Union showdown

Pub date January 28, 2009

› steve@sfbg.com

The Oakland-based United Healthcare Workers is bracing for an imminent takeover by its parent, Service Employees International Union, after defying an SEIU ultimatum to support the transfer of 65,000 UHW nursing home and homecare workers to a new local — without a member vote and with leadership appointed by SEIU.

The power struggle between SEIU President Andy Stern and UHW head Sal Rosselli and their respective boards, which has been escautf8g for the last year (see "A less perfect union," 4/9/08), came to a head Jan. 22 when SEIU’s International Executive Board approved findings of fiscal shenanigans and insubordination by UHW leaders and threatened to oust them and institute a trusteeship if six conditions were not met within five days.

To determine its response over the weekend, UHW organized meetings with about 5,000 of its members in San Francisco and four other cities, announcing the response during a raucous press conference at the Oakland headquarters the morning of Jan. 26, a day before the SEIU deadline.

"You ready everybody?" began Rosselli, flanked by a rainbow of 30 members and signs like "Hands off our UHW" and "Don’t Silence our Voices." The energized crowd of about 100 supporters answered with an enthusiastic, "Yeah!"

At that 11 a.m. rally, and in a teleconference an hour later with reporters from across the country, including from the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, Rosselli began by describing the UHW (which began with San Francisco General Hospital workers about 75 years ago) as perhaps the most effective, democratic, politicized, and oldest health care union in the country.

"We have an ideology that there’s no limit to empowering workers," Rosselli told reporters, announcing that UHW has unanimously approved a response letter to Stern that he characterized as "a compromise to avoid a civil war and get to the path of reconciliation."

But SEIU spokesperson Michelle Ringuette, while noting that her union’s leadership had not yet decided how to respond by Guardian press time, said the findings and conditions by special hearing officer Ray Marshall (who was the labor secretary under President Jimmy Carter) "was not a negotiation."

Marshall’s 105-page report concluded that "Leaders of the UHW did engage in financial malpractice and undermined democratic procedures when they transferred UHW funds to a nonprofit organization to be used in contests with the International Union." It set out conditions to avoid trusteeship that included supporting the transfer of long-term care workers, greater fiscal oversight by SEIU, purging the UHW database of names pilfered from SEIU, and publicizing the Marshall report to its members.

"Given that Sal Rosselli and his leadership team were just found guilty by Secretary Marshall of financial wrongdoing and trying to subvert the democratic processes of this union, there’s nothing surprising about this letter," Ringuette told the Guardian.

Yet an insistence on democratic processes was at the heart of the UHW stance against SEIU, which UHW leaders accuse of sacrificing the autonomy of locals in its drive for more national power, appointing leadership based on loyalty to Stern, colluding with large corporate employers, and turning a blind eye to corruption by Stern loyalists that was far more serious than any accusations against UHW.

UHW agreed to some of SEIU’s conditions, but insisted that its members be allowed to vote on the merger and elect their own leaders, and that SEIU work with UHW to craft a union that best represents member interests. In addition, it called for a mediated reconciliation process with SEIU that could culminate in a vote to create a single union representing all health care workers in California.

UHW members are fiercely loyal to that organization. To illustrate UHW’s effectiveness, Rosselli noted that SEIU locals representing nursing home workers recently negotiated contracts with wages $4 per hour less than UHW contracts and without UHW’s strong patient advocacy provisions. He also said that while UHW represents about 20 percent of statewide SEIU workers, the union filled 55 percent of the volunteer shifts in state and local elections.

"We’re a very democratic organization, and that’s what we believe is the key to our success," Rosselli said. "Workers want a strong voice in dealing with their employers, not just another boss in Washington, D.C."

All sides of the conflict express a desire to move forward. As Marshall wrote, "The UHW-SEIU conflict is hurting both organizations at a critical time in the development of the labor movement and progressive policies in the country." But it could be that the two sides have staked out intractable positions.

Rosselli was realistic about whether SEIU will accept the UHW counteroffer, telling reporters, "I don’t think it’s likely, but we hope that they will."

And what if they don’t?

Rosselli was careful to avoid threatening to lead an effort to disaffiliate UHW from SEIU if the trusteeship happens, noting that such advocacy is against SEIU rules and refusing to answer questions from reporters pushing the issue. But he made that possibility clear with statements such as "Our members have instructed us to resist this undemocratic transfer."

As to how UHW leaders will respond if and when SEIU takes over UHW and ousts them, Rosselli read from a prepared statement that said, "We would convene a meeting of our currently elected leaders and decide what to do next."

During the Oakland rally, Rosselli went a little further, reminding UHW members that they always retain the right to form a new union. The crowd applauded for 40 seconds and chanted, "Can we? Yes we can! Will we? Yes we will!"

As the conference concluded and attendees trickled away, homecare worker Tena Robinson grabbed a Guardian reporter and said she had a message to convey: "Andy Stern, we will never surrender!"

As she said it, Rosselli came over to hug her, as if embracing a family member. And then she told Rosselli that if he goes, "I’m going with you!"

Joe Sciarrillo contributed to this report.