The Service Employees’ internal battle broke wide open late Tuesday when International President Andy Stern put the dissident United Healthcare Workers-West into emergency trusteeship.
Financial assets for the 150,000-member local were immediately seized, the executive board was dissolved, and full-time officers were removed from payroll. Reports circulated among workplace leaders that SEIU also dismissed UHW stewards, and that employers are holding captive-audience meetings to introduce new SEIU-appointed staff representatives.
Stern named Executive Vice Presidents Eliseo Medina and Dave Regan as trustees of UHW. Regan said rank-and-file worksite leaders remain in place.
As word of the trusteeship spread, hundreds of members and supporters rallied at the union’s Oakland headquarters, vowing to resist SEIU’s hostile takeover.
UHW leaders announced the formation of an independent union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, and signaled their intention to decertify SEIU in hospitals and nursing homes, declaring that they would not permit appointed staffers to decide which union members belonged to.
The trusteeship came a day after UHW rejected an ultimatum from SEIU’s top body to split their local in two. Following meetings with more than 5,000 stewards and other rank-and-file leaders, UHW’s elected officers refused the order, reiterating earlier proposals that would guarantee members a right to vote before a merger would take place.
SEIU’s ultimatum mandated that UHW move 65,000 nursing home and homecare workers into a new statewide local for long-term care workers. Such a local would be led by Stern appointees, and UHW argues it would produce weaker contract standards, citing their experience with the International’s partnership in the California nursing home industry.
“Merging long-term members into another local will lower the bar, making us take a step back,” said Ruby Guzman, a nursing assistant at Creekside Nursing Home in San Pablo. “This will affect me, my family, and my patients. I cannot allow this.”
Before Tuesday's trusteeship UHW proposed a series of steps to mediate the conflict between their local and the International.
The trusteeship followed recommendations from Ray Marshall, the former secretary of labor hired by SEIU to investigate alleged financial improprieties at UHW. Marshall concluded that UHW set up a not-for-profit organization in 2007 to finance looming battles with the International, but did not find these violations sufficient to warrant trusteeship.
In a surprise move, Marshall still recommended trusteeship for UHW—if they failed to comply with the earlier decision by SEIU’s top body to split off the UHW long-term care workers.
UHW leaders said it is unprecedented to have a trusteeship request denied, and argued that Marshall linked two unrelated disputes by tying his recommendations to the fate of UHW’s long-term care members.
“We suspect that the hearing report from Secretary Marshall got amended by SEIU lawyers to get their desired outcome,” UHW's former head Sal Rosselli said. “Frankly we don’t have a lot of respect for it being some independent report or process.”
Medina, a trustee, said the financial improprieties by UHW leaders were sufficient grounds alone for trusteeship. UHW's refusal to comply with the forced transfer of long-term care workers provided additional justification for the International's actions.
UHW members see few other options than leaving SEIU.
"Our health care workers want to be a part of a democratic, progressive movement," said Angela Glasper, an optical receptionist at Kaiser Permanente in Martinez, California. "Every thing that has happened in these last several days has proven that it's not possible for that to happen in SEIU. All workers deserve to be part of a union that workers control, not leaders in Washington, D.C."
Under the SEIU constitution, the bar for disaffiliation is high. If seven or more members wish to remain in SEIU, disaffiliation is not possible.
Members and ousted leaders of UHW announced plans Wednesday afternoon to form a new union.
Chartering an independent local would require members to file for an election during the “open period” prior to contract expiration. It would require separate votes wherever UHW currently has an employer under contract, representing hundreds of worksites across the state. With more than 100 contracts re-negotiated in 2008 such a process would take years to complete.
Even before the Marshall report was released SEIU began preparing for a hostile takeover of UHW, renting large offices in both Oakland and Los Angeles and dispatching dozens of staff to California.
Although many staffers were initially told that UHW-related assignments would be voluntary, the International informed organizers that failure to travel to California will be “considered a resignation.”
UNDERMINING LABOR’S AGENDA
Labor's allies worry that the war between UHW and the International could derail labor’s efforts to secure health care reform and pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) early in 2009.
Hearing officer Ray Marshall concluded his report by noting that “the main beneficiaries of this conflict are anti-union employers and politicians who have geared up to use this conflict against our efforts to pass legislation to help workers, especially the Employee Free Choice Act.”
Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor scholar at the University of California Santa Barbara, shares similar concerns. “This internal fight will come back to haunt labor when EFCA gets rolling,” Lichtenstein noted. “The right wing is paying close attention, and this gives them plenty of fresh meat.”