For Retired Stern Critic, UHW Take-Over Bid Is Déjà Vu…All Over Again
The High Price of Purple Dissent
The tireless members of United Healthcare Workers (UHW) will be on the march again this weekend, in what's likely to be one the largest anti-trusteeship protests in
The city of San Mateo is hosting this "Hands Off Our Union" rally, a sequel to earlier ones in San Jose, Manhattan Beach, Oakland, and elsewhere. The long-running UHW take-over drama (almost a telenovela by now) began in March when Stern accused his most out-spoken critic, UHW President Sal Rosselli, of various offenses including meeting secretly with Rose Ann DeMoro, of the California Nurses Association, an arch enemy of what Stern once called his "Purple Army." (This treason-and-conspiracy count has since been dropped in a superceding SEIU "indictment" of Rosselli.)
It was a clever move for Stern to hire a "nationally respected labor expert and former U.S. Secretary of Labor" to preside over what UHW members are calling a "kangaroo court."
This is the first time that a prominent outsider has been enlisted to facilitate such a take-over. Used again and again, Stern's trusteeship powers have demonstrated the limits of union democracy protections under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), a federal law that
Initially, SEIU's local union take-overs and make-overs (aka "purging and merging") were lauded by labor activists and academics for getting rid of "old guard" fiefdoms and giving the union "new strength and unity." Trusteeships have also been praised for installing a younger, more diverse officialdom (often recruited from outside SEIU) which has helped make the union
Three thousand miles away from
Local 509 was a champion of Stern's "New Strength and Unity Plan" when it was first adopted in 2000. As part of a complicated 2003 re-alignment of SEIU affiliates in Massachusetts, Templeton's local even loyally accepted the ill-advised transfer of 1,500 newly-recruited members from 509 to another local (which treated them so badly at U-Mass that they eventually left SEIU to join the Massachusetts Teachers Association). To this day, Templeton doesn't want "to sound completely negative" about the national union because "I really like the way they've organized janitors...and I think the progress they've made with organizing, especially low-paid workers, is marvelous."
By 2004, however, Templeton was beginning to have doubts about giving "Stern more power to reorganize and trustee locals." Previously, he recalls, "there had to be corruption, malfeasance or undemocratic activity but, after New Strength Unity, they could trustee for almost any reason." To curb this trend, Templeton came to SEIU's national convention in
"*SEIU shall establish clear and consistent guidelines for placing local unions under trusteeship. Trusteeships shall be used only as a last resort in the case of corruption or serious malfeasances and never for political reasons.
*SEIU shall encourage the process where rank-and-file members are encouraged to run for top leadership positions.
*SEIU shall not interfere in local elections by arranging for trustees, interim appointed officers, staff or any other persons not currently or recently employed within the local's jurisdiction to run for local offices.
*Any provisional local officer shall serve in that capacity for no more than one year, and shall not be eligible to run for office unless that person is a member by virtue of being currently or recently employed within the bargaining unit jurisdiction of the local."
In the context of SEIU politics today, Templeton was what you might call a "premature anti-fascist" (ie a kindred soul of earlier American radicals who paid a high price for resisting, in the late 1930s, the overthrow of the Spanish Republic because they didn't need World War II to alert them to the dangers of dictatorial rule). Even if that historical comparison seems a bit overdrawn (yes, we know that Andy Stern is not Hitler or Mussolini), the little-known story of Local 509's near-death experience, which followed Templeton's 2004 convention dissent, pre-figures the far worse ordeal of UHW today.
Like UHW, after its challenge to Stern at this year's SEIU convention, Local 509 soon found its own autonomy threatened. Stern dispatched a key operative to
Stern's preferred repository for the social workers was a 45,000-member organizational oddity called the National Association of Government Employees (NAGE), a former independent union now operating in more than 40 states as SEIU Local 5000. Not surprisingly, the president of NAGE, David Holway, is the product of a Stern trusteeship, plus
Holway has plenty of income to report himself (plus homes in
Just as UHW long term care workers wanted nothing to do with any local headed by the now-fallen Los Angelean, Tryone Freeman (see CounterPunch, Sept. 3, 2008), Local 509ers strongly resisted being absorbed into Holway's fiefdom. Ultimately, they were successful (aided in part by membership mobilization against the merger and all the negative publicity Holway was getting in The Globe.) Yet 509's survival as a stand-alone entity came at a price.
The post-Templeton administration at 509 (which includes several long-time labor lefties) absorbed the lesson that bucking Stern doesn't pay. They noticed that indigenous leadership of other major Boston-based SEIU affiliates was rapidly disappearing. Like NAGE, the other three leading "locals" all emerged from trusteeships or mergers with ex-staffers in charge, who owed their jobs to Stern, his second-in-command, Anna Burger, or Dennis Rivera, director of SEIU's health care division.) So, at this year's SEIU convention in
Ironically, that's the same way Ray Marshall went along to get along (with the labor establishment) during his four years as chief enforcer of laws designed to protect workers' pensions and their union rights. During the late 1970s,
Like every DOL secretary since 1959, Marshall also watched on the sidelines as union dissidents struggled to overcome the LMRDA's unfortunate Title III limitation that, once a trusteeship is imposed—even for the purposes of political retaliation—the take-over "shall be presumed to be lawful for a period of 18 months." (In SEIU, thanks to the combined use of trusteeships, local mergers, and/or forced membership transfers, some Boston-area rank-and-filers have been deprived of the right to vote for local union officers for as long as five years.)
The right of members to disagree with union leaders—to speak out for or against their ideas and actions, free of retaliation—is more strongly embedded in Title I of the LMRDA. That's why UHW members have now filed suit against Stern under this section of the law, as part of their take-over defense. Before he leaves
Steve Early is a Boston-based SEIU-watcher, currently working on a book for Cornell University Press on the role of Sixties' activists in SEIU and other unions. He's been involved with union reform efforts since 1972, as an organizer, lawyer, labor educator or journalist. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com