Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A nasty rift in a powerful union

A nasty rift in a powerful union

Local head Sal Rosselli is fighting national leader Andrew Stern over how to make the SEIU even bigger.

By Paul Pringle

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Sal Rosselli had been hardened by nearly three decades of front-line unionism. Time and again he staged insurgent organizing drives and do-or-die strikes, staring down major corporations.

Now he blinked away tears as he huddled with supporters in his Oakland headquarters, a sooty-windowed, bunker-like building strewn with leaflets and picket signs, a place suddenly under siege.

Rosselli was describing his latest battle, his toughest ever: a face-off against a comrade in struggle, Andrew Stern, whom many view as the most powerful labor leader in America.

The two are locked in a nasty, often personal fight over how to make the nation's fastest-growing union -- 1.9 million members -- even bigger. Stern, its president, has sought more common ground with employers as a means to unionize entire industries. Rosselli believes building membership first requires getting the best deal for workers already under labor's tent.

"If you stick your head up, if you question what he's doing, you'll get whacked," said Rosselli, 58, head of the second-largest California chapter of Stern's union.

Wiping his eyes, he insisted that Stern, through a trusteeship, is determined to oust him from his elected post as part of a long push to centralize authority.

Stern and his allies in the Service Employees International Union dismiss the allegations and downplay the significance of the rift.

"It's not open warfare, it's a debate," said Pennsylvania union official Thomas De Bruin.

"It's David and Goliath," Rosselli said.

Much could be at stake for the union's 703,000 California members and for the millions of people who depend on them for healthcare, social services, road repairs, college instruction and cafeteria meals.

The union is a huge presence in hospitals and nursing homes, and in state and local government offices. It represents home-care workers, Los Angeles Unified School District support staff and thousands of private-sector janitors and security guards. The California State University's faculty association is an affiliate.

Covering more than a quarter of organized labor in California, the union's contracts frequently set broad standards for pay and benefits, including those for nonunion workers. And its clout as a get-out-the-vote machine is keenly felt in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., as well as in the Democratic presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Among employee groups in the United States, it is second in size only to the 3.2-million-member National Education Assn.

So the Stern-Rosselli split has shaken many in the labor movement. The feud has been inflamed by charges of lawbreaking and wallet lining, as well as the dredging up of purported anti-gay innuendo against Rosselli from the 1980s.

The hostilities are being waged in courthouses, on the Web, over the phone, through the mail and in the media. They have been as pitched as a street brawl, as might be expected of a clash between veteran rabble-rousers who are accustomed to winning, in an era when labor has reeled from losses.

Rosselli is the decided underdog, a role that keeps him on the job for marathon days, pacing the stained carpet in his office. He takes comfort from a newspaper article adorning one wall, headlined "Union Power," which chronicles a winning strike in 1992.

A product of community college, Rosselli is all but cornered in his renegade redoubt, outgunned by the money, lawyers and political connections that the Ivy League-bred Stern commands at the union's Washington nerve center.

Stern, 57, has been heralded as a forward thinker whose snowy-haired charisma fueled the union's expansion. He engineered a lobbying and electioneering program that has few rivals in labor. He also spearheaded a revolt that took seven unions out of the AFL-CIO and was instrumental in a public-relations assault on Wal-Mart's employment practices.

As passionate as Rosselli, and perhaps more polished, Stern speaks and writes about the demand to transform unions in an age of corporate globalism.

Rosselli's world is smaller; he eats and breathes the local. The intense, goateed gym rat says he sleeps about four hours a night, then braces himself with a predawn workout.

"Sleep is a waste of time," he said.

"The e-mails, the multiple phone calls -- it's getting much more intense," he said, behind the wheel of his grimy Ford Explorer on a recent afternoon, heading for a rally-the-faithful tour of San Francisco hospitals and nursing homes, where the local is strong. "This is an unprecedented use of [union] resources to attack a local."

But Rosselli appears to have just enough Bay Area backing -- not to mention a staff of 400 -- to make a real contest of it. He says the union has spent $2 million on the bid to vanquish him: "We're taking multiple hits, constantly."

Among them is the accusation that Rosselli and a number of his officers at United Healthcare Workers-West violated federal and state laws by establishing an education nonprofit with $3 million from the local. The parent union characterizes the nonprofit as a vehicle to fund Rosselli's ambition to undermine Stern.

Lies and more lies, Rosselli says. One of his sharpest rejoinders to Stern is that the boss improperly pocketed a $175,000 advance, minus ghostwriter and agent fees, as the author of a book that the union fact-checked, publicized and bought in bulk.

Rosselli hammers Stern further for allowing some officials to enrich themselves by taking a second salary, typically about $30,000, for serving on the union board. A handful were paid more than $200,000 in total compensation in 2007, a sum that includes expenses. Rosselli, who had declined the board stipends, collected $140,000 last year.

Stern did not receive the second salary -- his total compensation was $280,000 in 2007, not counting any book payments -- and says he deserves credit for phasing out the perk this year. As for the book, a treatise on economic justice and the future of unions, he says that he didn't take royalties from any sales to the union and that the board acted independently to promote the publication and urge locals to buy it.

"It was completely transparent," said Stern, speaking by phone from Washington, where he is in his 12th year as president. He also denies that he wants to remove Rosselli by placing the local in trusteeship, a tactic the union has employed numerous times against affiliates it had deemed malfeasant. "If we wanted to trustee the local, we had plenty of reasons we could have used," Stern said.

Workers at California Pacific Medical Center, one of Rosselli's stops, weren't convinced. They gave him a near-hero's welcome -- in the lobby, in the cafeteria, by the elevators.

"Why should I ditch my union?" said kitchen staffer and local shop steward Michael Padia, after he hugged Rosselli.

"What could we be doing better?" Rosselli asked.

"Get rid of Andy Stern," Padia said. Rosselli laughed.

'Trying to divide us'

Stern's backers say that much of the conflict comes down to Rosselli's desire to preserve his West Coast fiefdom. Rosselli is balking at a proposal to shift about 65,000 of his 150,000 members to a Los Angeles-based local.

The merger would dramatically diminish Rosselli's influence, including in Sacramento, where he has helped steer healthcare legislation.

"Local leaders are not barons," said Stern assistant Steve Lerner.

Meanwhile, in a letter from Stern that begins "Dear Brother Rosselli" but reads like an indictment, Rosselli is accused of pursuing a "secret plan" to take the local out of the international and possibly hook up with a California nurses union.

"Everything we wrote about in that letter is true," said Stern, his tone coolly confident.

"It's all made up," Rosselli sighed in response.

Stern's camp has highlighted its charges in slick mailers to Rosselli's members, in addition to e-mail blasts and "robo-calls." The local is calling members of other affiliates to condemn Stern.

Rosselli contends that Stern aims to crush those who advocate democratic reforms, such as direct election of the union president by the rank and file, and has countenanced "sweetheart" contracts with companies to inflate membership, at the expense of better wages and benefits.

"They're trying to divide us," Rosselli told a dozen members who filled a break room at the stately Jewish Home in San Francisco.

He had greeted them with smiles and handshakes -- "How are you? Is everything OK?" -- and they surrounded him at a lunch table, listening raptly as he enjoined them to stay united behind the local.

A few workers asked about the mailers and phone calls, but others were in the dark about the dispute.

Nursing assistant Rita Manubag said Rosselli has done well by her simply because she is paid $15 an hour.

"As long as I have a good salary, no problem," she said.

Broadening its reach

The union's resolve to organize across industries has seen it grant concessions, sometimes behind closed doors, to employers that agree not to resist the crusade to enlist workers. Stern acknowledges that this approach might have gone too far on occasion but says its core goal is sound: to broaden the union's reach.

"People who have no union have no rights," he said.

Rosselli maintains that Stern's initiatives tend to coddle corporations and give the union's Washington brass too much sway over local contract negotiations.

"People are getting squashed," said Rosselli, back in his Oakland conference room, his voice rising.

His tenor can betray an edge of personal animosity in the standoff with Stern. Rosselli says he suspects Stern condoned a mailer allegedly sent to members in 1988 that emphasized Rosselli's homosexuality. A copy Rosselli provided has a headline that refers to the local's "lavender contingent" -- code for gay.

He says the headline was cut from one newspaper article and pasted over another featured in the mailer. At the time, Rosselli was running for local president, a race he won. He says his opponent had been championed by Stern, who was then the union's organizing director.

"It was a gay smear," Rosselli said.

Stern spokesman Andrew McDonald said there are "doubts the mailer even exists." Stern denied that he had anything to do with the election, let alone such a mailer, saying Rosselli is "crazy about that. . . . I find that offensive."

Different profiles

In 2005, Stern led his union out of the AFL-CIO after concluding that the umbrella organization had become a slave to stale strategies that had yielded a steady shrinkage in labor's census. The union and six others formed the Change to Win federation, and the revolt sent Stern's profile soaring.

The jacket cover of his 2006 book, "A Country That Works," proclaims the University of Pennsylvania alum "one of the most visionary leaders in America."

By contrast, Rosselli is not well-known outside the Bay Area, despite his own record of boosting membership. He became a labor activist while toiling as a janitor in the late 1970s, after volunteering for the Catholic Worker in his native New York, drifting west on a motorcycle and dreaming of medical school.

Since winning office, he has had no serious opposition for reelection. He lives with his partner, a graphic artist, in San Francisco.

Even Stern followers concede that Rosselli is a popular local president who has excelled at organizing. Stern himself said: "I've had a lot of respect for the work that Sal has done in building, I'd say, a very successful union."

But Rosselli says Stern is scheming to pursue a trusteeship to unseat him and the local's other elected officers sometime after the union's quadrennial convention this week in Puerto Rico.

The local has introduced convention propositions that target Stern's administration, including the direct-election measure. Convention delegates now select the president, which is common in labor. The Stern team says a direct election would force candidates to spend millions, leaving grass-roots hopefuls at a disadvantage.

"I don't think that direct elections have produced more democracy," Stern said.

He also said the quarrel with Rosselli would not damage the union's get-out-the-vote program for the Democrats in November: "There's a lot of unity around politics."

Rosselli said the in-house falling-out has been a "distraction" for members eager to work on the Obama campaign.

"It's stressful, seven days a week," he said, driving along bumpy Mission Street in San Francisco, on his way to another buck-up session for his members. "It's like being on strike. . . . It is worse."

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