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SEIU Now and Then: May Democracy Be With You

by Bob English (benglish13 [at]
The internal struggle and accelerating debate within the SEIU over union democracy is a positive and encouraging development. While democracy, dissent and member empowerment are on the horizon in SEIU and even in vogue in West Coast locals, it wasn't always so. A reform movement and the uprising of Public Employees for a democratic Union within the former L790 serves as a case study.
SEIU Now and Then: May Democracy Be With You

Suddenly it seems Service Employees International Union (SEIU) locals UHW-West and 1021 are blooming with champions of democracy. For instance, and besides the well known internal rift and organized opposition to the Andy Stern International (IU) by UHW President Sal Rosselli and the SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today (SMART) caucus, L1021 activists Roxanne Sanchez and Mary Magee wrote a commentary for the San Francisco Bay Guardian on “What union democracy means.”

As reported, Sanchez and other 1021 members filed complaints of IU directed interventions in the election of SEIU Convention delegates by Stern appointed officers and staff, including President Damita Davis–Howard and Josie Mooney, a Stern assistant and former L790 Director. The staff “skunk” and “salsa” team campaigns were directed to containing the Rosselli/SMART influence and promoting IU loyalists against candidates supporting SMART proposed democratic reforms. However, rank and file reform candidates were elected to most 1021 delegate seats. Initially the large 1021 and UHW delegations were not recognized, ironically with the election complaints serving as justification, even though the staff controlled 1021 Election Committee had immediately ruled there was no election violation. Although the delegations were finally seated, the IU manipulations were obviously intended to suppress floor debate and reform resolutions introduced as an alternative to Stern’s “Justice for All” program - which was approved by large delegate majorities despite SMART challenges. See “SEIU strikes back”; “SEIU’s Internal Divisions Spill into West Coast Delegate Races”; “Day 1 – Round Up of the First Morning”; “SEIU Reformers Challenge Union’s Direction at Puerto Rico Convention”

For union members and progressives who believe the Stern IU style of business unionism is the dead wrong answer to the long term decline in union membership and political power, the SEIU internal struggle and accelerating debate over union democracy is a positive and encouraging development. As Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez observes in a June 3 segment on SEIU:

“Clearly, there is a continuing battle going on in SEIU, and the focus has been the United Healthcare Workers-West in California, led by Sal Rosselli … spearheading this rank-and-file movement calling for greater democracy. Stern and the leadership have come down very hard on this movement. They did allow debate, because obviously the movement does not have a majority within the union, but it is significant that there’s any kind of a sharp debate or a strong caucus now developing within SEIU. ...there are fundamental issues now within SEIU over how do you define union growth and union democracy. … SEIU has increasingly become a more centralized union in the way it operates, and is increasingly, in terms of some critics, doing anything it can to grow, making arrangements or deals with political leaders to expand membership in different parts of the country. … this is an important or watershed moment, because the SEIU is leading the supposed reform movement within organized labor, when now the leaders of the reform movement are being challenged over the nature of their reform...”

Revolt Follows Failed Reform in SEIU L790

While democracy, dissent and member empowerment are on the horizon in SEIU and even in vogue in West Coast locals, it wasn't always so. A democracy movement within the former L790, one of ten predecessors to SEIU 1021, serves as a case study.

L790 officers elected in 2003 on a reform platform initiated and won approval of new by-laws in the spirit of a "member driven union,” with provisions for more democratic process, chapter representation, elective bodies and positions, including election committees and regional conferences. However, the reform slate elected VP crossed over and became cozy with the staff and insider leadership power clique, which effectively blocked much of the by-laws implementation and progressive reform program, undermining the few victories and gains of pro-democracy activists.

In addition to various disturbing issues and deficiencies of fair elections, member representation, contract enforcement and staff/leadership priorities, activities, political and fiscal accountability, many activists and members felt that a series of disappointing, staff controlled contract negotiations (2003-04, 2006) and charter amendment discussions with the City and County of San Francisco amounted to “bargaining against ourselves” or “collective begging.” The contracts included a 6% net income reduction from take back of retirement contribution payments, without a City commitment to pension benefit reforms and upgrades, and minimal, deferred wage increases not on par with the cost of living, yet justified by staff claiming “there is no inflation.” Also, staff and insiders restricted and manipulated contract ratification balloting.

With the democratic infrastructure deadlocked and the IU initiated California mega-local mergers approaching, 790 reform activists were gradually convinced that member based democracy had no effective, practical openings or future with the Stern dominated IU and entrenched local leadership. In spring 2006 they formed Public Employees for a democratic Union (PEdU and launched alternative union card campaigns in the San Francisco Miscellaneous (8,000 represented employees) and Registered Nurses (1,400) bargaining units. While RN leaders created the Professional Registered Nurses Association (PRNA) as an independent association, PEdU approached the Public Employees Union (PEU), representing 15,000 workers in California, as the preferred union to replace SEIU for the miscellaneous units. PEU’s elected Executive Board voted to support the campaign with limited involvement in field organizing.

Long before the controversial, well publicized SEIU - California Nurses Association (CNA) organizing conflicts, this grass roots uprising challenged SEIU's long term, exclusive bargaining unit ownership and offered members an opportunity they’d never had: an alternative union authorization and certification election process to take control of their union representation. Yet the action was unreported in the local daily and alternative media, with exception of Steve Zeltzer’s on line article, “SF SEIU Members and Leaders Launch Decertification Drive”

Besides the publicity black out, the campaigns were more restricted than facilitated and protected by the decertification and election requirements and processes provided in the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (CA Government Code sections 3502–3508). This legislation was designed and written to establish and preserve exclusive labor - management bargaining territories and relationships, rather than encourage union agency transitions initiated by workers. Also, despite the organizing initiative, PEdU was not prepared to withstand the SEIU partisan counter attack.

The Empire Strikes Back: SEIU Attacks Rebel Organizers

With IU support the SEIU 790 power complex crushed the democratization drives, using repressive tactics to defuse organizing and minimize card signing, including disinformation and threats to members, physical intimidation and mass attack. PEdU organizer Kathy McCallum died of a heart attack shortly after leafleting and collecting PEU card signatures at the Hall of Justice and being confronted and threatened in a parking garage by SEIU partisan Parking Control Officers. On April 13, 2006 dozens of staff and loyalists, including bargaining team members on paid release time, were bussed to SFO airport where they surrounded a PEU information table, chanted, blocked card collections from airport workers for hours, harassed PEU staff and PEdU organizer Lynda McPhee (see photo attachment), who later suffered a stroke and continuing disabilities.

With 30% of bargaining unit employees required to sign cards within a month to qualify for a union certification election, PEdU collected “blue cards” from 10% -12%. The PRNA campaigns in 2006 and 2007 nearly succeeded but fell short of qualifying for elections.

PEdU activists were assessed $1000 fines, suspended and banned from holding union office for life but sustained an Unfair Labor Practices Complaint with the Public Employment Relations Board and reached an agreement that threw out the fines. L1021 has not complied with the provisions for recommendation of reduction of the 4 year suspension period and mailed notice of fine rescissions to the membership.

SEIU/Labor Democracy Issues and Fronts

With the current conflicts in SEIU over governance, centralization and consolidation vs. local control, contract bargaining, organizing principles and practices - and external clashes with the CNA and the Puerto Rico Teachers Union (FMPR) – it is fair and necessary to ask some critical questions. While SMART and L1021 dissidents take a strong stand and raise valid issues of union democracy, they are silent or follow the SEIU line on other issues and sometimes offer confined, superficial or hypocritical analysis. In local and national activism, struggle and debate, we indeed have to ask “What union democracy means?” – and also determine what is actually said and intended behind the rhetoric of "democracy" and "union busting.” These are serious issues for all union members, and we need more open and honest thought, discussion and proposals, particularly from pro-democracy advocates within and outside SEIU.

Where were today's democracy champs during the PEdU revolt in L790/SF and what do they mean now by “democracy”? Many of the same SEIU UHW and 1021 leaders and activists calling for member democracy were involved in or supported breaking and defaming the previous rank and file uprisings. SEIU loyalists denounced pro-democracy dissidents as "traitors" and "felons," and some SEIU staff and leaders including Rosselli smeared their reputations and distorted the campaign as anti-union collaboration with management.

For some the conversion to the gospel of democracy, local autonomy and internal dissent appears to follow personal demotions, loses of power, insider positions and privileges in the 2007 transition from 790 to super-local 1021. The IU trusteeship regime imposed appointed officers for three years and eliminated 790 by-laws, nominal democratic institutions and “member driven” pretense. The chapter delegated governing E-board and regional conferences are replaced by IU appointed and advisory boards and unofficial councils without power or funds. At this point both displaced 790 staff and leaders, who had supported the 1021 merger and statewide ratification, and reform activists who had shunned or declined to join the PEdU uprising, realized the loss of not only local control and power but also what little democracy they had known in 790. So in respect to L1021 union democracy, it’s partly a matter of too little, too late and not missing the water until the well ran dry.

Union democracy or window dressing? Democracies Are (for) Us? Further, for both Stern IU loyalists and dissidents, democracy is apparently fine as an asserted right or aspiration, or for lip service, as long as it's democracy by, for and within SEIU defined and controlled territories and power structures. Without a democratic process for workers’ choice of unions, there is limited potential and stimulus for democracy, transparency, accountability or representation of rank and file priorities and interests; instead members are indefinitely bound to both the employer and existing union with it’s appointed staff, which usually becomes a self-serving bureaucracy. Until rank and file service workers have the opportunity for open union certification elections, as well as election and accountability of staff and international officers, SEIU and other unions are actually practicing business union bureaucracy, monopoly and empire, not democracy.

What do SEIU stalwarts mean by “union busting”? By attacking or raiding other unions while characterizing organizing efforts in SEIU claimed territories as “union busting,” SEIU uses a double standard, as well as intimidation and violence.

SEIU condemns and confronts CNA organizing and outreach to RNs in the medical industry and hospitals where SEIU is attempting to establish exclusive contracts and representation of all medical workers, including RNs, who are not always receptive to such integration under SEIU. A significant portion of RNs in the San Francisco bargaining unit, for example, have been unhappy enough with SEIU representation to support decertification as a transition to either an independent agent or CNA representation.

From its organizing perspective CNA provides RNs an alternative to SEIU employer friendly contracts. As widely reported, when CNA challenged SEIU’s proposed contract with Catholic Healthcare Partners hospitals in Ohio, SEIU responded: first, by deploying partisans to confront and video CNA board members at their residences; then by bussing hundreds to crash the Labor Notes Conference dinner to protest CNA President DeMoro's scheduled, but cancelled speech, resulting in one protestor death and injuries to conference participants. See “Rival Unions Battle in Ohio Over Workers at Hospitals”; CNA website:

Progressive organizations are beginning to criticize and fight SEIU sweetheart deals and alliances with management and truly union busting corporations including Wal-Mart. Of course, labor-management deals and collusion are not endemic to SEIU and Change To Win (CTW) unions but should be recognized and addressed as a general problem or disease of U.S. unions.

A related problem is the Stern IU bureaucracy neo-liberal political program and alliances. For example, while supporting universal “single payer” health care, CNA and progressives in California recently opposed an SEIU political action campaign in collaboration with Governor Schwarzenegger and HMOs to push a phony, employer based (not universal) health insurance plan through the California state legislature. Despite SEIU political contributions, the bill was rejected in committee by both Democrats and Republicans. However, there is clearly a divide on the health care issue between the IU and member activists. The SEIU Convention approved a resolution (including proposals introduced by UHW-East and L1021 delegates) supporting national single payer legislation HR 676, which was previously endorsed by several SEIU locals.

Further, SEIU is no exception to the common practice of inter-union “raids” and competition for unorganized workers. As reported, SEIU leaders are collaborating with Puerto Rico Governor Acevedo Vila to break and replace the independent FMPR with an SEIU affiliated association representing the teachers’ bosses (principals and supervisors). With the volatile SEIU Convention and Puerto Rico presidential primary converging, the labor struggle came to a head and drew national attention with the FMPR holding a May 31 demonstration outside the convention center in San Juan, where SEIU endorsed candidate Barack Obama had been scheduled to deliver the convention keynote address. In a set back to the Stern IU, apparently to avoid being caught in the middle and associated with Acevedo Vila, Obama cancelled his appearance. Besides deploying an army of police, security guards and staff behind a barricaded perimeter, the IU apparently needed help from the governor, who called in the “shock police” Fuerza de Choque to break up the protest, beat up and detain teachers; however, an FMPR “mobile picket-line” penetrated the security zone to leaflet SEIU delegates and raise a “Stop Union Raids” banner. See NY Daily News, New York labor SEIU leader Dennis Rivera in shady Puerto Rico union deal”; Democracy Now! reports:; “Day 1- Teachers meet with SEIU members”

In retrospect of the SEIU gang action at SFO in April 2006, these organized attacks on CNA leaders, Labor Notes Conference participants and Puerto Rico teachers are clearly not isolated incidents but intentional, long term and continuing SEIU intimidation tactics to impose and preserve exclusive, highly lucrative organizing, contract and dues collection territories. While taking a strong public position against such SEIU tactics, SMART stands with SEIU in denouncing CNA “union busting,” and some SMART members supported an SEIU boycott of the Labor Notes Conference dinner. As a caucus SMART has not joined either SEIU dissidents openly criticizing the attack on FMPR teachers or the coalition of progressive unionists and activists supporting FMPR. See “Open Letter to SEIU Members and Leaders on the Violence at the Labor Notes Conference”

“Justice for All”? Again like union democracy, for SEIU loyalists and dissidents external organizing is considered an SEIU exclusive activity and right that can’t be challenged in any established or newly claimed SEIU territory, even though SEIU feels free to violate that principle in other union territories. In these contradictions we are not seeing progressive “Justice for All” in action, rather the “Just Us” brand of myopia denounced by the IU and all.

Against the Dark Side, Now and Then

After all what’s at stake in unionizing hundreds of thousands of workers is beyond a lot of money and power. From the view of progressive labor democracy advocates, prominent critics such as Ralph Nader, former rebels and some enlightened members, SEIU has perfected the art of running a multinational chain of business union locals primarily as dues collection franchises, in which representing and serving the interests of the members, negotiating and enforcing strong contracts are secondary to the primary interests of establishing, increasing and maintaining membership numbers and continuous dues revenue, staff/leadership power structures; management, corporate and political relationships. From this perspective the Stern IU empire features top down, centralized management and control without accountability or transparency, local and industry consolidations, corporate structure and practices, corruption and cronyism, misuse and diversions of funds, rigged or manipulated elections, employer friendly contracts and arrangements that protect and preserve bargaining unit control and stability while selling out the interests of rank and file members and their service communities.

The SEIU Convention roll out of customer services style, IU operated Membership Resource Centers, which by-pass local shop stewards and field representatives, is the latest confirmation and icing on the cake of corporate unionism. With the CTW coalition the Stern IU is at best questionable as a legitimate labor reform leader but more like the Darth Vader or McDonalds of the labor movement. See “Stern Imposes Corporate Model on Union; Sets Up Call Centers to Handle Grievances”

The L790 PEdU/PRNA rebel organizers can be credited with an early vision, analysis and action plan for liberating members from SEIU dictatorship. Questions remain whether they are now vindicated and valued for past actions against the odds for success and self interest, trying to “do the right thing” for workers although losing the fight, and whether they have potential contributions and roles in the current SEIU struggle and labor democracy movement. As former members (suspended or fee payers), they were generally ostracized by the 790/1021 faithful but retain degrees of respect and influence in their workplaces and bargaining units.

In 2006 PEdU reformers turned to another union partly because they could not foresee current developments and potential for democratic, member directed change within SEIU. Their assessment of SEIU’s authoritarian power structure and self serving operations remains essentially accurate to the extent the IU regime has consolidated and retains power.

However, the SEIU internal and external political landscape, opposition options and potential outcomes are now substantially altered and expanded. Clearly, the Stern IU empire and organizing program are being widely criticized and resisted, precisely because of their undemocratic, top-down, capitalist nature in collusion with management, corporations and politicians at all levels. The reports and articles referenced in this analysis come from a constant stream flowing on line and in corporate and labor media, relating the issues of small “d” democracy, alternative organizing and opposition to the perceived corruption and devolution of SEIU and other unions from the primary organized labor mission, history, principles and practices of solidarity, collective bargaining, member representation and mobilization.

The pro-democracy insurgency within SEIU should be viewed and evaluated as a legitimate, widespread and growing challenge to the Stern IU regime and it’s supposed leadership of the labor reform movement, as well as a direct repudiation of Stern’s contention that “members don’t want democracy, they want good contracts.” Apparently there is significant member activism with shared expectation of both a) democratic determination and participation in contract negotiations and the issues and organizing activity that effect and improve their work, lives and communities; and b) contracts with cost of living wage increases, progressive benefits and working conditions, as well as effective contract enforcement.

Another urgent national and local labor problem for further discussion is the continuing reactionary attack on public services and public employee unions through budget cuts, contracting out, privatization and union busting. An extreme example, which may be followed by other municipal governments, is Vallejo, CA where City management, some Council members and activists have organized sufficient support to effectively scapegoat public safety unions for decades of fiscal mismanagement. Rather than raise revenue and take other responsible measures to balance a projected budget deficit, the City recently filed for bankruptcy to void the four public employee union contracts (the unions are contesting the action). Yet the SEIU Convention ignored the imperative issues of a) fight back mobilization against anti-union attacks and public service/staffing reductions; b) opposition to the Iraq/Afghanistan occupations and unlimited funding of U.S militarism and empire.

For more information and background see SEIU democracy reform websites:;;; (not current),

Bob English
CCSF public service worker, former SEIU 790 chapter delegate and coordinating committee, PEdU founding member; community radio activist with Peoples Radio and Coalition for a democratic Pacifica, former KPFA/Pacifica Local Station Board candidate.

Rex Spray
RN CBHS, former elected SEIU 790 President, PRNA Secretary, PEdU founding member;

Linda Jang
Retired CCSF public service worker, former elected SEIU 790 Trustee and shop steward;

Sylvia Alvarez-Lynch
CCSF public service worker, former SEIU 790 chapter vice president, shop steward, Executive Board and SF Labor Council delegate, PEdU founding member; community activist.

Kathy McCallum and Maria Martinez
Public Employees for a democratic Union

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Lynda McPhee
Fri, Jul 25, 2008 6:38PM
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