The SEIU strikes back

Pub date April 15, 2008
WriterJ.B. Powell


The Rhode Island Street headquarters for Local 1021 of the giant Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had several surprise visitors April 14. First, International President Andy Stern arrived from Washington DC to speak with the local’s executive board.

Then, after word of Stern’s last minute appearance got out, a group of 20 activists from Oakland–based SEIU affiliate United Healthcare Workers West (UHW) attempted to enter the building and confront Stern about what they perceive to be his anti-democratic administration. They were barred from the meeting. When the Guardian attempted to gain entrance, we were twice escorted to the exit by 1021 staffers. A source inside the union said Stern left through a back door during lunchtime.

Stern’s visit and the dissidents’ foiled attempt to meet him reflect the high level of tension inside SEIU these days. As it prepares to vote on several democratic reform measures at a convention in early June, internal fault lines have split the 1.9 million-member union.

As we reported last week ("Hard Labor," 4/9/08) Stern loyalists have pushed the boundaries of union rules, and perhaps even federal law, to beat back the slate of reforms championed by UHW’s dissident leader, Sal Rosselli.

Now, in response to our reporting and to Rosselli’s movement, leaders inside the labor giant apparently have gone into full damage-control mode.

In fact, an election committee that appears to have been hand-picked by Local 1021’s president already rejected an internal complaint about the election process — and critics are calling foul.


Two weeks ago, the Guardian reported on a controversial batch of e-mails among SEIU officials. Calling themselves the "salsa team," high-level union staffers — including Damita Davis-Howard, whom Stern appointed as president of 1021, as well as Josie Mooney, a Stern assistant — swapped campaign strategy and exchanged anti-Rosselli talking points during an election to select delegates to the upcoming convention.

On April 4, more than a dozen union members lodged a formal complaint with the organization’s local election committee. The complaint charged that the salsa team’s missives broke union rules against staff involvement in elections. Soon afterward, lawyers representing Rosselli’s union filed suit against Stern and the SEIU — alleging, among other things, that SEIU "officers, employees, and allies" interfered with delegate elections in violation of federal labor law.

While the lawsuit will not see a courtroom for some time, it didn’t take long for the union committee to rule against the members’ complaint. In a memo dated the following Monday, April 7, and obtained by the Guardian, the nine-member body reported to the union’s International Secretary-Treasurer that "the staff (directors and others) named in the challenge are members of Local 1021 and therefore have the same right as all other members" to participate in the election.

The distinction is key: union rules strictly forbid paid staffers from interfering in elections by members. And supporters of union democracy insist that a central tenet of their movement are the notions that staffers work for the membership — and that the members, not the staff, determine union policy (See Opinion, page 7).

The outcome is important not only to the union but to progressive politics in San Francisco. Local 1021 (and Local 790, the San Francisco chapter that predates it) has played a major role in supporting progressive causes and candidates.

The committee’s ruling, and the speed with which it reached its decision, outraged many inside the union. A number of 1021 staffers who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal called the memo "bullshit" when asked to comment.

Union member Maria Guillen, one of the members who signed the complaint, told us that the salsa team’s actions and their exoneration by the election committee "go against the spirit of union democracy." Guillen went on to challenge the assertion that union staff, especially top management like Mooney and Davis-Howard, have the same rights as rank and file members when it comes to campaigning in union elections.

"None of the executive board members I’ve spoken to can recall voting on that. Who had the authority to permit that? … To think that folks with all the resources and all the connections are working against us, it breaks my heart."

The makeup of the committee also raises conflict of interest issues.

According to the provisional bylaws for Local 1021, which were enacted after it was formed in early 2007 by merging 10 separate Northern California locals, 1021’s appointed president Damita Davis-Howard has control "in creating committees and naming members to such committees." Several sources inside the union told us she used this power to select the members of the election committee that apparently ruled on whether she herself broke union rules.

Davis-Howard did not return calls for comment and our attempts to reach committee chair Cassandra Burdick through staff at Local 1021 were unsuccessful.

SEIU international spokesperson Andy McDonald could not confirm whether Davis-Howard had in fact named the election committee members to their positions


In another indication of just how radioactive SEIU’s internal dissension has become, numerous Democratic politicians and party officials in California recently received a letter signed by five presidents of SEIU locals around the state, including Davis-Howard. The letter, obtained by the Guardian and dated April 2 — the day after we broke the salsa team story — seeks to reassure party members that the union will clean its own house. It also appears to warn the state’s political leaders not to choose sides between Rosselli and Stern.

With millions of dollars in its coffers, SEIU is a prime source of campaign cash for politicians.

"We have a democratic process for resolving our internal differences," the letter reads. "In fact, our members will debate and set the course of our union at our convention in June. We hope that you will respect the right of our members to decide for themselves the direction of their union and avoid involvement in our internal affairs."

SEIU’s alleged hardball tactics have extended beyond its internal conflict in recent weeks. The union has been feuding with the California Nurses Association over allegations that the nurses’ union has been attempting to woo SEIU members into switching to the competing union.

Last week, several CNA board members in Southern California claimed that SEIU staffers showed up at their doors and confronted them. SEIU confirmed that it’s sending people to CNA members’ houses, but said there was no intimidation. And last weekend, a large crowd of SEIU members allegedly stormed a convention in Michigan put on by the magazine Labor Notes. A press release from CNA claimed several people were injured and that numerous CNA officials had to flee "out the back of the hall for their safety."

SEIU’s Lynda Tran confirmed that "things got a little rough" when a group of SEIU members and staff attempted to confront a CNA official. "Folks from both sides got injured," she added.

Labor activist and author Herman Benson, of the Association for Union Democracy in New York, told the Guardian that the divisions within SEIU, and its conflicts with other unions, are nothing new in the labor movement. For nearly as long as unions have existed, he said, power struggles have taken place among union brass. "Any incumbency has enormous weapons at its disposal."

Benson praised Stern for his efforts in recruiting new members for SEIU. As the rest of organized labor has continued to decline in America, Stern’s shop has brought in nearly 1 million new members. But Benson took issue with what he perceived as intolerance for dissent within his ranks.

"Stern has a vision of an almost militarized bureaucratic labor movement … but if you can’t have criticism before your international convention, when can you have it?"