While the union’s feud with the California Nurses Association has been a flashpoint in this battle, the main theater of war is SEIU’s bitter fight with a breakaway health-care union called National Union of Healthcare Workers. For all Stern’s talk of the union movement’s mandate to adapt to a 21st-century economy, the NUHW fight is very much an old-school labor power struggle, of the Sidney Hillman/John L. Lewis vintage. The stakes are enormous, with the right to represent California’s huge corps of more than 600,000 health-care workers in the balance—an obvious entry, should the insurgent NUHW prevail, for chipping away at the International’s power base.
And like the 20th-century labor movement’s landmark internal power struggles, this one teems with charges of corruption, betrayal, and collusion with management, coming from both sides and aired with an abundance of personal rancor between Stern and NUHW president Sal Rosselli.
Suits and countersuits have been flying, as have complaints at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), but the basic timeline is as follows: Not long after the SEIU bolted to found Change to Win, Rosselli’s union—then known as the United Health Workers—grew restive over what it felt were unrealistic organizing targets and bids by the International to wrest power from locals. Once the union’s leaders discovered that SEIU had entered into some of the noninterference agreements with state health-care employers, Rosselli, then a vice president on SEIU’s executive board—and hence, union officials point out, a fully informed party to the contracts he has since protested—planned his own mutiny. He consulted with allies and attorneys to launch the new NUHW, taking member databases, electronic communications, local records and (as SEIU charges) $6 million in local union funds.
SEIU also contends that NUHW officials erased many digital records they deemed potentially compromising—a grave charge because, as Stern alleges, the loss of such data has made it impossible to process member grievances and research contract negotiations on their behalf.
Rosselli contends that what began as a fraternal dispute over grassroots policy matters—such as terms of employment and the administration of patient care—spiraled out of control under the power-mad auspices of Stern’s SEIU. Rosselli says NUHW leaders “in a very constructive way started saying, ‘Wait a minute, this is not democratic, it’s not right, for lots of reasons.’ And literally for three years inside SEIU, we tried to internally gain support and insist on democratic processes, with workers deciding their contracts—and we were met with increasing retaliation, to the point where in 2008 I resigned from Stern’s executive committee because there was a gag order on accepting these deals without debate.”
From there, Rosselli charges, the International waged a campaign to paralyze his breakaway organization with classic union-busting harassment. In 2008, SEIU won a ruling from former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall permitting SEIU to place NUHW locals in trusteeship—i.e., back within the International’s governing structure—finding in the International’s favor on the charges that Rosselli’s leadership cadre had diverted SEIU resources and records into the control of the fledgling union.
But the International hasn’t let up there, Rosselli claims. His union’s officials have been assailed by “charges with the NLRB—charges that we were a company-dominated union, not a bona fide union whatsoever, that we were harassing and intimidating workers—those kinds of charges—forcing the NLRB to do lengthy investigations. And it’s a bureaucracy, right? That’s the worst form of what bosses do—anti-union bosses—to prevent their employees from having a vote.”
For civilian onlookers, there’s a dispiriting “I know you are but what am I?” tone to the donnybrook, calling to mind the decades of union infighting that have contributed so much to the perception of the labor movement’s mounting irrelevance—a fratricidal climate at the top of many big unions that’s nearly as damaging as the business-dictated laws from the Reagan era that have eaten away at the collective-bargaining rights for American workers.
In a straitened economic climate that abounds with all sorts of common enemies—from the investment-bank beneficiaries of federal bailouts to the lawmakers standing athwart the key priorities of health-care reform and card-check legislation—leaders in the fastest-growing sector of labor organizing seem at times to be tearing lustily into each other’s hides.
And that, in the end, is the dilemma that will likely continue to haunt Stern, the first major would-be labor statesman of the 21st century: How does one retrofit the personality-driven, implosion-prone model of industrial-union leadership to do effective battle in an age of neoliberal economic consensus?
This, after all, is an era when corporate managers and financial wizards haven’t merely consolidated power across national borders and within the corridors of our representative government but have also triumphed in what is arguably the only culture war that matters—nurturing the deep-set conviction that business managers and their political retainers are the anointed agents of progress, regardless of how awful their judgment may be or how brutal the mythology of the free market has grown in practice.
That’s in many respects the lesson behind the tightly wound parliamentary accord on health care—and the likely moral of the card-check bill, which doesn’t seem poised to get any serious traction on Capitol Hill before the 2010 election cycle, after which what promises to be a significantly less Democratic Congress would likely consign it to the back burner.
There’s a self-confining character to Stern’s efforts to elevate the union movement’s profile in our national politics, which calls to mind the medieval detention cells that never permitted inmates to stand up completely straight. So long as Stern is compelled to strong-arm smaller unions in pursuit of a more globally minded International bureaucracy, he’ll invite allegations of old-school labor thuggery. And as he fends off such charges in courts and the federal bureaucracy, these conceptions will be widely reinforced in the public’s mind—regardless of whether SEIU prevails on the merits of the case.
If Stern continues focusing on the legislative process inside the Beltway, that too will spur the Sal Rossellis in today’s labor movement to charge that he’s gone native in Washington—that he’s grown so enamored of the White House visits and strategic legislative confabs that he’s forgotten the priorities of the rank-and-file union member. Either way, he’ll remain the most visible, and most easily reviled, face of labor electioneering to the Tea Party right.
Summing up the multiple follies of the punishing health-care fight, Stern says, “Bill Clinton once said it’s better to be strong and wrong than to be right and weak—and I’m beginning to think a lot about that.”
I reply that the motto could double as Harry Reid’s political epitaph—but it occurs to me much later that it could apply with equal force to the labor movement and Andy Stern.