SEIU: Force for Change or Purple People Eater?
At a time when organized labor should be poised to charge into a new activist era with the President they helped elect last November, service-sector unions appear instead to be headed into civil war. After the garment and hotel workers unions merged in 2005 to create UNITE HERE, the two factions are at each other's throats, with general president Bruce Raynor calling for a divorce. Meanwhile, the purple-shirted, 1.9-million member Service Employees International Union, led by Andy Stern, is trying to put out the fires sparked by embarrassing graft and cronyism revelations in Los Angeles and the Midwest, while suppressing a rebellious Oakland local of 150,000 long-term healthcare workers. SEIU has even received cameo billing in the Rod Blagojevich corruption melodrama in Illinois.
Photo: SEIU's Andy Stern
"The juxtaposition of these two intra-union wars," writes columnist Harold Meyerson, "with the new figures on union growth couldn't be more ironic -- or heartbreaking." Now come accusations by the California Nurses Association that SEIU
is campaigning to overturn its leadership through a stealth campaign
centered on an upcoming election.
The 65,000-member CNA - not unlike the SEIU Oakland local that's begun its own divorce proceedings
from Stern - has long accused Stern, a man who loves the color purple, of making back-room deals and
Faustian bargains with hospitals and healthcare networks. In exchange
for SEIU winning representation rights on the shop floor, CNA critics
charge, the union waters down both rank and file militancy and the
contracts it negotiates. In California, say SEIU's detractors, this has
seen SEIU scuttle support for a single-payer healthcare system and line
up behind Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's forced-purchase medical
insurance plan, while also blocking health-care reforms and accepting
management outsourcing decisions. Now CNA is leveling far more serious
claims that SEIU has launched a well-funded and coordinated campaign to
influence the nurses' union by sending out-of-state operatives to set
up a front group called RNs for Change, whose blog features a
close-up photograph of a purple-gloved hand.
"Health care is in crisis," the Web site says. "Our profession
doesn't get the respect it deserves . . . But do frontline RNs like us
really have a say in the priorities of the California Nurses
Association?" After asking a few rhetorical, innuendo-laden questions
about CNA's leadership and union dues, the site encourages rank and
file CNA members to run as candidates for the union's board. It's a
take-back-our-union theme without mentioning that another union is
doing the taking.
"It is a complete fabrication that we own RNs for Change," says
SEIU's Washington spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette. "We don't own it,
control it or fund it." Ringuette also denied that SEIU had anything to
do with the group's blog, noting that the union already operates
Shame on CNA, a Web site purporting to tell "the
truth about the California Nurses Association." Ringuette freely admits
that her organization has "put organizers on the ground in California
to do what is absolutely legal to contact members of the CNA." She
claims the SEIU-CNA war began when CNA disrupted an SEIU unionization
drive in Ohio last year, and that many of the volunteers are
Ohio nurses angry at CNA.
Intra-union raiding parties and jurisdictional disputes are nothing
new - at any given moment there are three unions fighting over the same
jobs at L.A.'s ports. And, while recently the number of U.S. union
members has inched slightly upward, unions have increasingly found
themselves competing for dues-rich members. Still, the
dustup between CNA and SEIU is breathtaking for its venom and the
sophistication of the campaigns and counter-campaigns.
The CNA charges reached critical mass recently when the union outed
two young women who, CNA claims, are SEIU operatives parachuted into
California to pose as disgruntled state nurses. Jessica Vollmer's Facebook page
describes her as a Denver resident and "fan of MoveOn.org," and is
listed by HealthCare United, an SEIU health-care advocacy group, as a
contact person for the group. Stacy Manuel's phone is registered to a
Seattle, Washington exchange. Neither woman returned calls from the
L.A. Weekly. Their goal, CNA
alleges, is to encourage its members to challenge the current CNA
leadership by arriving, uninvited, at the homes of
CNA members, or by telephoning them. The RNs for Change campaign has also used mass mailings and robocalls to reach CNA members.
Michelle Ringuette, the SEIU media spokeswoman, said she believed Vollmer and Manuel
were California residents. (In a followup email, Ringuette said the two are part of a four-member organizing staff targeting CNA members.)
She also claims that SEIU is not seeking to
take over or absorb the CNA - only to influence its governing board.
Chuck Idelson, a CNA media spokesman, disagrees.
"It's a struggle that has escalated into a hostile takeover of our
health-care organization," says Idelson, who also claims Vollmer and
Manuel of breaking the law by impersonating nurses. (Ringuette's email responded with a denial: "They identify themselves as from the Nurses Alliance of SEIU - no one is or has been impersonating anyone.") He blames the
current turf war on what he calls Andy Stern's "imperial vision" and a fixation on
pumping up union membership numbers at the price of militancy.
"He talks very differently to corporations behind closed doors than
in an interview with In These Times," Idelson says. "He paints himself
as the darling of the progressive labor movement while getting himself
on the cover Human Resources Outsourcing Today." All this takes place
against the backdrop of organized labor's struggle to get Congress to
pass the Employee Freedom of Choice Act (EFCA), which would streamline
procedures for unionizing workplaces. The more internecine distractions
there are, however, the less chance this long-sought piece of
legislation has of passage.
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