California Health Care Workers Press SEIU for Union Democracy

Logo from the 2008 Conference for Labor Notes, a a non-profit magazine and organization established in 1979 by union activists to "put the movement back in the labor movement."

"Somewhere in California there's a woman alone in a nursing home with bedsores that grow more painful and life-threatening by the day. And down the hall there's an orderly who would like to do something about her but can't, because during some shifts he's one of just two care-givers on a ward with dozens of patients."
--Matt Smith, "Local Union Leader Rosselli Blasts SEIU Boss Andy Stern," Sf Weekly, February 20, 2008.
The Chamber of Commerce, employers and the "union avoidance" industry complain that organized labor is undemocratic and not in workers' interest. Those of us familiar with the coalfields know that workers worried about their jobs can be convinced to accept unsafe working conditions, especially in non-union mines when a majority in Congress and the Mine Safety Health Administration enforcement has buy into companies' lobbying to protect profits and not inhibit economic growth. And many within organized labor, while vouching for collective action, confront a leadership which they charge is too cozy with big employers.

For one example look at United Health Care Workers-West (UHW)'s conflict with Andy Stern, International President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), reported in the Wall Street Journal on February 29 and the New York Times on the same date.

Bradford Plumer in "Labor's Love Lost:Will Andy Stern save unions, or destroy them?" in the April 28, 2008 The New Republic describes UHW President Sol Roselli as
a lifelong progressive who heads SEIU's most powerful health care local in California, the 150,000 member.... Rosselli has launched a war against Stern that has spilled out into the open in recent months. His complaints--that Stern has made the union too undemocratic, that he has cut secret deals with employers, that he cares more about enlarging the union than serving its existing members--are resonating with at least some of SEIU's rank and file.

In the past UHW had clashed with the International over the renewal of a partnership agreement between SEIU and a consortium of California nursing home operators which had prohibited the union from reporting problems with the homes , such as short staffing, to state regulators or the media, except in cases mandated by law.

Template agreements, according to the UHW

allowed for very little power on the shop floor with no right to strike and no clear path towards full collective bargaining rights.

The local also complained that top union officials in Washington, D.C., had excluded locally elected leaders in negotiations with the private hospital chain Tenet.

On February 9, Roselli resigned from his position on SEIU’s executive committee, Stern's top-level advisory board (letter and response from the International executive committee). Roselli told Labor Notes in a February interview what had precipitated his resignation:

First, the International is set to do a hearing, which we believe will be scheduled very soon, to force our 65,000 long-term care members into a separate union, away from hospital workers....Second,

...I’ve heard the quote in meetings at the International that increasing numbers always trumps improving standards. We’re arguing for a balance.

People join unions because they want to change their lives. Workers in struggle create a real moral authority, and other people see it and it makes them want to join unions, too. The same is just not true with these top-down deals to gain neutrality where the union agrees to pre-negotiated contracts that severely limit workers’ bargaining rights and voice.

More recently, UHW posted a document March 27 accusing Stern of laying the ground to illegally put the local into trusteeship and thus

silence the voices of UHW members and to prevent UHW from being able to propose significant changes at the SEIU Constitutional Convention in June.

In January 4, UHW's Executive Committee had ratified a "Platform for Change" espousing the philosophy of "one member, one vote" to:

  • Guarantee members’ rights to vote on contract proposals and collective bargaining agreements as well as election agreements with our employers that set the terms for unorganized workers to join our union.
  • Ensure members’ rights to participate in and elect representatives to bargaining committees that negotiate on our behalf.
  • Utilize membership voting rules based on a per capita basis to ensure one member, one vote.
  • Elect all International union officers through a direct election by members.
The platform also included in tenets on how to recruit new members, improve benefits and working conditions that detract from patient care, and unite organized labor nationally to work for a political agenda which includes a union card check, as well as healthcare and immigration reform.


All of this came to my attention, albeit circuitously, when I read PR Watch's April 3 Spin of the Day and learned Stern is also facing complaints that he is spinning about a member of the leadership selling doctors on a product from big endorsing big pharma. Although attributed to Alternet, I'll give to the original source, Maggie Mahar's (bio, email) March 19 post for her Century Foundation blog, Health Beat entitled, "Pfizer Enlists a Labor Union (SEIU) to Promote the 'Cholesterol Con.'”

Pfizer, of course is drug company and Lipitor, its popular statin drug, whose efficacy Business Week questioned in a January 19 article and whose celebrity advertising the House Energy and Commerce Committee criticized.

Maher writes that Dr. Alicia Fernandez, an associate professor of clinical medicine at UC San Francisco, received a letter from The International Association of EMTS and Paramedics, an affiliate of The National Association of Government Employees (IAEP) which is part of SEIU.

The letter began by noting that Fernandez is part of the union’s approved physician network, and then launched into what can only be described as a shameless sales pitch for Lipitor, Pfizer’s blockbuster cholesterol-lowering drug.

“Lipitor is available to our members through their prescription plan. IAEP leadership stands behind LIPITOR as the lipid-lowering agent of choice when it is prescribed by a physician. [my emphasis] This confidence in LIPITOR is based on its proven efficacy and is supported by its vast clinical experience of more than 15 years…"

...A few days ago, Fernandez received a second, identical letter. Never before in her professional experience had she received a drug ad from a union....

In this case, the Lipitor letter is signed by “Matthew Levy,” the director of IAEP. “But this is clearly a joint production between the drug company and the union,” Fernandez notes. “Much of the letter is written in medical language—looks like it is written by Pfizer folks. And at the bottom of the second page of the letter there is a Pfizer copyright: ‘2007 Pfizer Inc. All rights reserved. Filed in USA/December 2007.’ Yet it is written on the IAEP/SEIU letterhead.”

That the SEIU might be flacking for Pfizer was passing strange until I learned of Roselli's charges. It became even more so after reading Mahar's March 28 update, which quoted SEIU President Andy Stern disavowing

a Local Union staff member unfamiliar with SEIU's clear policies against product endorsement.
According to Mahar,
Matthew Levy, the director of IAEP who signed the letter to the doctors... [was confirmed by] IAEP’s national communications director... [as a] “director” of the organization—and that’s how he signed his name on the Lipitor letter, which was written on IAEP/SEIU letterhead.
Mahar cites Rick Berman's secretly funded anti-union pr effort Center for Union Facts for salary information on Levy, rather than the publicly available filing disclosures at the Department of Labor, Office of Labor Management Standards. (see Colbert interview Berman October 27, 2007, here.)

If Mahar had gone to the Department of Labor and entered a query, she would have seen that Levy's salary for 2007 was $109,746. Too bad Berman doesn't have to disclose his funding and salary. Still, Mahar's point remains valid, that Stern is spinning.

Thanks to the odd magic of google ads, Mahar was alerted to Stern's adversary within organized labor, which in turn alert me and, thus, you.


UPDATE (editing notes)

You will notice if you read this in the original version that I have corrected the magazine attribution for Plumer's article, thanks to an email he shot me on April 8,

Hi Beth--Many thanks for the link to my TNR piece on Andy Stern and Sal Rosselli in your post on SEIU. I liked your post, as well. But I just wanted to correct one thing: I wrote that piece for The New Republic, not the National Review. (The latter's a right-wing magazine, the former's, well, it tries to be liberal...)
My reply,

Oops, my bad. I knew where you published and can only plead that I was subliminally wishing that the other NR would have printed it. I'll change it. Makes me wonder similar monograms. Maybe that's where the aclj et. al. got the idea?
Kaizar posted this at NewsTrust April 9, suggesting that while well-sourced and on an important issue:
Because I had no background going into the post, it was hard for me to understand the narrative of the story. A better explanation up front about who the players are and what the controversy is would have been helpful.
Another reviewer found it the most confusing thing ever posted at NewsTrust. Her comment verified in my mind that I needed to rearrange the information, giving prominence to the topic of the title, rather than how I came to discover it...despite Brad's kind comment on the earlier version.