is said, intellectuals must ask, “Is this what we had in mind? In this what those Scholars, Artists, and Writers expected when they responded to Sweeney’s call for “a reborn movement of American workers, ready to fight for social and economic justice…a new progressive voice in American life …changing the direction of American politics …a vibrant social movement … a democratic movement that speaks for all American workers.” In short, what kind of labor movement are we building?

Intellectuals are ready to serve the labor movement. But can the labor movement adjust to an alliance with outspoken, independent-minded critics. SAWSJ, where are you when we need you?