Just as the US presidential election hits the home stretch, internal strife at one of the country's largest labor unions appears to be diverting its focus from electing Barack Obama.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its 2 million members helped Obama defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Its ground operation and bulging political war chest are crucial to Democratic Party hopes in November, both in the presidential election and congressional races. But a recent corruption scandal and an ongoing internal dispute that threatens to blow up in the coming weeks could undermine the union's political influence at the worst possible time.
"If SEIU didn't have to deal with this distraction, it would be able to do more to influence the election," Dan Clawson, a labor scholar and professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told the Guardian. "California [where nearly all of SEIU's recent turmoil has taken place] is not where they should be."
But according to several sources within SEIU, the union will be devoting resources to the Golden State this fall, even though the state is widely expected to remain a Democratic stronghold. The sources contend that the organization is preparing to deploy hundreds of its staffers to the region to take control of a local union affiliate and to deal with any potential fallout. At least some of those staffers, the sources say, would have been devoting their time and energy to the election campaign if not for SEIU's internal troubles.
Last month the union's international office was forced to "trustee," or take over, its largest California affiliate after the Los Angeles Times ran a series of articles exposing alleged corruption by its leader, Tyrone Freeman. Then, in late August, SEIU announced it was initiating a process to assume control of its second-largest California local, the Oakland-based United Healthcare WorkersWest (UHW). For months, SEIU president Andy Stern has feuded with UHW head Sal Rosselli over Stern's push to consolidate local union chapters into larger and more centralized units [see "A less perfect union," 4/9/08, and "The SEIU strikes back," 4/16/08].
Stern and the international have charged Rosselli and other UHW officials with misappropriating millions of dollars. In late July, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by SEIU covering these same charges. Now SEIU has scheduled its own hearings on the matter to decide whether to clean out UHW's leadership. The hearings are set for Sept. 26-27 at the San Mateo County Event Center. A separate lawsuit challenging UHW leadership brought by individual UHW members is also moving forward. Rosselli and his supporters strongly deny the allegations of financial misconduct. They claim the upcoming trusteeship hearings are simply Stern's latest attempt to stifle dissent within the union.
"It's a kangaroo court," Rosselli told us. "It's a purely political move to silence our members. And it's a huge distraction."
SEIU's turmoil is not welcome news to progressives. Federal election records show that the union's political arm has dropped more than $10 million into Obama's candidacy, as well as millions more for other left-wing candidates and causes. Beyond monetary support, Democrats are counting on SEIU organizers to hit the ground across the country, especially in hotly contested states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Colorado, and Missouri.