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A few months I reported on internal disputes at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), where critics allege that President Andy Stern has been conducting a power grab. Ever since, I’ve received letters from SEIU members criticizing the union leadership. On Wednesday, I published the resignation letter from Stern’s chief in-house critic, Sal Rosselli, who stepped down from the SEIU’s Executive Committee. Rosselli accused Stern of cutting backroom deals with companies and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Based on what I’ve heard, I’m sympathetic to Rosselli’s position. That said, I’m publishing today a reply to his letter from three SEIU vice presidents and heads of local unions. This letter was edited for length.
February 11, 2008
Sal Rosselli, President
SEIU United Healthcare Workers – West
560 Thomas L. Berkley Way
Oakland, CA 94612
Dear Brother Rosselli:
As members of the SEIU International Executive Committee we were saddened to learn that you have resigned from the Committee. …To understand just how disappointed we are with your actions, it is important to remember four historic changes that have taken place in our union since 1996.
The first is that local union leaders like us have been called upon to act as the collective national union leadership and to take on the responsibility of jointly developing a strategy to improve the lives of working people in North America. Recognizing that no one person can have all the answers, we have all been given unprecedented opportunities to contribute ideas, debate options, and reach decisions as a group. The collective leadership structure encouraged by President Stern, rather than one-person rule, has carried with it a new responsibility to act based on the long-term interests of workers in our core industries and not just on our own power or prerogatives as local leaders.
The second historic change has been to put far greater emphasis on helping more workers join our movement to make us all stronger. It is simply not realistic to think that over the long term our current members can maintain and improve their pay, benefits, and working conditions as a unionized island in nonunion industries and a nonunion country where fewer and fewer workers have health and retirement coverage or a living wage. About 7.4 percent of private sector workers in America have a union – the lowest level since before the Great Depression. At most, 10 percent of healthcare workers have a union. Virtually all of the population growth in the U.S. in the next 20 years will be in the mostly nonunion South and Southwest, and the industries that are growing fastest are the industries that are most nonunion.
The third big change in our union has been to unite our financial, political, community, and staff resources to a much greater degree so that workers seeking to join us have the support of the entire union, not just one local, so we can all achieve higher pay and benefit standards. Many of the employers we deal with today are regional, national, or global in scope. We all have recognized that to match their strength we too have to be united on a larger scale.
The fourth change has been to restructure ourselves to unite the strength of people who do the same kind of work. As you know, SEIU used to have multiple local unions in the same industry in the same geographic area, a system that protected the interests of certain individual local leaders but divided workers’ strength in dealing with employers and elected public officials. The New Strength Unity Plan adopted by local union delegates to the 2000 SEIU Convention mandated an end to that system and established democratic procedures for uniting members’ strength along industry lines.
These four changes have made it possible for SEIU to help more than a million more workers add their strength to ours since 1996 – the most successful organizing record of any union in American history. Our members set the standard for pay, benefits, working conditions, and quality care in the health care industry. As the New York Times said about us on October 30, 2007, “After the union said it would not consider endorsing anyone who did not put forward a plan for universal health coverage, all the leading Democratic candidates produced one.” We also were widely recognized in the news media as having played the key role in getting agreement between Republican Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Democratic leaders of the California legislature on a plan to cover more than 4 million of the uninsured and set a precedent that could lead to coverage for millions more throughout the country.
Until recently, you participated in, approved of, and benefited from these major changes in our union:
– The members of our local unions, as well as all other SEIU locals, contributed millions of dollars, staff, political strength, and organizing leadership through our International Union to a four-year campaign that resulted in more than 15,000 Catholic Healthcare West workers having a union and a master contract as part of UHW.
– We all also contributed to the national strategies that resulted in more than 13,000 workers in hospitals owned by Tenet becoming part of your local.
– With your enthusiastic support, the principles of the New Strength Unity Plan were applied to a democratic merger of the 27,000 members of Local 399 in Southern California with your local.
All in all, national strategies and national resources contributed by SEIU local unions outside California have played a major role in transforming what was Local 250 with 65,000 members into UHW with more than 130,000 members.
Now, when it is time for UHW to help more healthcare workers join our movement, all of a sudden you don’t want to apply the principle of strength in unity and instead want to take your ball and go home.
– Now that the hard-working members of our local unions have helped build workers’ strength in California, you bemoan being asked to do the same for workers in other parts of the country for everyone’s benefit.
– Now you have a problem with there being one unified national strategy to help workers unite in Catholic hospitals, which represent 1 of every 7 hospital beds in America.
– Now you have a problem with uniting the strength of all long-term care workers in California.
– Now you have a problem with there being one unified strategy for helping nursing home workers gain a union and win improvements for themselves and their clients.
– Now you leak unfounded letters to the news media that undermine the joint bargaining strategy set by the National Nursing Home Unity Council in which you participate.
– Now when your support was needed to help Tenet workers outside California gain a union, the internal disunity you contributed to jeopardized that goal.
As you acknowledge in your resignation letter, the strategies to build more strength and unity that you oppose are strongly supported by an overwhelming majority of the other SEIU local unions in general and the SEIU healthcare local unions in particular. Instead of accepting this and doing your part to make our united strategies succeed, you increasingly have sabotaged our joint decisions, attacked other SEIU leaders, and even refused to attend all or part of key meetings where decisions were being discussed.
Dave Regan, President
SEIU District 1199WOK,
Tom DeBruin, President
SEIU Local 1199P,
Monica Russo, President
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“I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us.”