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Battle Within SEIU Comes to a Head with Executive Board Vote on Future of One of its Largest Locals

StoryJanuary 08, 2009
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We look at the latest on a major battle within one of the country’s largest labor unions, the Service Employees International Union. SEIU’s executive board is meeting today to decide whether to dismantle one of its largest locals, California’s 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers West, by merging all or part of it into a new California affiliate. Critics of the proposal say SEIU president Andy Stern is trying to push ahead with the move despite overwhelming opposition from local members. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We end today’s show today with the latest on a major battle within one of the country’s largest labor unions, the Service Employees International Union. SEIU’s executive board is meeting today to decide whether to dismantle one of its largest locals, California’s 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West, by merging all or part of it into a new California affiliate. Critics of the proposal say SEIU president Andy Stern is trying to push ahead with the move despite overwhelming opposition from local members.

AMY GOODMAN: As part of this plan, Andy Stern would also remove Sal Rosselli, the president of United Healthcare Workers-West. Rosselli resigned from SEIU’s executive committee last year, accusing Stern of expanding his powers at members’ expense.

Sal Rosselli joins us from San Francisco. We invited representatives from SEIU to come on the show, but they said no one was available due to today’s meeting.

Sal Rosselli, welcome to Democracy Now!

SAL ROSSELLI: Thank you very much. I appreciate you having us.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Sal, could you lay out for us your union’s opposition to this proposed reorganization or merging that would result in United Healthcare Workers-West either being severely truncated in size or eliminated altogether?

SAL ROSSELLI: Sure. A couple of years ago, Andy Stern decided that he wanted to control the relationship between our nursing home employers, be able to establish top-down sweetheart deals that sacrificed workers’ rights and the ability of workers to advocate for their patients. Our members stood in the way of that, decided that we weren’t going to stand for it, resisted it, and ever since then, he’s been trying to force these workers out of our union.

During 2008, in multiple different ways, our members have demonstrated in a very democratic way that they want to stay united with the hospital workers in our union. Third-party-supervised democratic secret ballot votes, over 95 percent of our members voting to stay united with hospital workers in our union, are being dismissed.

Last month, Andy Stern conducted a bogus vote, where 309,000 SEIU healthcare workers in California received a ballot with two choices: one, to force the long-term care members out of our union, where he would appoint the leaders of this new union, or two, dissolve our union altogether, merge all healthcare workers in California into one union, and he would appoint the leaders of this new union. Our leadership decided to boycott this vote, because they were both false choices. Out of 309,000 ballots mailed out, only 24,000 folks voted, and that was with huge resources to get people to vote. So only eight percent of the folks voted. Andy Stern declares that’s union democracy, the workers have spoken, they want a separate union of long-term care workers in California. And that’s the issue before his executive board today, to take that vote to create a new union and force these long-term care members out of our union.

And ironically, while this is all happening, our union has been settling contracts with these national for-profit nursing home employers that have realized the dreams of our nursing home workers for over the last fifteen years, including acute hospital standards that we’ve been fighting for: third-party resolution of staffing disputes; stronger language for workers, healthcare workers, to advocate for their patients than exist anywhere else in the country; and good wages and benefits to stabilize the work force in nursing homes. Simultaneously, Andy Stern’s trustee in southern California is settling with these same employers, compromising collective bargaining rights for the workers, compromising the workers’ ability to advocate for their patients.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Sal, my understanding is that as recently as yesterday here in New York, scores of staff members of one of the SEIU locals were being trained in preparation to be sent out to California for the next six months to take over your union — the training is going on right now — and that if your union rejects the decision of the SEIU executive committee, they will move to trustee you. What is your preparation in case this decision goes against you today at the executive board meeting?

SAL ROSSELLI: Well, tomorrow we have an executive board meeting of our union to react to what SEIU’s board does today. You know, we had rank-and-file leaders in New York yesterday leafleting that meeting of staff that you’re referring to, and folks were received very well. The staff that they’re sending to California are being lied to. They’re being told that there’s a corrupt union in California, and we have to go protect the members, when the absolute opposite is true.

Our members — we have 150,000 members, and very deep in our membership, people intend to maintain control of their union, maintain control of the relationship with their employer, maintain control of their future. You know, workers don’t join unions to get another boss from Washington, D.C. They join unions to have a real voice in determining their future. And our union believes there are no limits to empowering workers. Rank-and-file democracy is fundamental to any union. And certainly, this healthcare workers’ union, where the health of consumers in California, millions of consumers, is also at risk.

AMY GOODMAN: Sal Rosselli, I wanted to ask you very quickly — we just got a statement a few minutes ago within the show emailed to us from the Service Employees International Union. They say, “Today’s vote follows an exhaustive two-year participatory process including 13 days of hearings to determine how best to represent SEIU’s 240,000 long-term care members in California. In August, an outside hearing officer concluded that California’s long-term care workers would be better served if they were no longer divided among three local unions. Similarly, in June, the member delegates to SEIU’s quadrennial convention representing the union’s 2 million members overwhelming adopted a proposal that called for the creation of a single long term care workers’ union per state.

“The question facing the IEB today” — that’s the International Executive Board — “could not be more urgent. These are particularly challenging times for California workers. Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed dramatic across-the-board cuts in patient care and worker pay, including slashing the pay of many workers to a bare minimum wage, and long-term care members must to be organized to fight back.” They conclude, “The proposal being considered today would create the nation’s largest organization of long-term care workers, instantly making it a political and economic heavyweight in the nation’s most populous state.”

Sal Rosselli, your response?

SAL ROSSELLI: It’s disingenuous at best. You know, the hearings inside SEIU are kangaroo court type of operations. The bottom line is, workers need to be able to vote in a very democratic way about their future. And the workers in — the 150,000 workers in UHW in California have voted to stay united into one union.

It’s also hypocritical, because in every other state, including New York, long-term care workers are united with hospital workers. Enforcing a division of them in California, which is what Andy Stern is attempting to do, will delegate long-term care workers to permanent second-class citizenship. It’s the strength of hospital workers united with long-term care workers that’s fundamentally important to achieve quality patient care, achieve a real voice in staffing levels and achieve fair conditions for these workers.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sal Rosselli, you’re going up against probably the most influential labor leader in America today, Andy Stern. He’s been featured in the New York Times Magazine as the voice of reform in the labor movement in America today, and many people call him a visionary, a person who’s — SEIU is growing rapidly. Why do you go into this battle that could actually have enormous impact in terms of the strength of SEIU?

SAL ROSSELLI: Well, it’s my fundamental obligation as a union leader, an elected union leader, to carry out the wishes, the vision of our members. It’s our members who pull their dues dollars, pay our salaries, and it’s up to them.

You know, Andy Stern — we have a fundamental difference in ideology, and I would easily describe it as this: we believe that there’s no limit to empowering workers. To win an progressive majority in this country, there has to be a labor movement that’s bottom-up, driven by rank-and-file members in a very democratic way. Andy Stern’s vision is top-down. It’s about centralizing more power and decision-making authority among a few in Washington, D.C. It’s about union members paying dues to get a service from an organization, as opposed to a union of members, for members, by members, that make their own decisions, control the relationship with their employer, control their future. So it’s a fundamental disagreement.

And this is not about me. This is not about Andy Stern. This is about a crossroads in the labor movement. The soul of the labor movement is at stake. And again, our vision is that organized labor needs to be a movement of workers, for workers, and by workers.

AMY GOODMAN: Sal Rosselli, I want to thank you for being with us, president of SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West, speaking to us from San Francisco. We’ll report on the outcome of the decision by the international executive board of the SEIU today.

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