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.

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