The biggest union feud since the AFL-CIO split three years ago, some would say, began in Ohio. The way Dave Regan tells it, the Service Employees union (SEIU) first began its effort to organize Catholic hospitals there in the small city of Lorain, just west of Cleveland, in 1999. Regan is president of a union that spans Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, one of SEIU’s newly merged megalocals at the heart of the international union’s ambitious plans for turning around labor’s decline. The 500 or so nurses at the facility faced, he recalls, a “classic, textbook, very intense, very nasty election environment.” The hospital hired antiunion consultants and campaigned aggressively against unionization, pulling in nurses for mandatory staff meetings, as well as for intimidating one-on-ones with their supervisors. According to one organizer, nuns serving as hospital administrators even hinted to the nurses that voting union was a sin.
It was a typical kind of hardball, really–the mix of inside arm-twisting and outside unionbusting expertise that marks four out of every five union votes in this country. Though such campaigns always begin with majority interest, only half result in a union victory, as Regan knows from trying to win traditional labor board elections, shop by shop, for eighteen years in places like eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. “It’s incredibly difficult work,” he says.
In Lorain, the nurses did vote in the union, by a slim, sixteen-vote margin–and then, also typically, faced a thirteen-month battle to win their first contract. Along the way, the nurses called two daylong strikes to block the hospital’s demand for an open shop; each time, management punished the strikers with four-day suspensions. Through contract fights in subsequent years, Regan says, “we struggled and fought and built an organization that our members there are very proud of”; one nurse, galvanized by the experience, went on to become a state senator.
The hospital in Lorain is part of a Catholic chain that is the largest hospital system in the state. In many places, in the wake of steel mill closures, these hospitals have become the biggest employer in town. “So we started to think about the system as a whole,” says Regan, “and we decided to create a campaign the object of which was to secure the right for Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP) workers, across the system, to be able to vote on whether to join the union without going through the intense, negative conditions that existed in 1999.” What they sought was “employer neutrality,” the brass ring of today’s large-scale union organizing campaigns, which use corporate campaigns to pressure employers not to fight unionization drives.
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By 2004, CHP workers in Springfield, west of Columbus, anxious over a recent merger, were eager to unionize. But the Lorain experience was a bruiser, and another union had run an election at one of the merged facilities and lost badly. Joyce Moscato, who would soon head the statewide campaign for SEIU, urged caution. She met with the workers and talked about what it would take to win fair organizing rules across the state. “They got it,” Moscato recalls. “They understood that they could be the leaders in this fight, and they likened it to the civil rights movement.” By spring 2005, workers from Catholic hospitals in Youngstown, Toledo, Cincinnati and Lorain sat down with the Springfield workers to craft a statewide campaign for employer neutrality. A hundred of them, from sixteen hospitals, showed up at CHP headquarters to present their demand. They weren’t even allowed inside.
What followed was a three-year corporate campaign. SEIU activists mailed out literature about fair unionization rules to elected officials, clergy and advocacy groups. They had hearings before the state legislature. They got community members and hospital workers to sign open letters, held protests over layoffs and wage-and-hour violations, and met with priests and bishops. They issued reports criticizing the chain for inadequate charity care and bloated CEO pay. One former organizer on the campaign, Jim Straub, who recalls living for months in a charmless hotel in Youngstown in 2005, says, “What made this corporate campaign really cool was, we actually organized committees in every damn hospital in the system.”
The culmination of this effort was an election slated to take place in mid-March at nine of the system’s twenty-one Ohio hospitals, with the possibility that up to 8,300 workers would unionize in the span of a week. The union’s public pressure had produced an agreement with CHP for a vote “free from coercion.” The employees were informed of the election two weeks in advance by means of a civilized letter, cosigned by CHP and SEIU, a jointly written fact sheet and a broadside from each party arguing, in language so dull as to scarcely be persuasive, for (SEIU) and against (CHP) the union. Each side set up a toll-free number for questions, and that was that. Neither side would say a word to the workers until after election day. SEIU had taken the concept of neutrality to a whole new level, applying it to the union as well. And the stakes were high. As CHP spokesman Orest Holubec says, if the election had gone smoothly, “it stands to reason that we’d continue the process in other regions.”
Enter the California Nurses, dozens of whom arrived in Ohio clad in scrubs and armed with anti-SEIU propaganda. What was to Regan an “enormous breakthrough” was, to the famously militant nurses union, a disturbing development in what they’ve come to see as SEIU’s corporate-friendly unionism, whose apotheosis was SEIU president Andy Stern’s joint press conference last year with Wal-Mart on healthcare reform. The fliers the nurses spent three days handing out in front of the Ohio hospitals asked, Democracy or Dictatorship? and called the upcoming vote a “back room deal” by the hospital to force nurses into a “‘sweetheart’ union.”
“In this environment, it was like setting off a bomb,” says Regan. “In a traditional campaign, where both sides are attacking each other, we prepare workers for months for what they’ll hear so they can put it in context. But in this case, we never prepared anyone.” And because of the neutrality deal, SEIU couldn’t say a word in response. Within days, the vote was called off, suspended indefinitely. Talk with anyone at SEIU who was involved, and the rage is palpable. Ohio will go down in labor history as the place where two of the nation’s most ambitious, visionary, fastest-growing unions declared war.
What does that war feel like, two months later? When tens of thousands of California Nurses Association (CNA) members opened their mailboxes in recent weeks, they received a glossy black-and-orange mailer, featuring somber-looking women in scrubs, that accused their union of “burning through members’ hard-earned dues money” carpetbagging across America doing “questionable” deeds. Its slogan: “Hurting nurses. Wasting money. That’s the shame of CNA.” Another compares CNA director Rose Ann DeMoro to a “union-busting executive.” Soon thereafter, CNA’s newsletter arrived, in riposte. Its cover story, The New Danger, featured an image of a purple vial of poison with a skull and crossbones on it, labeled SEIU.
Each side has launched a propaganda website–SEIU Watch, with its slogan “Serving Employers Instead of Us,” and the straightforwardly named Shame on CNA–and each side is ratcheting up the attacks. In recent months, CNA filed a petition to replace SEIU in representing nurses at three Catholic hospitals in Las Vegas; SEIU then sought to decertify a nurses’ union at a hospital in New York. SEIU activists–including rank-and-filers bused in from Ohio, spoiling for a fight–stormed a Labor Notes conference in Detroit to disrupt CNA speakers, sparking a melee and a wave of negative press. And SEIU staffers have followed CNA leaders to their workplaces and homes, peeking through windows, knocking on doors and shouting epithets.
SEIU’s battle cry is revenge for Ohio, where, leaders believe, the nurses robbed thousands of their right to representation. But it’s impossible to understand why CNA would risk such venom without going much further back, to the legislative battles in California that gave the union a national profile–battles in which SEIU seemed always to be on the other side of the barricades, becoming, in CNA’s estimation, “the single greatest barrier” to healthcare reform.
Rose Ann DeMoro, the feisty head of the California Nurses who was dubbed by one advocate “Mother Teresa in brass knuckles,” was once on the outs with her own union. The association, dominated in the early ’90s by management-friendly nurse executives who imagined CNA as a professional society, experienced a revolt by direct-care nurses. They took over the leadership, disaffiliated with the American Nurses Association, installed DeMoro as director, barred nurse administrators from top leadership positions and decided to act like a labor union. The new CNA, with its council of four presidents, all of whom still spend half their workweek at patients’ bedsides, began a grassroots campaign to address the crisis facing their members as managed care took hold across the country: a reckless escalation in the number of patients under each nurse’s care to the point, says president Geri Jenkins, “where you’d have to walk home every day asking, Did I kill somebody today?” They’d solve this first by trying to mandate safe caps on patient-to-nurse ratios; then by mobilizing nurses to win national healthcare.
Using their foot soldiers in scrubs, the union gathered enough signatures for a state ballot initiative, which went down in defeat in 1996. They pushed a bill through the State Legislature, only to see it vetoed by Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, in 1998. Then, after working to defeat any candidate who wouldn’t support the ratio and staging one of the biggest demonstrations Sacramento had seen since the 1970s, the nurses got their bill signed by Democratic Governor Gray Davis. The new patient-to-nurse caps were set to phase in just as Arnold Schwarzenegger took office; he issued an emergency order to block them. The latex gloves came off: the union hired airplanes to fly messages over his parties and fundraisers; they dogged him at every public appearance; and when he bragged that he was “kicking their butts,” they turned it into a media event. The army of nurses had punctured the movie icon’s aura of invincibility, and as their campaign wore on, his approval rating dropped thirty points. In the end they won implementation of the first patient-to-nurse ratio cap in the country, and California hospitals were transformed. “That law really struck a chord,” says Jenkins, who recalls nurses calling in from all over the country. “That’s what sparked our decision to go national.”
But the whole time this battle was unfolding, CNA’s public policy director, Michael Lighty, recalls, SEIU was putting on the brakes. As the nurses pushed their legislation, SEIU introduced a weaker measure on “safe staffing” and fought to allow less-trained staff to count in CNA’s ratios. As CNA was leading RN strikes at Kaiser Permanente, the state’s healthcare behemoth, over plans to replace nurses with unskilled workers, SEIU reached a labor-management partnership that allowed for unskilled “service partners” and “care partners” to replace RNs at the bedside–which led, by CNA’s count, to some 1,800 nurse layoffs–and SEIU members crossed CNA’s picket line. When, in the fall of 2006, CNA and a statewide coalition of consumer advocates were organizing tens of thousands of letters to Sacramento, leafleting at Sicko screenings and holding demonstrations in 300 cities to support a single-payer bill, Schwarzenegger sought to commandeer the issue, convening a summit declaring 2007 the Year of Healthcare Reform. CNA and other unions set up a picket line outside the event; Andy Stern crossed the picket line to join the governor inside.
As the Year of Healthcare Reform unfolded, CNA’s coalition pushed a single-payer bill through both houses in Sacramento; SEIU, heading up a separate coalition that included the California State Labor Federation, argued that single-payer wasn’t politically viable and supported a Massachusetts-style mandate plan instead. Schwarzenegger vetoed both bills anyway. As the Year of Healthcare Reform hit its final month with no resolution in sight, Stern jetted in to work with Schwarzenegger to mold a third, even more compromised bill, which required Californians to buy care but set no caps on rates and no floor for minimum coverage; tucked inside were perks for SEIU, such as money for a trust fund for homecare workers’ health benefits, to be administered by the union. “SEIU played the leading advocacy role and ultimately the lead compromise role on that bill,” says Lighty. “Stern went behind the back of the California State Fed to cut the deal. But it didn’t even pass in the Senate. It lost the backing of labor. It could not withstand the scrutiny. So how is it they can make a political viability argument?”
Stern, looking back, considers it a “tragedy” that the bill didn’t pass, leaving the healthcare system unchanged. “The Schwarzenegger deal was inadequate, but this is politics at its most real. Let the Senate Democrats tell our member at InterCon whose wife died it’s good that we didn’t pass that ‘bad’ bill.”
These days SEIU doesn’t just attack the California Nurses for unionbusting in Ohio; its leaders attack CNA for being an elite craft union, unwilling to leverage the relative privilege of RNs for the good of the entire hospital staff. DeMoro disagrees. “We are a genuine social union. We believe the interests of our members and the public interest are identical. Nurses have a legal obligation to advocate for their patients; they have an intimate relationship to their patients; they function outside of the profit motive.” SEIU’s Joe Hill-style talk of One Big Healthcare Union is appealing, she says–if that vision were in other hands. “If we had the luxury to create the perfect union, there’d be one big healthcare union intent on protecting and upscaling each job,” she says. “But the healthcare system is collapsing. Nurses have to fight to save their own occupation, which healthcare corporations would deskill in a minute. And Stern advocates a model of letting the employer define the work and organizing the workers as the employer defines them. That’s deadly for RNs, and deadly for patient care.”
Tom Woodruff, an SEIU vice president who once ran the Ohio Local targeted by CNA, isn’t remotely persuaded. “What are we going to do, let CNA come after us with this elitist rap about how there needs to be a nurses-only union? Giving us two choices: give us all your nurses or have this fight? We won’t. We’re not going to unilaterally disarm.”
This battle is at least partly about carving out turf: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than half a million nursing jobs will be created over the next ten years, more than any other single job category, and each union has ambitions to organize all of them. But the divide also reflects real differences in each union’s philosophy of unionism.
At the heart of Stern’s vision is a drive toward growth, to organize the “90 percent of workers without a union.” Without growth, he argues, any union gains are built on sand–“a higher compensation island in a growing nonunion sea.” This singular focus is rooted in a realization that, given the long slide in union ranks since the 1950s, the labor movement must build a critical mass of members (“density”) in key industries in order to wield power against ever larger and bolder multinational employers. Three years ago, he proposed a radical restructuring of organized labor to accomplish this, and when the AFL-CIO didn’t bite, he bolted to form a rival federation, Change to Win.
Though often painted as an autocrat, Stern has surrounded himself with an impressive brain trust, featuring such heavyweights as Dennis Rivera and Gerald Hudson, who built 1199, the powerful healthcare union in New York, and Stephen Lerner, the architect of Justice for Janitors. Under their leadership, SEIU has organized more than a million new workers, bringing their tally to 1.9 million, and has earned a reputation as a formidable social and political force. The conservative National Journal named SEIU’s political operation the most influential in the country, and antiunion law firms now run trainings on how to combat its corporate campaigns.
At the same time, Stern has shocked other labor leaders–and thrilled the mainstream press–with his aggressive corporate partnerships, designed to gain new members and find political common ground. By employing such “radically experimental” tactics (Hudson’s phrase), SEIU’s leaders believe they can build enough power to win everything from national healthcare to immigration reform.
But SEIU isn’t the only innovator. CNA is piloting its own experimental model, training nurses as activists–whether or not they can win a union at their job site–and deploying them to fight for nurse/patient ratio bills and single-payer healthcare even in labor-hostile climes like Texas. This model trades heavily on the social clout enjoyed by nurses, and their willingness to do battle with corporations on the public’s behalf.
Dissension in the Ranks
While SEIU pours resources into its showdown with the California Nurses, the nation’s largest union is also fighting a civil war within its own ranks. This conflict, too, springs from compromises the union has had to make in its monomaniacal focus on growth. It has pitted Stern and his allies against the leader of one of SEIU’s largest Locals, the Oakland-based United Healthcare Workers West. UHW president Sal Rosselli, who once supported Stern’s reform agenda, is now in open rebellion against what he sees as Stern’s growth-at-any-cost strategy, which he believes has produced a “false democracy in SEIU” that leaves real worker power in the dust. Since Rosselli’s resignation from SEIU’s executive board in February, the 140,000 members of his union have received a barrage of more than half a dozen glossy mailers and long argumentative letters accusing UHW leaders of everything from hypocrisy to illegality.
In April SEIU filed suit against Rosselli’s board, accusing it of financial misdeeds, a gesture widely understood as the latest salvo in a plan to put UHW under trusteeship and oust its leaders. UHW and SEIU have traded barbs over alleged fixing of delegate slates to SEIU’s quadrennial convention, which opens June 1 in Puerto Rico. In March, SEIU hired a firm to call Rosselli’s members with a push poll, implying that UHW had lied on delegate ballots and disrupted contract negotiations. SEIU has deployed dozens of staffers to fight this war, which has gotten so nasty that the union representing them passed a resolution in May opposing any further work to undermine the Local.
The dispute with Rosselli has its origins in a disagreement over one of SEIU’s innovative employer-neutrality agreements, which offer concessions in exchange for the ability to organize without interference. The one in question was with Tenet, a national hospital chain, whose facilities SEIU had organized based on a deal that gave up the right to strike or picket for any newly organized workers. When it came time to negotiate a second contract, Tony Aidukas, a rehab specialist at a Tenet facility in Palm Springs, was elected to the bargaining committee. He said the members had high hopes: they wanted to get back the right to picket and strike, to win a say over patient care and an end to subcontracting. But negotiations soon went national, and Aidukas and his team were left to cool their heels outside while staffers from the national union sat down with Tenet. At the time, 22 percent of Tenet was union; SEIU wanted closer to 100 percent. Toward this end, SEIU signed a tentative deal giving Tenet the right to subcontract up to 12 percent of the workforce. When SEIU agreed to wage givebacks and a seven-year extension of the no-strike clause, UHW walked out. “Frankly, I don’t think there’s much concern for the members’ lives in this rush to enlarge SEIU,” says Aidukas. “Why join a union that’s going to agree to subcontract your job? Why join a union if you can’t strike for ten years? Where’s the benefit then?”
Mary Kay Henry, an SEIU vice president who was active in the negotiations, admits that it was probably a mistake to bargain without any workers present. But she still believes a united front would have produced more; in the end the union won the right to organize only one out of five additional Tenet facilities. “That’s what’s at stake,” she says. “Is Sal willing to function as a national union, to use the power of his stronghold to expand workers’ power nationally?”
Stephen Lerner, the architect of SEIU’s most celebrated campaign, Justice for Janitors, points out that his first janitors’ contract in LA was a bitter disappointment. But 200,000 unionized janitors later, the contract inked May 17 includes full family healthcare and $10.75 an hour. That could never have happened if SEIU Locals “were still these little fiefdoms,” he says. “We had ferocious public battles, but we were finally able to get the cities that were already union to use their leverage to win.” That, he says, is what the SEIU expects from Sal Rosselli.
In what Stern sees as a classic example of “Just Us” unionism, Rosselli worked out a deal with better terms for his members that only covered Tenet’s California facilities. But Rosselli is vehement that he was serving national goals: his members accepted healthcare givebacks in order to win the right to criticize Tenet publicly and throw up solidarity pickets–exactly the tools needed to aid SEIU’s organizing drives in Florida and beyond. Good contracts now, Rosselli wrote in a letter to Stern, “are the best examples we can use to organize the unorganized.” SEIU, he says, has lost sight of that.
Rosselli has raised other issues, too–including one that marks the spot where his story and DeMoro’s intersect. During Schwarzenegger’s Year of Healthcare Reform, UHW supported a compromise measure. But, Rosselli says, there was a bottom line: it had to be affordable, and it had to clearly define what insurers had to cover. “Then Stern started meeting with the governor without telling anybody,” says Rosselli, and worked out a bill that didn’t take care of either. “We started pushing back, and he didn’t like it.” SEIU’s state council, which Rosselli headed, was promptly disbanded and replaced by a new executive board that backed the bill. UHW and CNA did not. With Tenet and with healthcare reform, Rosselli says, Stern underestimated what was winnable.
Many leaders in SEIU question the timing of Rosselli’s resignation, occurring as it did just weeks after the union’s healthcare division issued a report examining whether all long-term-care workers in California should be consolidated under one roof, a move that would likely shrink Rosselli’s Local. He is, they say, less concerned with democracy than with preserving his own power. “In a nutshell, it is a turf war,” says Tyrone Freeman, president of the Los Angeles-based Local 6434 and a likely candidate to head up a merged nursing home Local. “What Brother Rosselli advocates for is a philosophy of taking care of himself and his members at the expense of all the healthcare workers in California who don’t yet have a union.”
Whether or not Rosselli’s motives are pure, he has given voice to widely shared concerns about eroding local autonomy within SEIU. These concerns are linked to the way SEIU has implemented its merge-to-win strategy, which seeks to enhance the union’s bargaining power by herding smaller Locals into larger institutions. Roxanne Sanchez was, until the 2006 mergers, president of Local 790, which represented public sector workers in the Bay Area. Now she and several other Local presidents are merely rank-and-file members of Local 1021. “Philosophically, politically, I think the merger was a good decision,” she says. Her union was a fifteen-minute drive from two other public sector Locals that each maintained separate buildings; they were duplicating efforts and never collaborated. “But the way they handled the mergers was atrocious.” Combined, the unions had some fifty officers and 300 board members; SEIU appointed only twenty-five total to a provisional governing board. Then SEIU reassigned the staff and put them all on probation; dozens quit their jobs. “We have to go through the pain of changing how we think,” Sanchez says. “But the international was so unreceptive to anything we as rank-and-file people brought to the table. It was the tone and tenor of someone who doesn’t have to look back.”
Zev Kvitky, president of another merged Local, which represents workers at Stanford and Santa Clara universities, helped, in January, to found a dissident SEIU caucus, SMART, to draw attention to these issues. He says SEIU held formal hearings but failed to communicate with members about the reorganization, as evidenced by the 10 percent voter turnout for the 2006 merger deal. “There was no discussion,” he says, “no debate.” His other major beef concerns those Tenet-style template contracts. “If you give up the right to free speech,” he says, “the right to strike, in return for the right to organize, how do you ever win a contract for those people?”
The Paper Trail
Like mergers, these employer agreements have become a critical part of what Hudson calls the union’s “obsessive” drive toward growth. Other unions fight for employer neutrality with a stick; SEIU has taken to using carrots as well, larding deals with corporate enticements. The Nation was able to review some of the most controversial of these agreements. Consider a 2002 California nursing home agreement, in which SEIU committed to lobby for tort reform and to restrict union members from reporting suspected abuse or neglect except as required by law. Or that deal with Kaiser from the ’90s that so infuriated CNA, which allowed “service partners” to replace RNs at patients’ bedsides. Or the 2006 Oregon nursing home deal, which gave the union the right to organize four to six new facilities (operators got the “final unilateral decision” as to which ones) in return for pulling an initiative on safe staffing.
On May 3, student labor activists from four campuses wrote to Stern to express their “deep concern” that these deals may have “actually hurt workers’ ability to improve their lives or even join a union at all.” At the University of North Carolina, for example, SEIU, in collaboration with another union, spearheaded an organizing drive of food service workers on the payroll of Aramark. A campaign of intimidation ensued, one pro-union worker was fired and the campus was roiled by protests. But after summer break, the union organizers mysteriously disappeared. “Workers were asking us what was going on,” recalls one student activist. “We kept calling SEIU. We sent them letters, but we didn’t hear anything.” They were eventually told, without explanation, that the organizers wouldn’t come back. “We learned later about a secret deal they’d cut with Aramark that didn’t include UNC,” she says. “That was such a spectacular failure. We see these workers all the time, and it was really painful.”
UHW members, too, hit an organizing wall thrown up by one of these agreements. After winning the Tenet contract last November, Tony Aidukas’s shop met with housekeepers at his hospital, on the payroll of a Compass subsidiary, about bringing them into the union–only to be told by a UHW staffer that SEIU had cut a national deal agreeing not to organize the Compass workers at his site, at least not for now. “I’ve been unable to find out whether they are on the schedule to get organized,” Aidukas says. “We had to go back and say, Sorry, we can’t help you.”
Andy Stern listens to these stories and concedes, “It sounds like we didn’t do a great job of explaining how we did this.” But as for criticism of the deals themselves, he says simply, “I don’t get it. When it comes to low-wage women and people of color in job sites scattered all over the country, where’s the competition? No other union wants to do it. We have a deal. That’s life. But we’ve organized 15,000 workers, we’re about to organize even more, and people are complaining?”
The truth is, according to SEIU’s own analysis, only a small portion of its explosive growth springs from the controversial employer agreements. More than half of the new workers organized by SEIU between 2002 and 2006 were government workers or government contractors, such as state-funded childcare providers, who came into the union as a result of pressure campaigns on governors and state legislatures. Of the remainder, 16 percent came in through old-style Labor Board elections, 13 percent through corporate campaigns (the stick) and 13 percent through agreements that include various quid pro quos (the carrot).
“It’s legitimate to have disagreements about what is or isn’t in the agreements,” says Woodruff, now organizing director for Change to Win. “We’re constantly second-guessing ourselves. But it’s not productive to really being able to analyze and correct mistakes to have a big public brouhaha.”
Cornell University’s Kate Bronfenbrenner, who has done extensive research into these kinds of agreements, says, “Neutrality agreements are necessary in a climate where employers wage war when workers try to organize. But on the other hand, unions that do top-down organizing, who don’t involve the members, are not going to build lasting unions. Research shows it again and again. They won’t be able to survive; they’re not going to be able to withstand employer attacks. These are big questions many unions need to wrestle with.”
SEIU leaders may debate the merits of their opposition, but the sheer explosion of dissent–from one of the country’s most progressive unions, CNA; from the leadership of one of its largest, and most rapidly growing, Locals, UHW; from its own staff; from the students and community allies SEIU depends on to run its successful corporate campaigns–indicates, at least, a crisis of confidence in the union’s leadership. Stern has been astonishingly successful at communicating his vision to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and winning the trust of hostile corporate leaders. But the evidence is accumulating that he’s not been nearly as adept at bringing along his own labor movement–and his own membership.
If he places UHW in trusteeship and removes Sal Rosselli and his executive board, he’ll confirm the worst images of SEIU painted by Rose Ann DeMoro, of a gang of purple-clad street thugs, whose first principle is omertà. But if he can guide delegates through a process of meaningful compromise at the convention, with a friendly eye toward some of the dissident proposals on local autonomy; if he can sit down and negotiate a truce with CNA (and indeed, in late May, Stern told The Nation that the two parties had just agreed to hire a mediator and try to come to terms), then his claim to be reinvigorating the labor movement as a whole will gain new credibility.
The truth is that the pressure on SEIU is coming from labor progressives–not complacent labor chiefs signing off on givebacks until they reach retirement. The voices raised against Stern are deeply invested in reversing labor’s decline, in positioning unions to shape national policy, in building–as Stern puts it in his most recent white paper–“a more just and humane society for all working people.”
CNA is as committed to building labor as Stern is; it’s even faster growing, and equally driven to solve the nation’s healthcare crisis–hardly one of the “I got mine” unions that Stern rails against. Sal Rosselli is an SEIU lifer; if he gets trusteed, he says, he’ll just get a job in a nursing home and run for president of his Local again as a member.
As for Roxanne Sanchez, the union-president-turned-rank-and-filer, when she spoke with me in late May, she said this was the first time in ten years she’d publicly criticized Andy Stern. “The international, through Andy Stern, has done a lot of good things, visionary things,” she says. But she hopes that at the convention in Puerto Rico workers will be able to recover some local autonomy and a sense of empowerment. “The critical comments are an attempt to make him take heed that workers have a place at his table, to speak to him directly, about direction, strategy, policy and politics. I know he sits down with world leaders, with his executive leaders, but at this table, there’s got to be a place for a regular old worker who has worked for thirty years to grow this union. I hope at the convention he’ll respond as the leader that I think he is.”