Can SEIU Members Exorcize the Purple Shades of Jackie Presser? by Steve Early and Cal Winslow
Thousands of SEIU members are expected in San Jose this Saturday, September 6, to protest spreading corruption and Andy Stern's latest grab for control over SEIU's third largest local (which has helped blow the whistle on scandalous behavior elsewhere in the union).
The rally is being organized by United Healthcare Workers (UHW) and allied dissidents in SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today (SMART). Both are reacting to their national president's scheduling of a September 22-23 hearing to remove the elected officers of 150,000-member UHW, including its leader Sal Rosselli, and replace them with Stern appointees from Washington, D.C.
An SEIU activist for 25-years and now the union's top reformer, Rosselli describes Stern's latest move as "an act of desperation and retaliation," designed to divert attention from serious problems in other locals.
Stern picked a bad time for his latest UHW take-over bid. His own skills as a union CEO and talent scout are now in question. In August alone, three close followers, all just appointed or promoted to big-paying jobs in key locals or at SEIU headquarters, have been forced to step down due to mishandled funds. Among those being investigated are Tyrone Freeman from Los Angeles, president of SEIU's second- largest local union; Annelle Grajeda, chair of its California state council; and Rickman Jackson, a Michigan local leader involved in the widely-condemned disruption of the Labor Notes conference in Michigan last April by four bus-loads of SEIU staffers and stewards. (See "Purple Punch-Out in Dearborn,"CounterPunch, April 15, 2008.)
Thanks to Stern's personal patronage all serve on the Executive Board of the 2 million-member union. At SEIU's riot cop-protected convention in Puerto Rico (See "San Juan Showdown,"CounterPunch, June 3, 2008), Freeman, Jackson, and Grajeda were among the 60-odd staffers and local officials hand-picked by Stern in June to be part of his administration slate. All were then chosen, in rubber-stamp fashion, by the assembled delegates. Less than three months later, Freeman, who controlled Local 6434 while serving as an SEIU Vice-President, is now the subject of a criminal investigation of racketeering and embezzlement and a related Congressional inquiry by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
As Paul Pringle of the Los Angeles Times has reported in a stunning investigative series, the U.S. Department of Labor is probing "payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars by the union and a related charity to firms owned by relatives of Freeman and expenditures of similar sums on a golf tournament, restaurants such as Morton's steakhouse, and entertainment companies." (Associated Press estimates the total amount misspent to be $1 million.) Freeman is a 38-year old former SEIU staffer from Georgia, whose 160,000 members in California earn $9 an hour as home care workers. He initially responded to the Times' revelations in memorable fashion. "Every expenditure has been in the context of fighting poverty," he told Pringle, a struggle that apparently includes even his $10,000 tab at the Grand Havana Room, a Beverly Hills cigar bar known for its Hollywood clientele. Within a week of that interview, Freeman took leave of his job "for the duration of the investigation" but is still collecting his $213,000 salary (quite a bulwark against poverty), while a Stern-installed trustee runs the local.
Going down in Freeman's wake was Rickman Jackson, his former chief of staff at Local 6434, who is now on "voluntary leave" as well. Jackson moved from California to Detroit three years ago, becoming president of 50,000-member SEIU Healthcare Michigan last August. (That local's many low-income members include home care workers like David Smith, who collapsed and died after the dust-up at Labor Notes in April, an event he was bussed to, under Jackson's direction, for the alleged purpose of protesting "union-busting.")
Jackson has run afoul of records showing that, despite his move to Michigan and Stern-backed political ascendancy in a new local there, he continued to collect $178,000 in salary and benefits from his alma mater in LA. (Plus, Pringle reports, he got another "$18,000 from SEIU national headquarters for consulting work.") There's also the little matter of Jackson's home address in California being listed as the site of a Freeman-run "Long Term Care Housing Corporation" that's now being investigated too; that entity, according to Pringle, "was founded in 2004 as a non-profit but was not granted an IRS tax exemption and had been suspended at one time from doing business in California for failing to file tax returns."
Last but not least, over Labor Day weekend, Pringle reported a third investigation-related "voluntary leave." With Stern's backing, Annelle Grajeda became head of SEIU's California State Council earlier this year after Rosselli was forced out of that position. She now has stepped down from the Council and two other union jobs over accusations that she permitted double (or triple?)-dipping by her ex-boyfriend. Grajeda is a former local union staff director, who has never been directly elected by the rank-and-file to any SEIU office. Yet her loyalty to Stern was rewarded in San Juan just three months ago, in the form of new $200,000 a year paycheck as one of six SEIU international Executive Vice-Presidents. Her ex-boyfriend, Alejandro Stephens, is accused of remaining on the payroll of Los Angeles County, while collecting "tens of thousands of dollars" from various SEIU entities, including the state council headed by Grajeda, Grajeda's own 75,000-member local, and the international union.
SEIU is now trying to recover some of the money paid to Stephens, in belated response to a formal complaint filed by SMART member Arturo Diaz, who is also a county worker. Diaz called the multiple pay-outs a "betrayal of the public trust and malfeasance." He and other members of Local 721 want to know what role Grajeda might have played in enriching Stephens. Says Diaz: "I think he's totally taken advantage of the membership."
When CounterPunch last visited the embattled members of UHW in late March, they were rallying, by the hundreds, in their Oakland union hall and calling for Stern's ouster. At that time, the SEIU President had just sent his first letter to UHW laying the groundwork for removal of its elected leaders on bogus charges.
However, that politically-motivated missive was quickly followed by the PR fiasco of SEIU's failed invasion of the Labor Notes conference in Michigan, where SEIU rival Rose Ann DeMoro from the California Nurses Association was scheduled to speak. And, then on May Day, the always image-conscious Stern opened his New York Times to find a highly unusual "letter of concern" addressed to him from 100 labor-oriented intellectuals around the country, including Frances Fox-Piven, Adolph Reed, Robin D. G. Kelley, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Mike Davis. This half-page ad warned that "putting UHW under trusteeship would send a very troubling message and be viewed, by many, as a sign that internal democracy is not valued or tolerated within SEIU."
But the powerful (and always persistent) SEIU president was not deterred for long. Stern quickly moved to Plan B, which called for dismemberment of UHW. If SEIU had to tolerate a dissident like Rosselli for awhile longer his local was at least going to be much smaller. (And, despite the International union's ongoing campaign of legal harassment and disruption, UHW has continued to grow through new organizing.) So, at the San Juan convention in June, Stern rammed through a "jurisdictional change" paving the way for 60,000 home care and nursing home employees to be moved from UHW to Tyrone Freeman's local.
Very few UHW long-term care union activists -- overwhelmingly women of color -- have ever been fans of Tyrone. He's viewed as a glib con artist and weak negotiator, far less aggressive than Rosselli in upholding SEIU contract standards. In balloting conducted by UHW last winter, the affected members voted by a large margin to stay put. But, this being SEIU, what the members wanted didn't matter in Washington. Stern went right ahead with a two-day "jurisdictional hearing" held, in mid-July, in Manhattan Beach, California. There, more than 5,000 UHW members laid siege to the hotel where the hearing was held, protesting any decision by the Stern-appointed hearing officer that would tear their local apart and, according to UHW, "doom healthcare workers in California to years of substandard contracts and a weakened voice in patient care."
Internal foes of dismemberment were backed by outsiders who share that UHW concern. Both fear that Stern wants to revive an industry-wide "organizing rights" deal with nursing home operators that compromised SEIU's ability to engage in patient advocacy, while, at the same time, it didn't deliver promised improvements in pay, benefits, and workloads for union members. In a July 9 open letter, UC-San Francisco sociologist and nursing professor Charlene Harrington, a top researcher on nursing home financing, applauded a different kind of contract, negotiated recently by UHW with Mariner Health Care facilities in northern California. That agreement, she contends, "empowers caregivers to stand up for their residents" and "shows there is a better path to improve nursing home quality." According to Harrington, SEIU's attempt to push UHW out of long-term care lobbying and bargaining "may have serious negative consequences for nursing home residents and quality care."
By mid-August, thanks to Tyronegate, Stern's attempted downsizing of UHW was looking pretty indefensible (although all parties are still awaiting a decision from former UAW lawyer Leonard Page, a friend of SEIU General Counsel Judy Scott, who conducted the controversial hearing in Manhattan Beach). How could anyone now justify the transfer of so many UHW members, against their wishes, to a local they didn't want to be in even before it was exposed as corrupt and had to be put under trusteeship?
Unfortunately, the ever-agile Stern just shifted back to his original plan, putting UHW in trusteeship! On August 25, SEIU headquarters issued a press release giving notice of a Sept. 22-23 "trusteeship hearing to address fraud charges" against UHW. The "fraudulent" acts cited are mainly the very reasonable steps UHW has taken, with full knowledge of its elected leadership, to protect itself, legally and organizationally, from any abuse of Stern's trusteeship powers. In the release, Stern declares that he's now "committed to leading a reform movement in labor." His first objective is apparently to crush the reform movement that already exists in his own union, via a purge of Rosselli, plus all UHW senior staff and elected officers. Snuffed out along with them would be the local's valuable website (www.seiuvoice.org), which has rallied SEIU dissidents around the country, before, during, and since the union's Puerto Rico convention.
Laying the groundwork for this "nuclear option" and providing "left-cover" for his boss (as in the past) is none other than Stephen Lerner. Lerner is the much-heralded SEIU organizer and executive board member responsible for the union's "Justice for Janitors" campaigns. Like Stern, he's also no slouch at double-talk. Just a month ago, in an on-line exchange posted at MRZine, Lerner scoffed at the "myth that UHW has been threatened with trusteeship." He reassured progressive readers that "this simply isn't true, no matter how often repeated" and claimed that such "misinformation" is just a "distraction" from the "vibrant, open honest debate" that needs to go on about how labor can secure what he calls "Justice for All." Standing in the way of that goal is "'Left Business Unionism,' or maybe more appropriately, 'Neo-Business Unionism.'" According to Lerner, this previously unidentified species is exemplified by UHW which clings to "a business union model" and focuses too much "on servicing and defending remaining islands of unionization (ie local union interests)." In addition, UHW has apparently also been guilty of engaging in "left rhetoric about militant struggle, better contracts . . . and greater local autonomy."
Lerner's line would be laughable, given how factually challenged it is, if it were not for one fact. On August 25, Stern named Lerner and three other officials to act as his "Personal Representatives and Monitors" of UHW activity. So last week, instead of being down in L.A. where he could have been helping to secure justice for home care workers (whose treasury has been pilfered by Tyrone), Lerner was part of a lawyer-assisted crew of Stern "monitors." All are now busily engaged in peppering UHW with burdensome "information requests" about every conceivable aspect of its daily operations, particularly those related to the local's legal defense against Stern. Of course, nothing in this intentionally disruptive intervention assists UHW members in any way, particularly those out on strike or in difficult contract negotiations; rather, it's designed to impede "normal" union functioning, while manufacturing further justification for a full-blown take-over that would (with UHW added) leave the vast majority of California's 700,000 members with un-elected leadership.
How do we know what life is like on the frontlines of UHW, in the middle of the local's multi-front war for survival? Well, in the interests of full disclosure, the authors note that we both have daughters working as UHW reps. So we hear a lot about the added stress and frustration of doing day-to-day trade union work under such trying conditions. One of our young staffers reports that she's been aiding nursing home members whose bosses have become increasingly recalcitrant in bargaining. Unlike Mariner, some UHW employers clearly hope that, by dragging their feet now, they'll be able to negotiate more favorable terms later on. Outfits like Kindred Healthcare would much prefer to deal with friendlier faces from Local 6434 -- if UHW members ever end up there -- or with any Stern appointees who gain control of UHW.
How did a national union culture, long touted as one of labor's most dynamic and progressive, engender such a mess? How did it produce a Tyrone Freeman and the kind of press coverage he's been getting lately (which hurts all unions, not just SEIU)? In Pringle's Los Angeles Times reporting, this "rising star in local labor circles" is depicted, accurately, by all accounts (except his own), as a free-spending 21st century SEIU version of Jackie Presser, the biggest Teamster boodler of the 1970s and 80s. As other observers have noted, there's a steady drift, in too many SEIU locals, toward Presser's brand of plain old "business unionism." First, SEIU operatives at the Labor Notes conference last Spring resort to the same kind of thuggish behavior once common in the Teamsters during the Presser era. Now, like purple shades of Jackie, SEIU leaders collect inflated salaries, tolerate executive board double-dipping, and ignore casual looting of local treasuries, until membership or media whistle-blowing forces them to announce a "clean-up."
One of Freeman's early mentors, who asked not to be identified, had this explanation of Tyrone's rise and fall (as well as the career trajectory of similar Stern protégés): "These are folks who did not earn their status, they were handed it and that leads to a dependence on who handed it to you. The union's leadership bench is actually very shallow today. . . . A person's talent and skill and upward mobility now seem to be in inverse proportion in SEIU."
If loyalty to Stern, rather than competence or honesty, is what leads to rapid career advancement, and that would appear to be the case, there may be two, three, many Tyrones in the union's future. That's because scores of Stern-installed leaders now preside over huge, consolidated locals with few structures for membership accountability or control; many have gotten where they are today via initial appointment rather than through membership election. Many have never worked a day in their life as an SEIU member but their local by-laws have been rigged to insure that they will not ever be easily replaced by anyone from the rank-and-file.
In Local 6434, for example, a worker who wanted to run against Freeman as president is required, within a mere three weeks, to collect and submit the nominating signatures of 4,800 fellow dues-payers! That would be an unheard of hurdle, even in a local with members employed in traditional workplaces. In a union of home-based workers who may not run into five other members in an entire month it's a guarantee of "presidency for life." Along with its criminal investigation of Freeman's spending, the U.S. Department of Labor is also in the process of invalidating this nomination requirement and forcing a fair election.
Legal work in that Local 6434 election challenge was done by Arthur Fox, who is also assisting UHW. He got his start as a union democracy lawyer in the 1970s, as founder of the Professional Drivers Council, a truck drivers' group that later merged with TDU -- Teamsters for a Democratic Union. We also worked with many of the same Teamster dissidents during that period, brave members of PROD, TDU, and a rank-and-file caucus within United Parcel Service called UPSurge. What's striking to us about the situation in SEIU today is how much the lessons of union democracy struggles during the 1970s have suddenly become relevant again.
To their credit, UHW organizers have been doing their best to brush up on this subject. Among the fifty workshops and training sessions being offered this weekend at a rank-and-file leadership development conference in San Jose is one entitled "Reform Movements Through History." UHW stewards (and invited guests from other SEIU locals) will be grappling with the following questions: "What kind of role are we, as union leaders, playing in today's SEIU reform movement? What kind of union are we building if there is no member involvement?" Stewards at the conference are urged to "come learn about the history of the labor movement and discuss lessons we can use in today's struggle. . . ."
Asked recently about this new focus of UHW staff training and member education, Vice-President John Borsos explained: "One challenge we face is creating a culture of solidarity in non-traditional worksites, where there may not be the traditional kind of union consciousness. So we have tried to be very conscious about instilling a sense of history and institutional culture. We want to demonstrate that what we are doing has been done before. We want people to realize there are precedents for it in SEIU and other unions. I think our struggle with SEIU has made UHW more democratic. . . ."
That internal union battle has certainly made some SEIU rank-and-filers a lot angrier with their top officers than they used to be. Last weekend, for example, Bay Area hospital worker Maya Morris, a leader of SMART, was part of a delegation of 35 UHW activists who dogged Stern and his second-in-command, Anna Berger, at every stop on their "Take Back Labor Day" tour of the mid-west. At this series of post-DNC press events, designed to highlight the need for labor law reform, a busload of SEIU dissidents from California was not a particularly welcome sight, because of their broader conception of "workers rights."
At a rally for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, held in St. Louis last Friday, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Burger gave a big speech "about the right of workers to have a voice on the job and form a union without having to face intimidation from their employer," reports UHW member Lisa Tomasian.
But, as Tomasian notes, Burger "didn't talk about whether SEIU members deserve a voice in their own union." After the rally, Burger gave Tomasian the brush-off, so later in the day, in Iowa City, the UHW steward cornered Stern. She handed the SEIU president a video of the July protest in Manhattan Beach where "members opposed SEIU's attempt to force us out of our local and into another." Tomasian also invited Stern to the UHW educational conference and rally in San Jose this weekend. "He was non-committal," she says, "and referred me to an assistant."
Finally, in Wisconsin, the whole California delegation confronted Stern, backing him into a tense hour-long meeting at a local union hall. There, SMART protestors challenged him to a public debate about the current direction of the union. Stern refused to answer any UHW trusteeship-related questions, citing advice from his lawyers. Given recent developments in SEIU -- and the rising tide of rank-and-file discontent -- such questions are not going away. As will be obvious this Saturday in San Jose, there are just too many SEIU members now determined to "take back" their own union, one way or another.
Cal Winslow is a labor historian, labor educator, Fellow in Environmental Politics, UC Berkeley, and Director of the Mendocino Institute. Steve Early served for three decades as a national union staffer for the Communications Workers of America and is currently writing a book about the role of Sixties' radicals in labor. Both are contributors to Rebel Rank-and-File, a forthcoming collection of essays, from Verso Press, on insurgent workers' movements in the 1970s. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Lsupport@aol.com. This article first appeared in CounterPunch on 3 September 2008. | | Print