An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Service Employees International Union spokesman Andrew McDonald.
A Leader, His Critics And a Union Divided
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Three years ago, Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern fomented an uprising against the AFL-CIO. Decrying the decline of membership and lack of focus on organizing, Stern marched a dissident coalition out of the 50th anniversary of the largest labor group in the United States.
This week, a faction of Stern's union plans its own uprising, not to secede, but to take a stand against Stern at the group's 24th quadrennial convention, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Its charges: In Stern's quest to build the ranks of a movement that has dwindled to less than 8 percent of U.S. private-sector workers, he has crossed the line from leader to autocrat and consolidated power in Washington away from the local chapters.
According to his critics, Stern has made deals behind closed doors with corporations, keeping members in the dark about the trade-offs he has agreed to.
He has quashed dissenting locals by merging them or effectively taking control of them by placing them into trusteeship, they say. He has also made it difficult for locals to file grievances, critics say, effectively stifling the most powerful tool union members have: their voices.
Stern does not deny making the confidential agreements with employers, and he referred questions to his spokesman.
"A million workers have been united in our union since 1996, which may be the biggest organizing success in the American labor union in decades," said SEIU spokesman Andrew MacDonald. "It is these kind of agreements that help a large number of workers win a voice on the job . . . especially low-paid people in the service areas of the economy. We don't think those people should be left out of having the opportunity to have a union just because it's hard to make it happen."
But Stern's antagonists want to draw the line on his methods, which they say highlight a fundamental philosophical difference over how unions should work and how they should serve workers who already belong and those they are trying to attract.
"Corporate unionism is the term we use to describe what [Stern] is doing," said Sal Rosselli, who heads SEIU's third-largest local -- the 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers West in California -- and who is leading a push at the meeting to change the way SEIU leaders are chosen by members and how they represent their interests. "It's like a corporation where a few make decisions for an entire company. We believe in social unionism, which is a bottom-up movement."
The opposition to Stern heated up this month after the Wall Street Journal reported on meetings that Stern's leadership held with Sodexo, the Compass Group USA and Aramark during which they mapped out terms allowing food, laundry and housekeeping workers to unionize. The SEIU has since had a falling out with Aramark.
The agreements spelled out the number of workers who would be eligible and at which locations they would be permitted to organize. Although union experts said it was unusual for companies to have a say in such organizing details, Stern has said that the confidential terms of the agreement, which were leaked to the media, were justified because they would create local unions where none exist now and would boost overall membership.
But the animosity between Stern and Rosselli, whom Stern once appointed to the SEIU's executive committee, has grown since Stern spoiled the AFL-CIO's party three years ago. This year, Stern sent a letter to Rosselli, alleging various kinds of misconduct, such as interfering with members' collective bargaining rights, unethical conduct and fiduciary irresponsibility. Rosselli said the accusations are a move to take over his UHW and appoint Stern's own leaders to the local.
Rosselli resigned from the SEIU executive committee and set up SEIUvoice.org, a Web site with largely anti-Stern content. Stern launched his own: SEIUfactchecker.org.
This week, Rosselli brings one of the largest contingents of SEIU members to Puerto Rico, where they will propose a series of reforms designed to return control of the union to its members. Among them: eliminating the delegate system of electing SEIU leadership and instead allowing members to vote directly for president. The group also wants to give locals a greater say when national leaders try to merge them.
Rosselli has modest expectations for the challenge he will mount at the convention but greater optimism beyond.
"We don't expect to win any votes on our proposed changes to the [SEIU] constitution," Rosselli said. "Our definition of victory is to come out of Puerto Rico with more support from more unions across the country than we have going into it. We're looking at San Juan being day one of the new phase of reform within the union movement."
Richard Hurd, a labor studies professor at Cornell University, said Stern's push to strengthen union leadership while boosting membership reflected a national trend among unions to restructure locals along industry lines. The theory is, with employers becoming increasingly globalized, combining workers under larger industry umbrellas gives them greater leverage.
"It's fair to ask, 'Are these agreements good enough?' " Hurd said. "But it's not as simple as it seems. It's a struggle between two powerful leaders over who's going to get their way. Both of their reasons make sense to someone on the outside."