Washington Babylon — November 29, 2007, 11:57 pm

The Stern Gang and the SEIU

No labor leader in America gets better press than Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which according to its website “is the fastest-growing union in North America, with 1.9 million members in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico.” Stern is routinely portrayed as a progressive union leader who is fighting for the rights of workers and revitalizing the long-declining labor movement in America (surely a worthy and important task).

Yet Stern is currently presiding over what some within the union describe as a power grab, and one that could squelch opposition to some controversial deals he and his allies have supported (like a provision, ultimately shot down by internal opposition, that would have imposed a seven-year ban on strikes by Tenet Healthcare union employees). On Friday morning Stern is seeking to push through a deal that would severely weaken his chief critic inside the SEIU, in the name of “restructuring.”

“Stern is essentially seeking to take a public entity private,” one person familiar with the situation told me.

The chief battleground is California, where SEIU has around 650,000 members, 40 percent of its total membership. Back in 2004 there were 38 SEIU locals in California but that number was subsequently reduced to 20. This has occurred because in 2006 Stern and his allies pushed through a statewide reorganization that merged numerous locals into bigger entities, whose membership, critics say, was gerrymandered. Stern then handpicked the leaders at the newly formed unions, installing close allies as officers.

Some of those picked by Stern had been elected at the smaller, pre-merged entities, and some held unelected staff positions. But in essence, Stern was able to stack the deck with loyalists who were not voted on by the new merged local memberships.

In doing this, Stern exploited a legal loophole. When a new union local is organized, it has no board of directors. Because someone needs to be in charge, federal law stipulates that the parent union can appoint officers for up to three years, by which time elections must be held. Stern is treating the merged locals–which have large memberships, up to 130,000 in one case–as entirely new entities, even though many of the individual locals have existed for many decades.

Major policy issues are also at stake. Stern’s primary in-house critic has been United Healthcare Workers West leader Sal Rosselli. He is currently head of the state council of the SEIU in California, and has opposed deals reached by Stern and his allies that Rosselli believes limit workers’ rights.

The San Francisco Weekly has reported on this and ran an excerpt of a letter that Rosselli sent to SEIU members:

Some in the national SEIU are negotiating an agreement with nursing home employers—in California and nationally—and have repeatedly excluded UHW nursing home members and elected representatives from the process. These agreements could restrict our nursing home members’ voices on the job and be implemented without affected members even having the right to vote.

There’s also a suspicion among some SEIU dissidents that Stern is planning to take a relatively conciliatory stance towards Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed health-care reforms. Opponents–and the state council under Rosselli’s leadership has been quite critical–believe the reforms would shift the primary burden of health care costs to individuals as opposed to employers.

Stern’s 2006 reorganization package included a provision that abolishes the old California state council and creates a new one. On Friday, in a conference call scheduled for 7:30 AM California time–the score of state local leaders are set to vote for president of the new council. It’s virtually a foregone conclusion that Rosselli–whose four-year term would have run into 2009–is going to lose to Annelle Grajeda, a Stern ally. (I’ll explain why in a moment.)

Stern’s supporters offer a number of rationales for the steps he has taken. The leaders he has appointed at the new locals will have to face elections down the road, they say. And the vote for the head of the new state council is democratic, so what’s the big deal?

Steve Trossman, an SEIU spokesman, said the whole reorganization package grew out of the national convention in 2004. “There were hearings about it all over the state and any question that could have been asked was asked. The whole process was above-board and then it was put to a vote.” Trossman emphasized that hundreds of thousands of members were eligible in the 2006 balloting and that the reorganization was approved by 86 percent. “The whole point was to build stronger, more effective locals… and to enhance the voice of our members and the working people of California,” he said.

As to Stern’s appointment of local leaders and charges of cronyism, Trossman said that Stern “selected the logical people to head the [newly created] locals.” For example, Grajeda had come from the largest single local within the ones that merged to form newly-created Local 721.

But critics tell a different story. “Why should Stern decide who the ‘logical’ leaders are?” asked the source I cited above. “Why didn’t he let the members of the new locals decide who the ‘logical’ leaders should be in a vote? There are union mergers all the time and the normal course is to schedule a special election to select the leadership. There was no need to have locals headed by appointees named [by Stern].”

Another person with whom I spoke scoffed at the notion that the plan’s origins were democratic, saying that SEIU conventions are even more scripted and controlled from the top than political conventions. After the 2004 convention, this person said, the SEIU’s national leadership sold the reorganization on the basis of creating bigger and more powerful locals through merger. That Stern would appoint the new local leadership was barely discussed and certainly not something that members were broadly aware of. This person said that mergers could certainly make sense at times, but in this case the whole process has been “inherently wrong” and “political.”

Furthermore, complex rules excluded roughly one-third of the state’s 650,000 SEIU members from voting on the reorganization in 2006, including all but 3,000 of the 135,000 in Rosselli’s local. Incidentally, Trossman is right that the merger did pass by a wide margin and that hundreds of thousand of people were eligible to vote, but only about 16 percent of the total membership actually took part in the balloting.

Stern’s appointees will have to face election, but by then they will have the advantage of incumbency and will have been able to promote themselves heavily through their holding of office. (Just like politicians do.) Finally, it’s basically a foregone conclusion that Grajeda will win because voting is weighted and she only needs support from the six local union heads that Stern has handpicked since the 2006 reorganization.

This story was reported and written with Rachel Heinrichs

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