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Web Letter

Including Andy Stern’s essay, “Labor’s New Deal” among those of your, “esteemed collection of activists, writers, scholars and artists,” helps Stern to cultivate his image as a visionary, innovative leader. Reality belies rhetoric. Stern’s record must be examined.In a classic contradiction, Stern touts efforts, “to create global unions of workers who work for the same employers,” and then argues, “America needs to act more as a team to compete in the global economy”. Are US workers in “global unions” with workers of the same employer around the world, or part of “Team America” competing in the global economy? We can’t be both equally.

Leading the Change To Win split, Stern harshly criticized the AFL-CIO for prioritizing politics over organizing, promising that CTW would produce faster growth through consolidating industry jurisdiction and innovative organizing strategies.SEIU is actually spending more than ever on politics and some of its ventures raise troubling questions. SEIU’s engagement with the recently indicted governor of Puerto Rico to help decertify the teachers’ union and force an affiliation – despite the fact that education is not an SEIU “core industry” – is one example. Stern’s effort to sabotage SEIU primary endorsements of Obama in New Hampshire and California is another.

Stern’s innovative organizing strategies often consist of top-down agreements which workers don’t even know exist, and whose details are kept secret from the local union leaders they would bind. The few that have been exposed include provisions that require union membership but limit workers’ rights to grieve problems other than firings; limit the right to speak on quality of care problems; limit wage and benefit improvements to a percentage of the funds secured by SEIU’s political work; and allow employers to designate which worksites are unionized, effectively requiring SEIU to say NO to workers calling from undesignated worksites.

Even more troublesome are Stern’s hostility to members’ democratic rights and ruthless suppression of dissent. SEIU locals are being consolidated into mega-locals without proper procedures ensuring members’ voices are heard during or after the mergers. When votes do occur, they are pooled so that even members of large unions cannot make their preference known, but instead have their votes diluted among those of the larger entities taking them over.

Extreme examples of Stern’s anti-democratic tendencies involve his unrelenting attacks against my union, SEIU United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), now openly dissenting from Stern’s direction and paying a high price for opposing SEIU officers and staff who prevented rank-and-file worker participation in decisions and attempted to force acceptance of unprincipled top-down deals that sacrificed workers’ rights and standards.

Because we stood for UHW members’ rights to formulate contract demands, elect their bargaining committees, and vote on agreements with their employers, SEIU targeted UHW’s long term care members for forced transfer to a local that has gone along with Stern and the employers. On direct orders from Stern, SEIU members in the West Coast’s largest Catholic hospital system had their bargaining council disbanded right before negotiations. UHW members have received numerous libelous mailers and phone calls making false allegations against our elected leaders.At this writing, Stern is preparing to place UHW in an illegal trusteeship based on blatantly false charges and outrageous accusations in order to keep our local (which, at 146 delegates, would have the second largest delegation) from presenting proposals for real reform and union democracy at the upcoming SEIU convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Stern is right to argue the labor movement must change to survive; that we must be global. But workers will not be inspired by top-down, anti-democratic methods or secret, sweetheart deals with corporate executives. There is no shortcut to social justice. We will only prevail when we build worker-driven, democratic unions dedicated to improving the working standards of their members no matter how hard it is.

Stern’s corporate unionism and repression of dissent threaten to destroy SEIU and hurt all workers. It’s no wonder Stern is a darling of the corporate media. Articles such as ‘Stern: Savior or Sellout?’ (The Nation) and ‘Labor’s Love Lost: Will Andy Stern save unions or destroy them?’ (The New Republic) have raised questions. The SEIU convention could provide answers, but Stern seems determined to have a one-sided debate. The progressive media should not give him a free ride.

Charlie Ridgell

Oakland, California

Apr 10 2008 - 5:56am

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