Stern warning

Former SEIU state council questions role of national union president Andy Stern in Schwarzenegger health-care reform

Since Andy Stern became president of the SEIU, it’s become the fastest growing union in the country. But some California union members wonder if Stern has become too powerful.

Since Andy Stern became president of the SEIU, it’s become the fastest growing union in the country. But some California union members wonder if Stern has become too powerful.

Photo Courtesy Of seiu

This story was revised on 02/29/2008.

Since taking over the helm of the Service Employees International Union in 1996, president Andy Stern has earned a reputation as an aggressive organizer, transforming the SEIU, which represents some 2 million health-care and service-industry employees, into North America’s fastest growing union. But accompanying Stern’s rise to national prominence has been increasing talk that he sometimes treats local union officials harshly. That’s a side of the charismatic union leader that Sal Rosselli says he knows all too well.

In December, Rosselli resigned from his post as state council president of SEIU. Earlier this month, he resigned from the SEIU’s executive committee, a high-level board that advises Stern. In his February 9 resignation letter, Rosselli cited as one of his main reasons for departing alleged closed-door negotiations between Stern and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the governor’s failed health-care reform plan. In fact, Rosselli gives Stern partial credit for the plan’s failure.

“Your secret meetings with Governor Schwarzenegger and other elected officials, without the participation of SEIU California leaders, fatally weakened our many years of disciplined work to bring about true health-care reform,” Rosselli wrote. “Those secret discussions with the governor and his staff led them to believe that SEIU—and the labor movement along with us—would settle for far less than was necessary to protect the interests of working families or to win the support of California’s voters.”

In California, every fifth person—20 percent of the population—lacks health insurance. Assembly Bill X1-1, the health-care reform plan negotiated by the governor and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez at the end of 2007, failed to clear the state Senate last month, in part because legislators worried that mandating low-income workers to buy health-care insurance was unfair—a view that Rosselli and other local union members shared.

Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Sabrina Lockhart acknowledged that Stern and the governor met about health care. “The governor did meet to discuss health-care reform with Andy Stern, as he did with a number of stakeholders,” Lockhart said. “No policy was more public than the governor’s health-care reform.”

Rosselli, who remains president of Oakland-based United Healthcare Workers West/SEIU, claims that Stern refused to discuss the issue with him or other local union leaders. Responding on behalf of Stern, the SEIU national press office said Stern was on vacation and declined to comment for this story. But Dave Regan, a member of the SEIU executive committee from which Rosselli also recently resigned, questioned Rosselli’s claims that health-care negotiations took place in secret.

In 2005, Sal Rosselli led SEIU members in a strike against Sacramento-based health-care giant Sutter Health.

Photo Courtesy Of seiu

“Sal’s claims are dishonest and false,” said Regan, who serves as president of SEIU District 1199, which represents 35,000 health-care and public employees in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. “Andy Stern had meetings with Schwarzenegger with Rosselli’s full knowledge.”

Rosselli said Regan was off-point.

“Regan is personally attacking me and not dealing with the real issues, such as SEIU members making decisions about their union,” Rosselli countered.

Concern over the high cost of the bill’s insurance premiums took center stage at a late January hearing of the state Senate Health Committee, chaired by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles). Under the dark shadow of a $14.5 billion state budget deficit (which has since risen to $16 billion), the 11 lawmakers listened as Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill raised doubts about the bill’s estimated premiums, concluding that the numbers didn’t add up. A majority of committee members, including Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who is the incoming Senate Pro Tem, agreed with Hill and killed the bill.

That leaves some 7 million Californians without insurance as the housing market crashes, paychecks shrink and health-care prices continue to climb. According to the January Consumer Price Index, the rate rose 5.1 percent during the past three months. If ABX1-1 had been approved and signed into law by the governor, Californians would have voted on the bill’s financing method in the November election. Now, with the state’s finances deteriorating and the ranks of the uninsured continuing to swell, lawmakers have been forced to cut more than a half-billion dollars of payments to doctors who care for low-income Medi-Cal patients.

For Rosselli, what’s at stake is the union’s traditional bottom-up, grass-roots approach to organizing, which focuses on negotiating local contracts, vs. Stern’s top-down management style, which focuses more on increasing the rank-and-file membership nationally. As head of the nation’s largest and fastest growing union, Stern carries considerable political heft; the union’s endorsement—granted to Barack Obama last week—is coveted by Democratic presidential candidates. Rosselli worries that Stern’s growing national clout has at the same time weakened the position of local bargaining units, as the SEIU seeks to consolidate its power.

Stern has “silenced” workers’ voices in bargaining with the California Nursing Home Alliance and weakened contract talks with for-profit and nonprofit employers such as Tenet Healthcare and Catholic Healthcare West, according to Rosselli.

Despite criticism from local members, Andy Stern remains one of the most prominent union leaders in the country.

Photo Courtesy Of seiu

Martha Vazquez, a radiology technician at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Stockton and an elected executive board member of the state SEIU-UHW bargaining team, concurs. She recently received a letter from Anna Burger, secretary treasurer for the national union, calling for further consolidation in bargaining due to “internal structural needs in organizing.”

In Chicago on February 12, Regan of the national SEIU emphasized a new plan to coordinate bargaining and organizing policies. By contrast, the UHW prefers local union negotiators such as Vazquez, who the rank-and-file elects, to national leaders whom Stern appoints.

“There’s only so much power you want to give a president like Andy Stern,” Vazquez said.

Sharon Martinez is a medical transcriptionist and an elected shop steward for UHW at Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital. For the past six years, she has actively bargained with management for increased wages, health care and retirement benefits. She sees trouble ahead if the national union successfully ousts elected union negotiators.

“We could vote yes or no on a contract without knowing what’s in it,” Martinez said. “That bothers me a lot, as it is about our families, jobs and patients.”

Regan defended the SEIU’s approach, insisting that state and local leaders have been included in the process, contrary to Rosselli’s claims.

“That charge is the most dishonest in a slew of dishonest allegations of Rosselli’s,” said Regan. “He has been a part of the decision-making process over the past 12 years of SEIU’s growth.”

“I have been involved,” Rosselli said, “and over the past three years, I have been voting against the top-down deals with employers that increase the numbers of new union members with compromised worker bargaining rights and standards.”

One million new members have joined SEIU over the past 10 years, Regan said. According to U.S. Labor Department statistics, last year for the first time in a quarter-century, American unions grew, adding roughly 310,000 workers. However, the vast bulk of the nation’s labor force still works for nonunion, private employers.

“They now have a chance to improve their lives, given the crisis facing American labor unions,” Regan said. “For Rosselli to cast suspicion on that is wrong.”