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. 

SEIU: Force for Change or Purple People Eater?

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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