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.
"California nursing homes are sweatshops, [and] a terrible place to live," said Sal Rosselli, president of California's largest healthcare workers' union local, Oakland-based United Healthcare Workers–West, during an online interview last week with the magazine Labor Notes.
While Rosselli's statement might sound like ordinary pre-strike cant, his words are actually much more radical than that.
Rosselli's criticisms are directed at America's most famous labor leader, Andy Stern, the celebrity president of the two-million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU). According to Rosselli, Stern's expansion of the union has cost workers the ability to complain or fight to improve conditions.
"People join unions because they want to change their lives," Rosselli told Labor Notes. "Workers in struggle create real moral authority, and other people see it and it makes them want to join unions, too. The same is not true with these top-down deals ... where the union agrees to prenegotiated contracts that severely limit workers' bargaining rights and voice."
I've written before about these SEIU deals (see "Partners in Slime," June 30, 2004, and "Union Disunity," April 11, 2007), where the union agrees to prohibit workers from complaining about conditions in exchange for being able to recruit more members in nursing-home chains. I've also described how this strategy privately angered workers and organizers in California, the union's greatest stronghold.
But last week Rosselli turned this once-secret dispute into an open rebellion. This is no minor quarrel. Until recently, he was the head of the 600,000-member SEIU California state council; he resigned earlier this month as a member of the policy-setting national SEIU executive committee, while retaining his post as president of United Healthcare Workers–West, the 150,000-member SEIU branch representing California hospital, nursing home, and home-care workers.
Rosselli's new dissident movement has the potential to derail Stern's ambitious plans to expand into home daycare, alliances with overseas unions in countries such as China, and collaborative agreements with companies such as Wal-Mart, which joined with SEIU last year to push for broadened healthcare coverage. By painting SEIU's national leadership as bent on undermining workers' rights, Rosselli's renegade battle could harm efforts by SEIU to present a united front during a crucial presidential campaign. Last week, SEIU endorsed Barack Obama, and is mobilizing members to work on his primary and general election campaigns.
Rosselli announced his resignation in an open letter claiming that Stern has focused on growth at any cost. Rosselli's local has also launched a new Web site, www.seiuvoice.com, accusing Stern of expanding union power at workers' expense. Rosselli also issued a series of statements in response to inquiries from SF Weekly in which he made public for the first time his accusations of a Stern power grab. SEIU's national press office did not respond by press time to my request for an interview with Stern or his representatives.
Stern's supporters may protest that this is a bad time to open a national discussion about whether the key Democratic Party ally has been instrumental in curtailing workers' rights. But after a decade in which the poor have gotten poorer, the sick have received less care, and organized labor has made few inroads into making things better, I can think of no better moment for a long-delayed debate over whether Stern's vision of expansion at any cost is truly in the best interest of workers.
During an election year filled with calls for "change," it may seem ironic that an anachronism within an anachronism might be a source for change within the Democratic Party.
To the extent organized labor appears in the press as something other than a component of a political or business story, it's portrayed as outdated and irrelevant — unless the story happens to mention Stern. He is known for pursuing a "collaborative" rather than adversarial relationship with employers. As Stern's fame has grown, his supposed modernization campaign has become the most-covered story in the labor movement.
Rosselli, meanwhile, is a longtime activist little known outside the old-line labor city of San Francisco, despite leading a behemoth California healthcare union. He is a former nursing home worker who was president of the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Democratic Club in the early days of the AIDS crisis. In 1988, he led a dissident faction in the local healthcare workers' union that blamed decline in membership on "30 years of international control," referring to the union's top leadership. Rosselli defeated a slate of candidates who had been handpicked by the national SEIU and has been one of California's top labor leaders ever since.
In the storyline of the current U.S. labor movement — as depicted in piles of Stern magazine profiles — Rosselli is the kind of old-fashioned leader that history might forget. But it's Stern's cheap-trick "modernization" that should be left in the dust.
This view has been challenged by the specific details of Stern's supposed "modernizing" labor deals. A nursing home pact (first described in SF Weekly's 2004 story) between the union and home operators took away the right of patients and their families to sue those operators in cases where patients are injured, raped, or killed. Subsequent contracts obtained by SF Weekly showed these deals stifled workers' free speech rights while also curbing their ability to earn decent pay. Rosselli had previously privately criticized these agreements within the union while giving them tacit public support. Last week he made his criticisms public, creating the first credible rebellion against Stern's leadership.
In his letter to Stern, Rosselli lists a series of grievances suggesting that SEIU's sellout model of union organizing stretches beyond the wards of nursing homes.
Rosselli described secret negotiations last fall between Stern and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In these meetings, Stern allegedly agreed to support a watered-down healthcare package in exchange for measures that would help expand SEIU's membership. Some union leaders had urged California Democrats to support a single-payer plan that would eliminate private insurers. An eventual compromise bill between the Democrats and Schwarzenegger was based on requiring more Californians to have insurance. The bill is now considered dead.
"Your secret meetings with Governor Schwarzenegger and other elected officials, without the participation of SEIU California leaders, fatally weakened our many years of disciplined work to bring about true healthcare reform," Rosselli wrote to Stern.
While the healthcare bill may now be dead, the Schwarzenegger-Stern negotiations appear to be the legislative equivalent of a ghost. According to Sacramento insiders, Senate Bill 867 was the quid pro quo SEIU demanded in order to back the doomed healthcare plan. If passed, it would help SEIU absorb into its union ranks people who provide state-subsidized day care in their homes. Though healthcare reform has died, this apparent sop to SEIU lives on. The bill was sent to committee last week.
Rosselli alleged that Stern grabbed for power elsewhere, too, claiming that Stern is poised to weaken Rosselli's local union's influence by attempting to separate 65,000 home care workers out of Rosselli's UHW, essentially cutting Roselli's union in half. Rosselli also accused Stern of sabotaging his local unions' efforts to participate in negotiations on new contracts with healthcare systems affiliated with the Catholic Church.
"We are concerned that SEIU's international leadership has charted a course that values growth above all other principles," Rosselli said in a statement responding to questions from SF Weekly.
"Our folks are enraged," Rosselli told Labor Notes. "We had been working for 20 years toward similar working conditions and standards for nursing home workers and hospital workers. They are different now, and very different in terms of conditions for patients."
Rosselli's bid to incite open revolt inside what is America's fastest-growing union seems a long shot. Stern enjoys firm control over SEIU's national executive committee. During the past year, Rosselli's complaints have been brushed off by national leadership.
But despite Stern's status as American labor's biggest celebrity, some union members — many of them outside Rosselli's dissident healthcare union — are furious about the way he has wielded power during the past few years. In California and elsewhere, the SEIU has consolidated what used to be dozens of small local unions into large industry-based locals. In the process, union staff have been laid off or moved into different jobs with worse benefits. This has created a bizarre situation where the AFL-CIO–affiliated union that represents SEIU organizers, secretaries, and other union office staff has filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that SEIU itself has behaved as an abusive employer. Rank-and-file workers, meanwhile, feel that in some cases their ability to select their own leadership has been either diluted or abridged.
And there's the issue of the downright nastiness of Stern-led deals that trade away the legal rights of people as helpless as the elderly and the disabled. SF Weekly's stories about SEIU's nursing-home deals have been widely read within organized labor as evidence that Stern's "collaborative" arrangements with employers aren't modernization at all. Instead they hark back to the bad old days of company-union sweetheart deals that have given organized labor a reputation for corruption.
Rosselli's open rebellion is premised on the hope that somewhere in America, there are SEIU workers growing tired of Stern's ruse who will begin to advocate for real workers' rights.