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.)

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