SEIU's Andy Stern threatens the Prog agenda

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SEIU Leadership Damage Report

Over the past several weeks, SEIU – arguably the nation’s most politically powerful union and the most prominent financial patron of the U.S. progressive movement – has been rocked by a series of scandals that call into question the basic integrity of the organization's leadership and threaten many of the progressive causes in which SEIU has become an integral player. The widening web of serious financial improprieties alleged in a stunning series of investigative reports by LA Times writer Paul Pringle, compiled here, involves high ranking officers of SEIU, all of whom are personal protégés and appointees of SEIU President Andy Stern and SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger.

At the heart of these scandals is not the series of corrupt acts uncovered by Pringle, but Stern and Burger’s relentless drive to consolidate decision-making power among a small group of appointed leaders and staff and to eliminate any possible base of political opposition to their direction for the union, regardless of the costs to SEIU members and other working families. These costs include the theft of hard-earned union dues from $9.00 an hour homecare workers, long term reputational damage to SEIU and the labor movement as a whole, and negative consequences for progressive candidates and causes that Stern and Burger purport to champion.

In order to eliminate the most prominent whistleblowers in SEIU and divert attention from the growing scandals engulfing them and their hand-picked leaders all in one move, Stern and Burger announced on the first night of the Democratic Convention that they were calling hearings on September 22nd and 23rd to seek an International Union takeover of United Healthcare Workers - West (UHW). The main pretext for these trusteeship hearings against UHW is a recycled set of charges, already refuted thoroughly before. Labor journalist Steve Early, who has written extensively on Stern's ongoing efforts to suppress UHW's dissent, gives detailed background in a new CounterPunch article cross-posted on OpenLeft.

A politically-motivated trusteeship of UHW would consolidate the anti-democratic trend in SEIU and greatly elevate the threat it poses to labor and the broader progressive movement. The International Union’s top staff and massive resources from across the nation would be bogged down, a month before the November election, in an all out civil war that will compound the damage that’s already been done and seriously weaken us all for years to come. It's time for progressive voices to join UHW members in opposing this disastrous trusteeship threat and call for a peaceful resolution of the dispute within SEIU before it’s too late.

SEIU Leadership Scandals Hurt the Progressive Agenda

By renewing its trusteeship threat against UHW, Stern and Burger seek to obscure the pattern of corruption among their hand-picked appointees. Key articles in Pringle's LA Times series expose their alleged misdeeds:

* Tyrone Freeman, President of SEIU Local 6434, the LA-based homecare and nursing home workers union, was forced to step aside pending investigations by the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Attorney¹s Office, the IRS, and the FBI regarding at least $1 million in misspending, including hundreds of thousands of dollars of payments to firms run by his wife, his mother-in-law and other relatives and friends for questionable services. See LA Times 8/21/08 "Tyrone Freeman steps aside as head of SEIU chapter"

* Rickman Jackson, President of SEIU Healthcare Michigan and former Chief of Staff to Tyrone Freeman, was forced to step aside pending an investigation of financial improprieties surrounding his LA home and continued pay from Freeman’s union after he moved to Michigan. See LA Times 8/26/08 "SEIU spending scandal spreads to Michigan"

* Annelle Grajeda, SEIU International Executive Vice President, SEIU California State Council President, and former President of SEIU Local 721, the LA-based public employee union, was forced to step aside pending an investigation of the multiple salaries paid to her long-time (now apparently former) boyfriend, Alejandro Stephens. See LA Times 8/31/08 "3rd California union leader gives up post"
These scandals are wreaking havoc inside SEIU, occupying much of its top elected leadership and staff, and calling into question its capacity to deliver widely publicized commitments of $150 million and half of the union’s staff time to achieve key progressive goals in the November election and its aftermath.

Perhaps more importantly, these scandals are creating prime fodder for Republican talking points that will be used to drag down vital progressive causes, including the drive to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, the fight for national healthcare reform, and the necessary prerequisites to these objectives: the election of Barack Obama to the White House, a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate, and a larger and more progressive majority in the U.S. House.

Over the past year, Open Left readers have participated in the increasingly heated public debate over Stern and Burger’s direction, which has come under sharp criticism inside SEIU, elsewhere in the labor movement, and among a growing number of progressive activists and academics. Stern and Burger’s critics argue they are silencing union members’ voices in order to pursue corporate-friendly, top-down deals that sacrifice workers’ and consumers’ interests without producing significant union growth or building the kind of deep organization that can withstand inevitable realignments of interests among the union and its business and political “partners”.
Critics say that this direction has led Stern and Burger to appoint leaders like Freeman, Jackson, and Grajeda to head newly consolidated, giant local unions where rank-and file input is weak, democratic accountability is non-existent, and the only individuals to whom these local leaders are truly accountable – Stern and Burger themselves – are willing to tolerate and cover up corruption in order to maintain strict political control.

Rather than engage in an honest reckoning about the damage their direction has caused SEIU, the labor movement, and progressives more generally, Stern and Burger are now launching a new public relations offensive and falsely positioning themselves as the cavalry riding in to save SEIU members from any and all forces of corruption, when the real problem is the culture of corruption they themselves have created.

Stern and Burger's latest crisis communications move was to announce the creation of an ethics commission charged with establishing new rules of conduct for SEIU officers and staff, but one union democracy advocate whose organization Stern invoked in promoting the initiative was thoroughly incredulous in an interview with the LA Times published in the September 4th story, "SEIU president says he will seek aid from labor reform groups"

“Why does he need a new code of ethics?” said Herman Benson, founder of the Association for Union Democracy, adding in words that might be applied to Stern and Burger as well as their protégés, “People didn't know that what they were doing was wrong? It's preposterous.”

Preposterous indeed, given that the most important ethical questions immediately at stake are, “What did Andy Stern and Anna Burger know and when did they know it?” and “Why did Andy Stern and Anna Burger appoint and promote individuals they knew or should have known were corrupt, regardless of the consequences for SEIU’s members and the progressive movement?”

Ken Paff of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, another leading union reformer whose organization was referenced in SEIU’s press release also balked at SEIU’s cover up, saying the union should have taken action against Freeman’s corruption long ago and asking, “How could they not know?”

As reported earlier in the LA Times story "U.S. investigates L.A.-based union's election," sources have related their knowledge of an SEIU cover up of Freeman’s corruption as long as six years ago. Additionally, top SEIU staffers have been intimately involved in the workings of all of the local unions under scrutiny as part of organizing and bargaining efforts directed by the International Union and the re-organization of local jurisdiction and establishment of new local leadership in both California and Michigan.

The New York Times on September 3rd quoted an e-mail from senior SEIU Justice for Janitors staffer Jono Shaffer (on whom Adrien Brody’s character in the movie “Bread and Roses” was based) writing about the crisis in Local 6434, “I wish I could say this is unbelievable, but for those of us in Southern California, the only surprise is that it took so long to make it to the public.”

Stern and Burger’s plans for the future of SEIU are evident in their renewed efforts to remove the democratically elected leaders of UHW, whose members have led the opposition to their direction and, as a result, have already faced months of aggressive retaliation, including bogus lawsuits, attacks in the press, and millions of dollars in direct mail, phone calls, and SEIU staff work to discredit UHW’s leaders.
SEIU's upcoming trusteeship hearings are based mainly on the charge that UHW set up a non-profit organization, the United Health Care Workers and Patients Education Fund, for the purpose of defending itself against a trusteeship. The facts are that the fund was set up as a financial vehicle in which, ultimately, union dues could be combined with outside contributions to support a potential healthcare ballot initiative, to pursue the objectives of the union’s unprecedented 2008 contract campaign, to promote UHW’s vision of member-led democratic unionism, and to support other public education efforts on behalf of healthcare workers and consumers. UHW months ago provided SEIU with a full accounting of the expenditures of the fund, which has long since been disbanded, and no question has been raised of any self-dealing or use of union dues for impermissible purposes.

SEIU’s main claim is that the fund was actually created to set aside financial resources that would remain under the control of UHW’s current leaders even in the event of a trusteeship. However, since the fund’s Board of Directors was composed solely of UHW Executive Board members, its assets could not have escaped the reach of a trustee. In the event of a lawful trusteeship, these assets would have been found to be union property and placed under the trustee’s control.

SEIU also places great weight behind the argument that a significant portion of the fund’s resources were transferred to it from the union a week after the legislative healthcare reform package we had hoped to place on the ballot died in the California State Senate. Regrettably, the Washington attorneys and spin doctors who cooked up this attack display their ignorance of the fact that talks continued between the union, key healthcare providers, and elected officials about the possibility of reformulating a healthcare initiative that we could jointly petition onto the ballot after the date of the money transfer.

Interestingly, SEIU’s false charge itself highlights a challenge for union reformers that Herman Benson calls, “a Catch-22 dilemma: the local in effect is threatened with a trusteeship for taking steps to defend itself against the imposition of a trusteeship,” a trusteeship that Benson further characterizes as being threatened, “for politically repressive objectives,” the most egregious of which was to move 65,000 homecare and nursing home workers out of UHW against their will into a long term care union that Tyrone Freeman was slated to lead.

SEIU’s newer and lesser charges against UHW include:

* a false claim that $500,000 was improperly set aside in trust to pay UHW Leaders’ legal fees, although the trust is constructed specifically so that the funds would remain at the disposal of the local’s lawful leaders, including an SEIU trustee if a lawful trusteeship were imposed;

* a false claim that UHW’s communication with other SEIU leaders to provide them our perspective on the scandals and struggles within our union – after months of our members receiving harshly negative communications attacking UHW leaders from the International Union and local unions across the country – constitutes unlawful use of SEIU’s proprietary data; and

* a false claim that two rank-and-file UHW leaders democratically voted out of their previous facility-level leadership positions by their co-workers on their own initiative were somehow subject to retaliation from UHW’s top officers.
For the moment, Stern and Burger appear determined to go forward with placing UHW in trusteeship, regardless of the facts (and regardless of their claims and those of their top staff to the contrary only several weeks ago). Like the worst employers in an anti-union campaign, they know very well that as a matter of law, it is easier for them to break UHW now and take a slap on the wrist later, if at all.

Thankfully, the battle for democratic control of UHW rests largely in the hands of UHW members and their supporters.

In June, 7,000 UHW homecare members, consumers and families rallied across the state against Governor Schwarzenegger’s threats to homecare services and Stern and Burger’s efforts to move them out of UHW against their will. Last month, 6,000 UHW members protested at an SEIU California Long Term Care Jurisdictional Hearing called to take next steps in dismantling the local. This Sunday, 4,000 UHW members will rally for one statewide healthcare union at the local’s annual Leadership Conference in San Jose. Thousands more UHW members can be expected to mobilize for the trusteeship proceedings, whose location remains secret, a hallmark of the anti-democratic style that has become the norm in SEIU. Thousands more still, indeed the vast majority of UHW members, will make their voices heard in the weeks ahead, insisting that their union remain under their control, and pledging their commitment to keep up the fight.
We ask our fellow progressives of good conscience to join us.

- Shayne Silva, Psychiatric Technician, Alta Bates


1 comment:

Unknown said...

The majority of the left did not debate how to hold the leadership to account, or how to win this dispute. Just calling for more all-out action, or saying “wait until October when we can unite with others”, isn’t a strategy. The lack of a real rank and file mechanism for bringing together local government activists across unions, branches and regions has helped the "leadership" get away with this.
Mathew Hadley

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