A less perfect union

At a time when organized labor is slipping, SEIU's national leaders are wasting their resources trying to discredit Sal Rosselli
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Sal Rosselli
Photo by Charles Russo

jesse@sfbg.com

By nearly every measure, the Service Employees International Union has become a juggernaut. As the rest of organized labor has seen its share of the American workforce continue to dwindle, SEIU has brought in some 800,000 new dues-paying members in recent years. With the Democratic Party taking over Congress in 2006, the 1.9 million-member organization, rich with campaign funds, wields enormous political clout, and it will only become more formidable if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama wins the White House in November.

But all is not well inside the labor giant. Andy Stern, the union's president, has pushed hard for merging and consolidating local chapters into larger operations — and many SEIU members, especially here on the West Coast, say that's turning the union into a top-down autocracy in which Stern loyalists wield undue influence and meddling officials from Washington, DC squelch dissent.

And now, the Guardian has learned, Stern operatives are using their money and organizing clout in a hard-hitting campaign — not to force an employer to the table or to toss out an anti-union politician, but to discredit another labor leader.

The campaign is part of a bruising power struggle between Stern and dissident local leader Sal Rosselli, who runs the Oakland-based SEIU affiliate United Health Care Workers West. In the past few months, union insiders say, SEIU officials, including a senior assistant to Stern, set up what one leader called a "skunk team" to undermine Rosselli's efforts at winning key union delegate elections. At one point, the team — which involved a political consulting firm linked to big downtown businesses — discussed an opposition research file compiled on Rosselli by a health-care giant his union was fighting

And leading up to the delegate elections last month, SEIU staffers worked to promote Stern-supporting candidates, possibly in violation of union rules, while actively discouraging other union employees from campaigning. That's led to a formal complaint alleging improper involvement by Stern's staff in a local union election.

EMERGING TENSIONS

In 2005, Thomas Dewar went to work as a press secretary at Local 790, formerly SEIU's biggest San Francisco outlet, which represented approximately 30,000 workers, most of them public employees. Local 790 was among the most politically progressive union shops in the country, supporting left-leaning candidates for office and progressive causes like public power. In early 2007, Andy Stern initiated a merger of 790 with nine other regional locals. The move was part of a larger consolidation in the state that saw the number of California union affiliates reduced by nearly half.

The new Northern California superlocal was dubbed 1021, as in "10 to one." Local 1021 has continued 790's liberal activism. But right after the merger was finalized, Dewar and other sources told the Guardian, the atmosphere around the union changed for the worse.

"A lot of members had anxiety," Dewar recounted. Most troubling, he said, was the insertion of Stern appointees into leadership positions, including current president Damita Davis-Howard. "Members were upset. They saw co-workers whom they had elected unilaterally removed by a guy in DC and replaced by his handpicked appointments."

Ed Kinchley, a Local 1021 member who was appointed by Stern to the local's executive board after the consolidation, shared Dewar's memory of the tensions. "You had 10 different locals with 10 different ways of doing things. It's difficult to merge all of that. A lot of people who had been elected to leadership positions were removed."

Dewar told us he struggled to adjust to his new working environment.

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