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.