Breakaway Union Exposes Labor Rift
Some Fear Loss of Unity at Crucial Time

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

The leaders of one of the largest chapters of the Service Employees International Union, the nation's fastest-growing and most influential labor organization, broke off from the parent organization yesterday to form a new union, bringing to a head a nasty brawl that could hurt labor's efforts to unite around major pro-union legislation pending before Congress.

Sal Rosselli, longtime president of a Northern California-based SEIU chapter with 150,000 members, said that more than 100 officers and board members from his unit voted to form a new union. Dozens of them were barricaded inside their five buildings yesterday awaiting attempts by the SEIU to remove them. He said the new union would try over time to win back the nursing-home, hospital and home-care aides the local chapter represents.

The move occurs a day after the SEIU, led by President Andy Stern, replaced the leadership of the Northern California local, citing allegations of misuse of union money for political purposes, as well as the chapter's refusal to go along with a plan to move 65,000 of its members into a different local.

Rosselli disputed the financial allegations, saying they were trumped up. A report by former labor secretary Ray Marshall, whom Stern selected to investigate the dispute, said that questions about the use of money did not justify a takeover, but that the refusal to go along with the reorganization plan did.

Underlying the dispute is a long-running philosophical clash. Rosselli has accused Stern of centralizing authority at the expense of workers' democratic rights and of cutting weak deals with employers and politicians to increase his numbers. Stern has defended his approach, saying it is necessary to expand the 1.7 million-member union at a time when most others are shrinking.

Rosselli said yesterday that the takeover would damage the labor movement's push for the Employee Free Choice Act, a controversial bill that would make it easier to organize workers. "This is gong to distract in a huge way," he said.

Eliseo Medina, a top SEIU official appointed as one of the two "trustees" to take over the local, dismissed that. "Having this kind of fight obviously doesn't help," he said. "But we're a big organization and can do more than one thing at a time."

Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California at Berkeley whom President Obama considered for labor secretary, said the labor movement has reason to be worried. "You've got tough warfare on the horizon for these two units and distractions for the movement in general," he said.

Rose Ann DeMoro, president of the California Nurses Association, which has battled with Stern, was more blunt, saying that the case for expanding worker rights was undercut by the spectacle of the ouster of a big local's elected leaders.

"It's going to decimate" the legislation, she said. "The Republicans and the employers are laughing. This is their dream."

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