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.