The Service Employees International Union plans to spend $50 million during the coming months lobbying for a bill that would make it harder for employers to fight against unionization drives.
But critics of the union's national leader, Andy Stern, say ongoing scandals in California may stymie the union's drive to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow employees to form unions in a workplace when a preponderance of them fill out a pro-union form, rather having to contest a secret ballot election.
Such a bill has long been the Holy Grail of the labor movement because, activists say, union election campaigns often give employers an opportunity to harass, fire, and otherwise intimidate workers into rejecting union membership.
"We think Stern is going to endanger the entire progressive agenda," said John Borsos, vice president of United Healthcare Workers West, an SEIU division that represents 150,000 nurses, orderlies, and other healthcare workers. "Now is the time for the labor movement to be united around a democratic, energized labor movement. But it's got to be done in a way that's principled, that doesn't sacrifice the rights of workers, or of consumers."
Stern's leadership has been challenged by a series of scandals, the latest involving his meeting with Rod Blagojevich at around the time the Illinois governor was angling to trade in his ability to appoint the state's next U.S. Senator for a lucrative, union-funded job. Last year the L.A. Times revealed that Stern's hand-picked representative in charge of a Southern California healthcare-workers' affiliate apparently improperly diverted union dues. And in the Bay Area, Stern is attempting to unseat popular labor leader Sal Rosselli as punishment for standing up for patients' rights.
Today the SEIU executive board meets to consider a Stern edict to dismantle Oakland-based UHW-West by merging part of it into a new California affiliate. The national union's executive board was to finish voting on the move by Friday afternoon, with no word as of Thursday on when the decision would be announced.
Borsos says Stern is rushing this move despite overwhelming opposition from local members. As the board considers whether to dismantle UHW-West, Stern has also taken steps to force UHW-West President Rosselli from his leadership post, alleging misuse of union dues. Rosselli calls the charges bogus, and says this latest move is merely an attempt to silence criticisms of Stern's employer-friendly organizing style. A hearing officer is scheduled to release a decision before Thursday, Jan. 15 on whether Rosselli will be removed from his post.
This dispute between Stern and the union's Oakland-based health care affiliate became public in April, 2007, when SF Weekly first reported that Rosselli had questioned Stern's strategy of recruiting nursing home workers in a way that aligned the union against groups that advocated for better patient care.
Under the strategy, Stern appointees five years ago negotiated a deal with a group of nursing home chains whereby the SEIU would use its political clout to sideline patients' rights groups, which had pushed for legal guarantees of high-quality patient care in state-subsidized nursing homes.
Under the agreement the SEIU also lobbied for passage of legislation that would have made it more difficult for disabled patients to sue nursing home owners in cases where they were neglected, injured or raped.
In exchange, the nursing home owners agreed to allow the SEIU to recruit workers in certian facilities, as long as they signed contracts discouraging the union's members from reporting patient abuse to journalists, regulators, or law enforcement.
The Palm Beach Post, summarizing 2004 SF Weekly reporting on the alliance agreement, put a face on Stern's strategy of collaborating, rather than confronting, employers.
"So, if your mother is not being turned everyday, and the bed sores are literally killing her, and the workers know this is happening but can't do anything about it because on some shifts there are only two caregivers for 47 patients, the workers, through their union, have pledged to say nothing. To no one," is how the Post editorial put it.
Since SF Weekly reported on these agreements, and Rosselli's criticism of them, Stern has taken various steps to dilute, or eliminate Rosselli's authority, efforts that will be coming to a head during the next few days.
Stern, for his part, said during a conference call Wednesday that his disagreements with Rosselli are merely part of the ordinary give and take typical of a democratically run union. During the call, attended by SF Weekly, Stern scoffed at the suggestion that scandals in California might provide fodder for Republican critics during the upcoming battle over the Employee Free Choice Act.
"Within any healthy democratic union there are differences of opinion," Stern said. "I assume [Republicans] will use anything and everything they can. But people have indicated they want change in this country, and that is what will prevail."
Rosselli, however, believes that the real winner in the California fight will be nursing home chains, which had hoped to revive the alliance agreement that saw SEIU using its clout with Democratic state legislators to advance industry goals of curbing patient lawsuits, and avoiding regulations that would require high quality care.
"That's exactly why they're trying to take UHW-West out of the long-term care business," Rosselli said in an interview Wednesday. "It's to take away our resistance to the back room deals with the alliance employers, to take us out of the picture so we don't resist it."