SEIU skullduggery

Pub date April 2, 2008
WriterJ.B. Powell


As an internal power struggle wracks the giant Service Employees International Union, emails obtained by the Guardian suggest that SEIU officials may have violated union rules by working to influence an important San Francisco delegate election last month.

Delegates selected by Local 1021, based in SF, will attend the union’s international convention in June and will vote on a series of democratic reforms put forward by dissident labor leader Sal Rosselli. In recent weeks, Rosselli has clashed publicly with SEIU’s international president Andy Stern over Stern’s increasing consolidation of the 1.9 million-member labor organization.

And the emails appear to show a concerted effort by Stern’s senior staff and local loyalists to ensure that the dissidents don’t dominate the convention delegation.

Referring to themselves in the emails as the “Salsa Team,” SEIU staffers discussed strategy and coordinated campaign activity for the delegate election with high-ranking union officials like Damita Davis-Howard, the president of Local 1021, and Josie Mooney, a special assistant to Stern, the emails show.

Critics charge that these activities violated Local 1021’s Election Rules and Procedures – specifically Rule 18, which states, “While in the performance of their duties, union staff shall remain uninvolved and neutral in relation to candidate endorsements and all election activities.”

While Rule 18 does not specifically spell out when union staff can advocate for candidates, other than proscribing such activities “while in performance of their duties,” the emails in our possession are date and time stamped and several of them were sent during business hours.

Furthermore, the Guardian has obtained an internal memo from Local 1021 official Patti Tamura in which she warned union staffers that the phrase “‘performance of their duties’ goes beyond [Monday through Friday] and 9-5p.”

One Local 1021 official who asked not to be identified told us that Tamura’s memo appeared to be a clear message that staff should stay completely out of the election. “They made it perfectly clear to the lower staff that your employment doesn’t stop [after hours], you’re still staff. That means, you don’t get involved. But now it turns out they themselves were doing it. That’s a double standard … it’s certainly not right.”

The messages between Salsa Team members show them actively working to recruit potential delegates sympathetic to Stern’s vision for the SEIU and to aid Davis-Howard in her bid to represent the union at the June convention. One missive, dated February 18, which appears to come from the personal email account of Local 1021 employee Jano Oscherwitz and was sent to what appear to be the personal accounts of Tamura and Mooney, requests that a “message for Damita” be drafted.

According to the time stamp on the message, Oscherwitz sent it at 12:03 PM. Feb. 18 was a Monday. [Update: February 18th was the President’s Day holiday. However an email stamped 4:26 PM on the following day, Tuesday the 19th, shows Salsa Team members continuing to confer about Davis-Howard’s campaigning, as well as the recruitment of potential delegates.]

A forwarded email stamped 3:18 PM on that same day, from Oscherwitz to what appear to be personal email accounts for Tamura, fellow 1021 staffer Gilda Valdez, and “Damita” includes a “Draft Message” with bulleted talking points, apparently for Davis-Howard to use as she “Collect[s] Signatures on Commitment Cards.”

“Commitment cards” refers to pledges from union members to support certain delegates.

At the convention, scheduled for June 1 through 4 in Puerto Rico, delegates will weigh in on a series of reforms backed by Roselli, chief of the United Health Care Workers West. These reforms include eliminating the current delegate system for electing union leaders, giving local unions more authority in bargaining for their own contracts, and granting locals more say in proposed mergers.

Stern opposes Rosselli’s reforms. A March 5 Salsa Team message includes an attached document with several talking points critical of Rosselli. In the body of the email, SEIU staffer Gilda Valdez advises Davis-Howard, Mooney, 1021 chief of staff Marion Steeg, and others to “Memorize the points in talking to folks.” Valdez goes on to say in the email that she “will be calling … about your assignments.”

Reached for comment, Davis-Howard confirmed that the AOL email account listed as “Damita” was hers. But she claimed no knowledge of the Salsa Team or the messages sent to her. “If you’re saying those emails went to my home computer, who knows if I ever even got them?”

Despite her unwillingness to acknowledge whether she had received the messages, Davis-Howard bristled at the suggestion that the Salsa Team’s activities violated union rules. “Are you trying to tell me that I can never campaign? Does it [Rule 18] say that I have to be neutral and uninvolved 24 hours a day?”

Calls to Mooney, Oscherwitz, Valdez, and Tamura were not returned.

But some union members think there’s a serious problem here. In a written statement, Roxanne Sanchez, who was the president of the San Francisco local before it was merged with other Northern California locals to create 1021, accused Davis-Howard and the Salsa Team of “rigging the outcome” of the delegate election.

“This type of breach in ethical conduct – at such a high level – threatens the foundation of trust and confidence in our Union and in President Damita Davis-Howard’s ability to hold fair elections,” she said.

Sanchez informed us by phone that a formal complaint will be filed with the union’s election committee by Friday.