September 26 and 27 should be eventful days at the San Mateo County Event Center. A place there called Fiesta Hall will probably be very loud, but not be very festive. Thousands of United Healthcare Workers (UHW) union members plan to protest hearings on whether to remove their leadership for allegedly misappropriating dues money.
People not involved with or knowledgeable of union activity might not think this is a big deal, but trust me - it is.
As I've reported here, here, and here - UHW's leader Sal Rosselli has been feuding with Andy Stern, head of UHW's parent union, the Service Employees International Union, over what he calls Stern's undemocratic regime. If Barack Obama is elected, he will definitely owe Andy Stern and SEIU a major debt. SEIU is putting almost $90 million into Obama's White House run. And if Stern is as autocratic as Rosselli and his supporters claim, the future of a Democratic majority in Washington might not be as progressive as many liberals hope - especially when it comes to lifting workers out of poverty by organizing them into unions like SEIU.
Rosselli says Stern suppresses dissent, sells out his members, and makes secret deals with corporate America. That kind of behavior in one of the Democrats' biggest benefactors won't help Obama bring the kind of "change we deserve." On the other hand, if unions like UHW illegally divert millions of dollars of their members' money into shadowy slush funds - as Stern and SEIU have charged -- that won't exactly help rejuvenate the left either.
Bottom line, even though a small percentage of workers are unionized these days, what goes on in San Mateo this weekend could have an big effect on the country's political landscape. Stay tuned.
PS: UHW sources called me this morning and said Stern had barred observers from the federal labor department from attending the hearing. They pointed to a letter, dated yesterday, from labor department officials that appeared to confirm this. However, I just got off the phone with the person at the department to whom the letter was sent. He said SEIU has changed its mind and decided to allow the officials in if they seek access.
UPDATE: An SEIU spokesperson called this morning and insisted that the international union never actively barred Department of Labor (DOL) officials from the hearings. According to SEIU's Michelle Ringuette, DOL made an inquiry directly to Ray Marshall, who is conducting the hearings. As soon as SEIU officials found out DOL wanted to attend, Ringuette went on, they agreed to let them in. "DOL is welcome," she told me.
Also, I made a goof in my "PS" section above. The Department of Labor official I spoke with yesterday, Dennis Eckert at the Office of Labor Management Standards, actually sent the letter to which I linked. (I wrote that he was the addressee. Apologies.)