The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Behind the Fight in the Apparatus

Feb 23, 2009

On January 27, the national leadership of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) took over one of its local unions, UHW (United Healthcare Workers-West) headed by Sal Rosselli. SEIU President Andy Stern dismissed the top UHW officials and executive board and sent a small army of SEIU officials and administrators to take possession of the UHW treasury and 16 local union halls scattered across the whole state of California. Altogether, the UHW local has 150,000 members.

Stern claimed that he was taking over the local because of financial malfeasance. Yet, a panel that Stern himself appointed found that UHW’s finances did not warrant trusteeship of the local. Nonetheless, within days of the panel’s report, Stern took over the local anyway. No, Stern’s takeover of UHW was not about corruption and personal financial enrichment.

From Allies to Opponents

Stern and Rosselli had started out as allies. In 1998, Stern had begun to merge smaller locals into gigantic statewide or regional locals. He anointed Rosselli, who had headed a local in northern California, the president of a new, gigantic local for all of California. When Stern negotiated outright sweetheart contracts with employers in return for being allowed to “organize” a lot more members, Rosselli jumped on board.

In 2003, for example, Rosselli went along with a secret agreement that Stern made with several chains of nursing home owners in California. According to articles in the San Francisco Weekly (“Partners in Slime”, June 30, 2004 and “Union Disunity,” April 11, 2007), the SEIU promised that in return for being allowed to sign up workers into the union, it would keep wages and benefits extremely low, as well as not make any demands on staffing, working conditions, the conditions and treatment of the patients, etc. On top of that, SEIU officials promised to use their influence among California Democrats to get the nursing home owners more state subsidies, and new laws that would make it more difficult for patients and workers to sue the nursing homes for their horrible health and safety conditions.

The owners of 42 nursing homes signed on to the deal. In return, the UHW was able to sign up a wave of new members. Rosselli blandly explained, “Traditionally, there has been an adversarial relationship between SEIU and general health care providers. We’ve been changing those relationships to accomplish common goals.

Apparently some UHW officials had second thoughts. In 2007, UHW staff prepared a top secret report, “The California Alliance Agreement: Lessons Learned in Moving Forward,” whose findings were published in the San Francisco Weekly. The report detailed how the UHW helped win the nursing home operators at least two billion dollars over four years in extra subsidies, a windfall from the state government. The report also warned that the deal had provided absolutely nothing in return for the workforce, and it precluded any advances in the future.

Is it any wonder that we have often heard from these workers that ‘the boss brought us the union?’” the report notes. The UHW was calling its own agreement with the nursing home operators a “sell out.”

This signaled problems and frictions between UHW local officials and the SEIU national leadership.

Later in 2007, Rosselli openly clashed with Stern over the terms of a new national contract with Tenet, the second largest private hospital chain in the country. The SEIU had about 22% of Tenet’s employees under contract. The SEIU national leadership offered enormous concessions to induce the company to not oppose unionization for the rest of the company. The SEIU gave Tenet the right to subcontract up to 12% of the jobs, as well as wage give-backs and a seven-year extension of the no-strike clause.

UHW officials, claiming that they were not consulted about the terms of the contract, walked out in protest. Rosselli’s opposition was out in the open.

Stern retaliated by proposing to take 65,000 home health care and nursing home workers out of the UHW and put them into a new mega-local of 240,000 long-term health care workers. In protest, in February 2008, Rosselli resigned from the national SEIU Executive Board.

At the September SEIU national convention, Rosselli tried to make a case for greater local autonomy and independence from the national SEIU. This provided an opening for officials from other locals facing similar problems to voice their concerns. Some of them coalesced into an informal grouping called SMART (SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today). Nonetheless, the SEIU convention rejected Rosselli’s proposal overwhelmingly. Four months later, Stern took over the UHW local, putting it into trusteeship.

Rosselli then immediately announced that he and other former union officials from UHW intended to organize a new union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which would compete with the SEIU. Less than a week later, Rosselli announced that the NUHW had delivered petitions signed by 9,000 workers from 62 facilities to disaffiliate from the SEIU as a first step for union elections “to form NUHW’s founding chapters,” as Rosselli wrote.

What Is at Stake

Rosselli came to oppose Stern’s growing power and “interference” in local unions, especially Stern’s habit of going over the local leadership’s heads to negotiate contracts and make agreements.

But does Rosselli represent a different policy from that of Stern? That’s the real problem. Judging so far from what he has said, it doesn’t seem like it. Certainly, he has never repudiated his own policies at the helm of the UHW.

Under Rosselli, the UHW collaborated closely with their corporate partners to impose concessions and sacrifices on the workers, the infamous “partnerships.” And under Rosselli, these “partnerships” were imposed on the workers by a paid staff of 450 people, far removed from the actual rank-and-file union members. Besides that, like the rest of the new mega-SEIU locals created under Stern, the sheer size of Rosselli’s UHW local, with its 150,000 members throughout the state of California, functioned as a built-in impediment for ordinary rank-and-filers to play any role in their union, not to speak of mounting an effective challenge and opposition to the officials’ policy, if they deemed it necessary.

The workers are faced with employers who are more and more emboldened by the crisis and the growing unemployment, who use that as the means to batter down workers, stripping them of whatever gains the working class had won in the past. The main issue for workers inside and outside the SEIU is to be able to find a way to mobilize and organize to protect their own interests.

That would be the starting point for the policy of someone who is working for a real reform in the unions.