News & Views from 465 California Street

The Battle for Labor’s Soul

Clint Reilly

The biggest battle in the American labor movement today is raging right here in the Bay Area.

The epic clash is between two leaders of the same union with opposing philosophies on the same question: What is the best way to organize workers in an environment that has seen union membership decline from 28 percent of employed workers in 1954, to 12 percent in 2007?

Andy Stern, the Washington D.C.-based president of the 1.9 million-member Service Employees International Union, came to power by calling for a return to organizing workers as the best way to restore union power in America.

However, Stern has now largely abandoned on-the-ground organizing – labor’s core principle – in order to pursue cooperative alliances with corporations. These deals often trade the union’s greatest piece of leverage – political clout – for symbolic concessions of little benefit to the union’s members.

Under growing criticism for his methods, Stern has launched a nasty smear campaign to discredit Sal Rosselli, his union’s greatest proselytizer of organizing. Ironically, Rosselli leads the fastest-growing SEIU local in the country – California’s 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West union.

Despite Rosselli’s great success at UHW-West, Stern has threatened to oust him and take over his local union. A recent San Francisco Chronicle story explained the stakes:

The battle between Stern and Rosselli is being closely watched…and could have long-term effects on how the labor movement organizes, elects its leaders and negotiates contracts nationwide.

Rosselli is a living legend in California’s labor pantheon, which includes deceased icons such as Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farmworkers Union; Harry Bridges, founder of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union; John F. Henning, long-time head of the California Labor Federation; and Miguel Contreras, secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles Labor Federation.

By attracting and nurturing some of the labor movement’s most effective organizers, Rosselli has successfully battled California’s largest health care companies and built a thriving union. He has succeeded in organizing hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and home health care agencies.

Rosselli embodies the very principles that Stern embraced in his rise to power. He now finds himself publicly challenging Stern’s commitment to those principles.

The terms of Stern’s secret contracts are a particular point of concern for Rosselli. Many of the deals include unprecedented promises not to organize at certain locations, acceptance of paltry wages and lengthy terms without provisions for strikes, renegotiation or dispute resolution.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported the details of one such secret agreement that Stern negotiated with Sodexho Inc. The deal gave Sodexho the right to determine which workers, which work sites and how many employees the union could seek to organize.

“He’s pushing for the corporatization of SEIU,” Rosselli argued recently to the New Republic. “He’s hijacking worker power to centralize it in Washington D.C. What he’s saying is rhetoric. It’s not real.”

Stern has a history of attacking former allies. He assumed the SEIU’s top post shortly after his mentor, John Sweeney, left the SEIU to helm the AFL-CIO. He later led a coup against Sweeney, withdrawing the SEIU from the AFL-CIO and bringing six other unions into a new alliance called “Change to Win,” which promised to renew labor’s commitment to organizing and reduce its emphasis on political contributions.

After four years, critics cite a failure to deliver. Membership is flat, political contributions and political activities are up, and traditional organizing – for which Rosselli’s local union is nationally recognized – has been publicly spurned by Stern himself.

Rosselli recently reiterated his concern to Congressional Quarterly Weekly: “Under Stern, it’s become a growth-at-all-costs model leaving out participation of members.”

“The primary purpose of a union is for workers to gain a voice.”

Comments (5)

  • I am a long term Bay Area resident, who now resides in Los Angeles. If you are really interested in the issues of the debate it would behoove you to familiarize yourself with the other side as well. Also it is not a question of Andy versus Sal. It is a question of the democratic decisions taken by our National Convention, and our International Executive Board. Sal has voted for many of the deals that you are mentioning. It was not until it was time for him to move some of his members into another Local Union, that he developed a “conscience”. It is really Sal against the vast majority of the membership in SEIU. I am not sure you are interested in understanding the issues. Not sure why you got into the discussion in the first place.

    Posted by: Tom Csekey | May 28th, 2008 at 11:07 am

  • Tom – I have been following the Stern leadership since his election. I worked with Stern on an SEIU organizing campaign in the 1980′s when he was John Sweeney’s lieutenant. His disloyalty and disrespectful treatment of his mentor has troubled me.

    In the beginning, I concurred with many of his criticisms of the lassitude of the labor movement and Democratic politics. It is a fact that Andy made much of labor’s need to grow its membership through aggressive organizing. The end product of a true organizing effort is an empowered worker – able to negotiate from a position of dignity and strength. Andy organizes via public relations and speeches instead of the hard confrontation necessary to win real power. Standing next to corporate chieftains reminds me of Cesar Chavez trading the successful – but difficult – tactics of strikes and boycotts for direct mail campaigns aimed a scaring off shoppers who lived near Safeway stores. Of course, it didn’t work. As soon as Chavez cashed in Marshall Ganz and real organizing campaigns for political consultant’s direct mail campaigns, the UFW faltered.

    Stern has perfected the seductive language of global unionism. But is not the AFL-CIO a far better messenger for this message than a union leader who represents primarily public employees, janitors and health care workers whose interests are far more local and regional than national and international. The container ships full of goods from China that move through Long Beach and Oakland Ports to Wal-Marts around the country are not handled at all by Stern’s union. Sure the chairman of Wal-Mart wants Andy next to him. But what about the reality that free medical clinics or taxpayer facilities finance health care for Wal-Mart’s workers. Sweetheart deals with corporate America is a failed policy that only further diminishes the labor movement and workers at the same time. By trading the union’s political clout with democratic lawmakers for fictitious contracts with corporate health care providers, Stern misses one point. What happens when the workers and politicians both discover they’ve been had? At its core isn’t the soul of a union the justness of its cause?

    Sal Rosselli gets that. Does Andy?

    Posted by: Clint Reilly | May 28th, 2008 at 3:32 pm

  • As Mr. Csekey has pointed out, there are two sides to every story, and then there is the truth. The truth is that SEIU’s current form of organizing is leaving the dues paying member with little or nothing to show for their investment. Mediocre representation, shoddy back door negtiations, no voice or local autonomy and certainly no confidence in the leadership at any level. Sterns “pack them in” mentality along with an ever increasing dues structure will ultimatley be the final nail in the coffin the labor movement

    Posted by: J Powel | May 28th, 2008 at 5:33 pm

  • dear tom

    seiu is a dictaroship masquerading as a union, andy has done nothing but put staff stooges into trustee locals, then taken locals out of trusteeship then held elections. maybe you could tell everyone what does franchise local require

    Posted by: steve | May 28th, 2008 at 7:59 pm

  • Here is part of the prayer I delivered to the State Assembly on the occasion of a commemoration of the birthday of Cesar Chavez:
    Strengthen in us, O Lord, the conviction that effective labor unions, like ours, the United Farmworkers of America, AFL-CIO, are by far the most powerful force in society for the achievement and protection of workers’ rights and the improvement of their conditions; that no amount of employer benevolence, no campaign to achieve a sympathetic attitude on the part of the public, no increase of beneficial legislation, as helpful as all these are, can adequately substitute for organizational efforts on the part of workers themselves to achieve a living wage, adequate benefits, especially health insurance and decent working conditions. Never let us forget, O Lord, the word of Pope John Paul II that labor unions that organize workers as an independent force are indispensable in modern industrial society and enable us to spread that word far and wide.

    Posted by: Father Gene Boyle | May 29th, 2008 at 3:22 pm

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