The SEIU strikes back

A conflicted committee nixes an election complaint as tensions grow at SF's big union local
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jesse@sfbg.com

The Rhode Island Street headquarters for Local 1021 of the giant Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had several surprise visitors April 14. First, International President Andy Stern arrived from Washington DC to speak with the local's executive board.

Then, after word of Stern's last minute appearance got out, a group of 20 activists from Oakland–based SEIU affiliate United Healthcare Workers West (UHW) attempted to enter the building and confront Stern about what they perceive to be his anti-democratic administration. They were barred from the meeting. When the Guardian attempted to gain entrance, we were twice escorted to the exit by 1021 staffers. A source inside the union said Stern left through a back door during lunchtime.

Stern's visit and the dissidents' foiled attempt to meet him reflect the high level of tension inside SEIU these days. As it prepares to vote on several democratic reform measures at a convention in early June, internal fault lines have split the 1.9 million-member union.

As we reported last week ("Hard Labor," 4/9/08) Stern loyalists have pushed the boundaries of union rules, and perhaps even federal law, to beat back the slate of reforms championed by UHW's dissident leader, Sal Rosselli.

Now, in response to our reporting and to Rosselli's movement, leaders inside the labor giant apparently have gone into full damage-control mode.

In fact, an election committee that appears to have been hand-picked by Local 1021's president already rejected an internal complaint about the election process — and critics are calling foul.

WHO'S A MEMBER?

Two weeks ago, the Guardian reported on a controversial batch of e-mails among SEIU officials. Calling themselves the "salsa team," high-level union staffers — including Damita Davis-Howard, whom Stern appointed as president of 1021, as well as Josie Mooney, a Stern assistant — swapped campaign strategy and exchanged anti-Rosselli talking points during an election to select delegates to the upcoming convention.

On April 4, more than a dozen union members lodged a formal complaint with the organization's local election committee. The complaint charged that the salsa team's missives broke union rules against staff involvement in elections. Soon afterward, lawyers representing Rosselli's union filed suit against Stern and the SEIU — alleging, among other things, that SEIU "officers, employees, and allies" interfered with delegate elections in violation of federal labor law.

While the lawsuit will not see a courtroom for some time, it didn't take long for the union committee to rule against the members' complaint. In a memo dated the following Monday, April 7, and obtained by the Guardian, the nine-member body reported to the union's International Secretary-Treasurer that "the staff (directors and others) named in the challenge are members of Local 1021 and therefore have the same right as all other members" to participate in the election.

The distinction is key: union rules strictly forbid paid staffers from interfering in elections by members. And supporters of union democracy insist that a central tenet of their movement are the notions that staffers work for the membership — and that the members, not the staff, determine union policy (See Opinion, page 7).

The outcome is important not only to the union but to progressive politics in San Francisco. Local 1021 (and Local 790, the San Francisco chapter that predates it) has played a major role in supporting progressive causes and candidates.

The committee's ruling, and the speed with which it reached its decision, outraged many inside the union.

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