Uncivil unions - Page 2

What the fight over Larry Mazzola says about the progressive and labor movements and their uneasy relationship
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Larry Mazzola

David Campos joined Daly in keeping the Mazzola nomination stuck in committee while the progressive supervisors privately asked labor leaders to offer another choice. "We said, 'Give us anyone else as long as they can intelligently talk about transportation issues and the bridge district," Daly said.

But labor dug in. "It seemed as though the board was trying to dictate to labor what labor should do," Michael Theriault, who heads the San Francisco Building and Construction Trade Council. And the other unions decided to back the trades, for a number of complicated reasons.

"The reason we supported Larry Mazzola is because this was important to the plumbers union," said Mike Casey, president of the Labor Council and head of Unite Here (which includes the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union). "To the extent we can support the trades, we want to."

So when the four most conservative members of the Board of Supervisors used a parliamentary trick to call the Mazzola nomination up to the full board on April 14, the stage was set for the standoff.

THE STATE OF LABOR

Labor is truly a house divided, despite its universal interest in minimizing recession-related layoffs and taking advantage of a new Congress and White House that is generally supportive of labor's holy grail: the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it far easier to form unions.

The April 25 founding convention of National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) in San Francisco caps a years-long battle between Sal Rosselli's United Healthcare Workers (UHW) and their SEIU masters (see "Union showdown," 1/28/09). Rosselli and many others say SEIU under Andy Stern has become undemocratic and has climbed in bed with corporate America, while SEIU says getting bigger has made the union better able to advocate for workers. Both accuse the other of being power-hungry and not fighting fair.

"Inside SEIU, we've been struggling for four years basically on a difference of ideology and vision of what the labor movement is," Rosselli told us. David Regan, who SEIU named as a UHW trustee after ousting Rosselli, told us the union divisions have been overstated by the media. "Everyone is together in pushing the Employee Free Choice Act," he said, glossing over the fact that the legislation is in trouble and recently lost the support of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Nationally, SEIU has been at war with all of the most progressive unions. The union recently made peace with the California Nurses Association after a particularly nasty struggle that involves many of the same dynamics as SEIU vs. NUHW, including accusations by CNA that SEIU was a barrier to achieving single-payer healthcare and was illegally meddling in its internal affairs.

SEIU is also accused of breaking up Unite Here, which fought the most high-profile labor battle here since Newsom became mayor in its contract fight with the big hotel chains. Last month, a large faction from the old Unite affiliated with SEIU, whose officials say they were just helping out after the end of what all knew was a bad marriage. "This is an example of a merger that didn't take," SEIU spokesperson Michelle Ringuette told us. But the building trades have backed Unite Here in its fight against Sterns' SEIU. As Casey told us, "We're in a major fight over our right to exist. There's no other way to characterize it."

Yet in San Francisco, SEIU plays a different role. Local 1021 is the advocate for the little guy, representing front-line city workers who deliver social and public health services. It is the union facing the deepest layoffs in the coming city budget fight and is still negotiating contract givebacks with the Mayor's Office.