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Troubles in Service Workers' Union May Dim Hopes for Labor

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009

President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for labor secretary will go before Congress today embodying the hopes of a movement that views Obama's victory as a chance to reverse years of union decline. But labor's prospects are already being shadowed by controversies besetting the Service Employees International Union, the country's fastest-growing union and one that has gone from being seen as a savior of the movement to a favored target of its opponents.

The SEIU is contending with corruption allegations involving several appointees of President Andy Stern, including the president of a Los Angeles local who was fired for allegedly funneling money to his relatives and friends.

The union has also been linked to the federal investigation into Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who was taped speculating about getting a job with an SEIU-led labor alliance and who met with a top SEIU official to discuss filling Obama's Senate seat. There is no allegation of SEIU wrongdoing, but the episode has drawn attention to the union's reliance on cultivating politicians.

A power struggle in the union is also coming to a head, with the SEIU board voting today on whether to break up a large Northern California branch at odds with Stern.

Labor supporters invested heavily in the 2008 election and are thrilled with Obama's nomination of Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-Calif.), who grew up in a union family. But they worry that the SEIU controversies will deplete support for their agenda in Washington, including in a looming battle over the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to form.

The bill, dubbed "card check," would make it possible to form a union by collecting cards from a majority of workers, rather than through a secret-ballot election. Business groups say this would expose workers to union intimidation, while unions contend that the current system leads to unfair pressure from employers before elections. Union leaders cite such pressure as a reason why organized labor has shrunk to representing 7 percent of private-sector workers.

Herman Benson, founder of the Association for Union Democracy, a pro-labor watchdog group, said the SEIU controversies and its move against the Northern California chapter, in particular, are a "serious problem" for labor.

"What they are doing is giving ammunition to right-wing anti-labor forces by denying their own members the same rights that they are asking Congress to give workers," he said.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said the problems at the SEIU would not help the card-check bill, which he said he hopes will still pass. It "doesn't make it any easier, but you can't overlook the fundamental need for this legislation," he said.

Miller's committee began an inquiry into the Los Angeles local, which, with a related charity, allegedly gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to firms owned by the wife and mother-in-law of the local's president, Tyrone Freeman; $16,000 to a minor league basketball team coached by Freeman's brother-in-law; and $219,000 to a video company run by his friend, an ex-union staffer. The former chief of staff of the local was removed from office over $33,500 in rent payments he allegedly received. The head of the SEIU's California council went on leave amid allegations that her ex-boyfriend was paid for a no-show job at the union.

SEIU leaders say they were unaware of the corruption allegations before they were reported last year in the Los Angeles Times. The FBI and the Labor Department are investigating.

In Illinois, the SEIU has contributed $1.8 million to Blagojevich's campaigns, and he signed executive orders making tens of thousands of home health-care workers and child-care workers eligible for collective bargaining. The SEIU organized those workers and has been hoping that Blagojevich would sign another order regarding home-care workers for the developmentally disabled.

"What we're seeing with SEIU is increasingly the modus operandi of organized labor," said Stefan H. Gleason of National Right to Work, an anti-labor group. "It's an increasing emphasis on gaining special privileges from politicians, the chief aim of which is . . . to turn more people into forced dues-paying members."

Stern dismisses such charges from anti-labor groups as a sign of the SEIU's success. "They can't win on the issues, they can't have a discussion on the merits, so they're going to try to demonize people," he said in a phone interview. "I wish it wasn't me they were picking on, but if it wasn't me, it would be someone else."

Stern has received credit for the rapid growth of the SEIU, which includes 1.7 million members. In 2005, Stern declared that the AFL-CIO had grown too complacent and broke off to form a new coalition, Change to Win, that he said would invest more in organizing and political activism. He also formed unlikely alliances with corporate foes, such as Wal-Mart, to call for health-care reform.

But critics within the labor movement say his top-down approach has undercut rank-and-file members and reduced the accountability of chapter leaders such as those he appointed in Los Angeles. Sal Rosselli, head of the dissident Northern California local, argues that Stern has given up too much in the deals he has cut with governors and businesses, all to increase his numbers. Stern says unions must try everything they can to sign up workers, rather than just guard the gains of existing members.

Today's SEIU vote would bust Rosselli's local by breaking off nearly half of its 150,000 members into a new chapter combining all long-term care workers in California. The SEIU is also threatening to seize control of Rosselli's local over charges that it misused funds for political purposes, which Rosselli denies. The battle involves the constituents of key players in Washington -- Solis, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Miller, who said many of his constituents are "deeply concerned that their union is being ripped apart by [Stern's] proposal."

To proceed with breaking up his local at the same time as pushing for worker democracy in Washington is "hypocritical," Rosselli said.

Obama's election "is a once-in-70-year opportunity to achieve major reform and progress for working people, and this has the potential to just totally derail it," Rosselli said.

Rose Ann DeMoro, head of the California Nurses Association, an SEIU rival, called Stern a "liability" for Obama. "SEIU is the new poster child for bad union behavior and symbolizes the worst of the labor movement," she said. "The Teamsters used to be notorious; SEIU makes them look like choirboys."

Stern says the SEIU has strong enough ties in Congress to assure that criticism from within the movement will not stand in the way of major labor legislation. "This is 535 people who we have real relationships with," he said, "and none of them have called and said SEIU is not a democratic union."

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