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Stern Reprimand 

SEIU members in Northern California challenge the national boss over his collaboration with employers

Wednesday, Jun 13 2007
A once-secret power struggle between one of the Western United States' most powerful labor leaders, and America's most famous union boss, has broken out into the open. United Healthcare Workers West leader Sal Roselli has sent letters to union members denouncing a union organizing strategy backed by Service Employees International Union boss Andy Stern.

The rift presents the biggest challenge yet to Stern's "Third Way" of organizing, in which unions collaborate with, rather than confront, employers. Given that the Stern path includes secret agreements that limit workers' rights, while endangering patients' rights as well, I applaud Roselli's new stance.

"Now, our voice is in jeopardy," wrote Roselli, in a May 29 letter signed by 15 top officials of the 140,000-member, Oakland-based United Healthcare Workers West, which represents nursing and other healthcare workers in Northern California.

In his letter, Roselli argues for the importance of democratic union decision-making.

"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," Roselli wrote.

The national office of the SEIU responded to my questions about the content of the letter with a statement challenging the claim that the nursing home agreements are undemocratic.

"SEIU has established a Nursing Home Unity Council where every local union, including UHW, is represented. Members through their locals on the Unity Council make decisions about any future national and state agreements with nursing home employers, and members will have the opportunity to vote on those agreements," the statement said.

On April 11, I wrote about a rift between Stern and Roselli over the details of a sweetheart deal between the SEIU and California nursing home companies that impair, rather than empower, workers and patients.

At the heart of the nursing home alliance deal was a cold-blooded tradeoff, where the SEIU would use its California Democratic Party lobbying clout to remove quality-of-care requirements from legislation boosting Medi-Cal funding for nursing homes. Alliance labor contracts, meanwhile, severely limited workers' clout at the workplace.

Since I began writing articles explaining and criticizing this agreement, I've been denounced as anti-union by some, while being cheered on by SEIU members, who've bristled at what they believe is Stern's non-democratic style of leadership.

"Our concern is that if Andy Stern gets away with this thing with the nursing homes, each of the other divisions will do the same thing," said Carol Criss, a medical transcriptionist at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara, who is the UHW-West shop steward at that facility.

Criss said she's collected 2,400 signatures at her facility, demanding that Stern abandon proposals that would put Washington-based national union representatives in charge of local contract bargaining. She said she hopes to collect 70,000 signatures from workers at various facilities.

"Stern wants working relations with corporate America where they would accept unions, but they would be weak, ineffectual unions," Criss said.

Now, it seems, my criticisms that this deal sells out patients and workers alike have become the official position of UHW-West.

Advocates of nursing home patients view the new turn of events as a triumph for patients' rights.

"I think it's a brave action on the part of the United Healthcare Workers," said Pat McGinnis, who heads California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. "They're up against a powerful national union whose philosophy is corporate collaboration, and to get new members at any cost."

Jaime Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, likened Roselli to Marcus Junius Brutus, who took a leading role in the assassination of the dictator of Rome.

"This is a hopeful sign. And let's hope Brutus succeeds," Court said, "and the Caesar changes his ways and starts to feel the boot in his butt. Stern demands this Trotskyite kind of loyalty regardless of how popular his policies are. This is a democratic challenge based on democratic principles. Stern can ignore consumer advocates. He can ignore patient advocates. But when criticism comes from within one of the strongest unions of California, he's either going to have to change his business model, or get out of some of the businesses he wanted to control."

UHW President Sal Roselli would not comment for this article. Roselli rival and Stern ally Tyrone Freeman, head of SEIU Local 434B in Los Angeles, representing home care and nursing care workers, did not return a message left with his secretary requesting comment.

Let's hope this battle's outcome includes a strong, democratic union, an end to the cynical nursing home alliance agreement, and better conditions for nursing home patients in California.

Amateur blogger Josh Wolf last week revealed he'd become a professional journalist, in the process helping professional journalist Matt Smith emerge as an amateurish blogger.

I've got a confession to make. I've got a big-time crush. I'm talking weak-in-the-knees infatuation. But it's not Victoria Beckham, Cameron Diaz, Fiona Gow, or any other bewitching beauty setting my heart aflutter. No, it's Bart Sibrel, the Apollo moon landing debunker behind, fadi420, the hemp conspiracist behind, and David Duke, the you-know-what behind

Unlike Arianna Huffington, who heralded influential Web thinker-writers such as Kos, Kausfiles, and Joshua Micah Marshall in her 2004 "Mash Note to the Blogosphere" on, I'm dedicating my Internet debut to cyberspace's dregs, those hapless wing-nuts who toil away at indefensible opinions, who fly off the handle with incomplete sets of facts, and who together have made the World Wide Web a motherland of dubiousness, pockmarked with rare sensible posts.

Last week I made my video blogging debut, with a piece about recently-released-from-prison journalist-rights icon Josh Wolf, who this week starts his first professional journalism job. He's got a paid blogging gig for which a sole commercial sponsor required him to sign a contract allowing the company to remove any items deemed objectionable.

My video blog post speculated that Wolf might have been setting himself up for corporate censorship by signing a contract allowing him to be censored by a commercial sponsor.

I've since come to believe the piece was misguided and based on incomplete information, thus enriching the Web's farfetchedness as described in Andrew Keen's new book, "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture," which attacks the sloppiness, error, and ignorance of the Internet. The book sits unread next to my computer, so I won't pretend to critique it. But my experience filing a misleading blog report about Wolf, then getting to know this smart, extraordinarily principled, observant blogger who's now joining the ranks of paid hacks, suggests that absorbing standout elements of the blogosphere may be the commercial media's best hope.

As vast handsful of you may know, SF Weekly launched a blog last week called The Snitch:

Eager to make the digital scene, I hooked up with ace videographer Vincent Martin and cornered Josh Wolf, the blogger who's gained fame as a martyr for journalistic independence, and filmed him discussing a new job where he'll blog for pay.

"It's not a lot of money. But it's not a lot of of work," Wolf explained.

Wolf, you'll recall, filmed a Mission District G-8 protest two years ago, and was subpoenaed by a grand jury to hand over his tapes in connection with an inquiry into the injury of a police officer, a story SF Weekly's Ryan Blitstein broke a year ago. (

Wolf refused and was jailed for contempt. He was released from a Dublin detention facility April 3, after agreeing to post all his video recordings of the protest on the Internet.

During his seven and a half months of incarceration — the longest anyone has spent in jail protecting sources — bloggers and writers for newspapers hotly debated whether Wolf was a "true" journalist or just a blogger, and thus whether or not he was truly fit for status as a journalistic martyr. Cogniscenti fretted: was Wolf a journalist, or a blogger, or an activist, or an anarchist, or something else?

Wolf told me he simply thought that the FBI shouldn't be able to knock on your door and demand film from your camera.

So the amateur videographer, blogger, and committed civil liberatarian did his time.

"Jail is like going to your college dorm, except for you can't leave. There's no girls. And no class," Wolf recalled. "You revert back to a childhood type state. I played a lot of Monopoly, Scrabble, dominoes, and spades."

Once out, Wolf became a fortunate ex-con. Not long after tasting freedom, he got a paying gig. Wolf inked a for-pay blogging contract with a single as-yet-unnamed corporate sponsor, with the blog Media Sphere scheduled to go live June 12.

The sponsor is "a big tech company. If you guess which one, you'll probably get it right," Wolf told me June 2, explaining that the new contract's terms don't make him an employee of the corporation, but do allow the sponsor to censor any material it deems objectionable.

"At this point, I'm not concerned about it. I don't anticipate it happening. I think they know that if I'm willing to go to jail over protecting my work product, that I'm also probably willing to lose a contract to protect my integrity as well," Wolf said.

In my video blog post, I said Wolf's new arrangement is different than a journalist being edited by a magazine or newspaper editor, and that it was more along the lines of early television where shows had a single sponsor, and had a free hand in dictating content, such as requiring actors to smoke Chesterfield cigarettes.

But Wolf has since given me a piece of information that shows the previous sentence to be plain wrong: His new sponsor, scheduled to be announced during a June 12 appearnce on The Colbert Report, is CNET, the respected journalism organization, which is launching a suite of blogs. CNET's relationship with Wolf is more akin to publisher than sponsor, and is no more a recipe for censorship than accepting a job at Bloomberg News.

"I totally understand how you came to that conclusion," Wolf said, in reference to my assertion that he might be setting himself up for censorship. He explained his un-blogosphere-like gentlemanliness this way: "Coming at you with, "What the hell were you talking about, Matt?' would have made both of us look like hacks."

Wolf will launch his new blog applying this sort of cool reasoning to the who's-really-a-journalist back-and-forth that's accompanied the rising influence of Internet-based essayists and information-gatherers.

"One of the things I'm going to write is a piece about this whole term "citizen journalism,'" Wolf said. "Citizen journalism is the worst term I can think of. When you work at SF Weekly, are you still a citizen? If I'm an undocumented immigrant, does that mean I can't do citizen journalism?"

Like labels or not, Wolf has a new one: professional hack.

On behalf of this tribe, I formally welcome Josh Wolf. I expect he'll do great.

On the subject of Internet-oriented errata, Elizabeth Larson informs me that in last week's column I erred in stating her Web site,, receives 600 unique visitors per month. She says she gets 600 unique visitors per day, and garnered 80,000 page views last month.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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