SEIU's California collectivism in meltdown

Leaders of California's largest and most influential healthcare union are embroiled in an intense power struggle that could affect the shape of any deal lawmakers reach this year to overhaul the state's healthcare system.

The SEIU California State Council - the umbrella group for the local chapters of the Service Employees International Union - has been one of the biggest pockets of resistance to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's attempt to require all Californians to obtain medical insurance. With 600,000 members across California and tremendous influence among Democratic legislators, SEIU can make or break any deal negotiated by Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders.

While enthusiastic about the goal of securing coverage for the 5 million Californians who now are uninsured, Sal Rosselli - the president of an Oakland-based SEIU local as well as the state council - has insisted that any deal fully protect middle-class residents from having to pay premiums they may not be able to afford or forcing them to buy bare-bones policies.

But through a labor fight that has been more than a year in the making, Rosselli may be removed as president of the state council as early as this morning, two years before his term is scheduled to expire, according to union officials.

Many of the issues involved in the action have more to do with internal union politics about labor's direction than with the healthcare battle, but the leadership change could have substantial consequences. The potential new leaders are more eager than Rosselli and longtime Executive Director Dean Tipps to cut a deal with Schwarzenegger -- in part to help advance their campaign to overhaul healthcare nationally.

That has been the view of Andy Stern, the president of the international union, who has personally expressed to the governor's office his frustration with the stance of California SEIU leaders, according to people familiar with the discussions.

"Our experience in SEIU and across the country is you don't have to have the perfect bullet to slay the dragon," said Tyrone Freeman, president of the Los Angeles-based SEIU chapter representing 170,000 home care and nursing home workers.

Asked about the move to change leadership, Freeman said Rosselli had often acted based on "his ideological belief about how things ought to happen with the de facto inclusion of other leaders."

He disputed assertions of Rosselli's allies that Stern was masterminding the leadership change. "It would be more of a story of Tyrone Freeman and Sal Rosselli," Freeman said. "I have a very big local that is bigger than his. We've got impact, and we just believe things ought to be done differently."

The president of the state council is elected by the local chapters. Rosselli declined to discuss the leadership fight, saying in a brief telephone interview, "The agreements I've made with people is to try to deal with these things internally."

Rosselli said it would be a major mistake to approve Schwarzenegger's proposed healthcare overhaul without adding substantial protections for families -- a view in line with those other major California labor leaders, including Art Pulaski, the leader of the California Labor Federation.

Rosselli said that whatever deal is passed will have to go on the ballot next year, and said SEIU's extensive polling and past experiences with similar fights in California have convinced him that Schwarzenegger's version will not pass.

"People won't vote for something they can't afford or something that's not defined," he said, referring to the provisions in Schwarzenegger's plan that would assign state officials the role of deciding what benefits insurers would have to include in plans they offered to people.

Stern was on a flight to Los Angeles on Thursday and not available for comment, his office said. He is scheduled to appear at a downtown luncheon of the Asia Society, a nonprofit dedicated to improving relations between people in the United States and Asia. A spokesman said Stern was not engineering the leadership change.

The leadership fight comes after more than a year of struggles and reorganizations of SEIU in California, part of a larger battle over the direction of the union everywhere. Stern has been pushing to centralize union actions on the theory that local unions have lost much of their leverage to negotiate labor deals with national and global corporations, according to Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor history professor at UC Santa Barbara.

But some local unions have bristled at his approach. They also complained that Stern has been too willing to sign weak labor agreements with companies in order to organize their workers. Rosselli and Stern clashed directly over what labor agreements should be struck with nursing home chains, according to an article in the Bay Area's SF Weekly last April.

The difference has extended to politics as well, where California's SEIU leadership in Sacramento has taken a much more aggressive posture than the national SEIU has in Washington under Stern.

As part of Stern's plan, several California SEIU locals consolidated last year, and Stern appointed interim leaders of the new chapters.

The presidents of the locals have moved to establish a new state council and elect a new president, something that Rosselli's allies call a veiled attempt to dislodge him from his leadership role and part of Stern's broader movement to wrest power from the local unions.

Council presidents serve four-year terms, so were it not for this move Rosselli would remain at the helm until 2009. If he is replaced, Rosselli would continue to serve as president of his 130,000 member local and remain on the state council.The council is scheduled to convene Tuesday, but late Thursday, Annelle Grajeda, the only candidate to replace Rosselli, called a state council meeting to be conducted via a conference call at 7:30 this morning, according to an SEIU e-mail obtained by The Times.

Grajeda, whom Stern elevated to interim president of a Southern California local representing public service workers, is said to favor a more conciliatory approach to healthcare negotiations than Rosselli's. Before her elevation she had not been elected to the presidency of a local but had served as the top staff member for a decade.


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