In The Wake Of The Split: Tensions Rising In Labor Movement

The AFL-CIO split is behind us now, and unions in and out of the federation must work together to organize the unorganized. Right?

Not in California, where SEIU and AFSCME are engaged in a statewide battle over some 40,000 home care workers represented by AFSCME’s United Domestic Workers (UDW) for the past few months. AFSCME says that SEIU is raiding their union, dividing the labor movement, and wasting union resources. SEIU says that they’re trying to create a unified, statewide union of home care workers that could raise pay and benefit standards in the industry.

Whoever you believe, this fight may be a taste of what’s to come as tensions mount between the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Coalition.

The battle over UDW erupted June 15, when AFSCME trusteed the union, alleging corruption and financial improprieties on the part of UDW President Ken Seaton-Msemaji and Secretary-Treasurer Fahrari Jeffers. Seaton-Msemaji and Jeffers—who were suspended by AFSCME when the trusteeship was implemented--quickly resigned from the union and began working with SEIU organizers to recruit UDW members for SEIU Local 434-B, a Los Angeles-based home care workers local.

On July 20, shortly before the AFL-CIO convention was to begin, an AFL-CIO umpire ordered SEIU to stop trying to recruit the UDW members. That same day, home care workers in California’s Riverside County—where UDW has 9,000 members and was in the midst of contract negotiations—presented more than 3,000 SEIU membership cards to the county’s board of supervisors, demanding a union election with SEIU 434-B (which represents 119,000 home care workers in Southern California) on the ballot.

Two days later, SEIU bolted from the federation, freeing it from the AFL-CIO’s authority. The next day, July 25, SEIU President Andy Stern sent a letter to Riverside County explaining that SEIU was “no longer covered by Article XX of the AFL-CIO Constitution”—the provision that prohibits raiding—and requesting that the county therefore disregard the AFL-CIO’s protests and process the UDW members’ petition for a union election.

Under California legislation passed in 2000, the right to organize home care workers was divided up between AFSCME and SEIU, with each union getting jurisdiction over 29 counties throughout California. Riverside was one of the counties assigned to AFSCME.

RAIDING OR ORGANIZING?

SEIU says the fight over UDW is a fight to improve working and living conditions for UDW’s 40,000 members. SEIU Local 434-B President Tyrone Freeman explains, “Since 2000, AFSCME has 15 counties without contracts, where workers are making minimum wage. Every one of SEIU’s counties makes well above minimum wage, and all those workers get health care [benefits].”

Freeman continues, “If you’re working without a contract, making minimum wage, and you see other workers doing this same work getting paid $9 an hour with full health benefits, you’re going to start asking questions.”

Freeman says that AFSCME’s claim that SEIU began recruiting UDW members after they left the AFL-CIO is “dead wrong.” According to Freeman, the two unions had worked together cooperatively since he became local president in 2000 and UDW’s elected leadership--Seaton-Msemaji and Jeffers—first approached SEIU about a possible merger between Local 434-B and UDW in February.

Freeman asserts that UDW members—some frustrated with their union’s inability to win them a contract—had approached Local 434-B about switching unions long before the current controversy developed.

CORRUPTION UNCOVERED

But according to AFSCME, February is when the International began uncovering the corruption that they allege was rampant under Seaton-Msemaji and Jeffers’s leadership. The fight began over a dispute between AFSCME and UDW over per capita dues UDW owed the international, but as AFSCME dug through the local’s records, they claim they found evidence of nepotism and financial impropriety.

When Seaton-Msemaji and Jeffers were ultimately suspended from union office in June, they were charged with falsifying union financial records and misusing union funds. AFSCME spokespeople note that several UDW employees are related to Seaton-Msemaji, two of his daughters, a niece, a stepson, and a grandson, and that Jeffers used union funds to attend a friend’s wedding in Hawaii—and pay for the wedding gift.

Freeman, however, believes that the trusteeship of UDW was politically motivated. “If there was corruption,” he says, “it was corruption that was condoned by AFSCME and Gerry McEntee prior to the [AFL-CIO] split. The [AFSCME] International had done two previous audits of UDW and they were pure as ice. Now they find these allegations and impose a trusteeship, but before they’d never raised a question. ”

Freeman believes AFSCME may have a legitimate gripe in the dispute over UDW’s per capita dues, but says such a dispute need not have led to the trusteeship.

RHETORIC VS. ACTION

Whatever the outcome of the UDW fight, the heated battle seems to contradict much of the rhetoric surrounding the AFL-CIO split. Says AFSCME spokeswoman Jodi Sakol, “[SEIU] had all of this rhetoric about organizing the unorganized and now their first effort out of the box is going after union workers.”

At the same time, the UDW campaign fits with SEIU’s consistent argument against having multiple unions represent workers in the same industry. As Freeman says, “Our argument is we want one union in one industry. If all the home care workers in California were in one union, there’d be nobody dragging down wages. We’d set our own standard.”

SEIU also claims their UDW campaign is a fight for union democracy. Says Freeman, “All we did was move the democratic process forward to call for elections. If workers want to stay in AFSCME, they can stay in AFSCME. We just want a vote. It’s about worker choice.”

But according to AFSCME, SEIU has been taking advantage of UDW members by fighting dirty, tricking workers into signing SEIU cards by posing as UDW staff and telling members that UDW and SEIU were about to merge. According to one AFSCME staffer, there are “hundreds of these cases” where workers have revoked their support for SEIU after learning that they were being asked to leave UDW.

As messy as this all seems, at least one thing is clear: the rifts exposed by the AFL-CIO split run deep. If the fight over UDW is any indication, building labor unity in the wake of the split—even at the local level—will be a complicated task.