SEIU's Twilight Struggle Begins, or, If You Don't Like It Top-Down, Why Are You In the Service Industry?


Here's a sure sign of a double-dip recession: The most powerful union in California is self-destructing. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has launched a serious, costly campaign to suppress a breakaway union led by a former SEIU local boss.

Sal Roselli, head of National Union of Healthcare Workers, says his group's effort to organize (or reorganize?) 43,000 SEIU–United Healthcare Workers-West (SEIU-UHW) members at 331 Kaiser Permanente medical sites could be curtains for SEIU. Background from the New York Times:

For years, Mr. Rosselli had allied himself with [current SEIU boss Mary Kay] Henry's predecessor, Andy Stern. But the relationship broke down in 2008 when Mr. Rosselli grew convinced that Mr. Stern was marginalizing him.

Mr. Rosselli began complaining that Mr. Stern was an undemocratic, top-down leader who was not giving his Oakland-based local enough say in negotiating national contracts. He complained that Mr. Stern had bargained clandestine deals that traded away gains for current workers in exchange for making it easier to organize employers' nonunion facilities.

Mr. Stern removed Mr. Rosselli in January 2009 for misusing dues money and refusing to accept the parent union's decision to transfer 65,000 members to another local.

Now, Mr. Rosselli seems intent on getting back all his former members — and then some. His union has already won a dozen smaller elections against the S.E.I.U., although it has lost several contests, too.

Mr. Rosselli contends that if his union wins at Kaiser, that will be the beginning of the end of the S.E.I.U. as a national health care union. His goal is to take away S.E.I.U. members at the California operations of Tenet, Sutter and other hospital chains, diminishing the S.E.I.U.'s clout with national companies.

If Mr. Rosselli loses the election, his union could wither away. 

SEIU vows to crush Rosselli like a bug. NUHW has already picked up a handful defecting shop stewards.

The Times describes SEIU as a private sector union, but it is also the largest of the unions still in contract talks with the state of California, and it represents local and state government employees all over the country.

The breakup of SEIU into discrete services and healthcare unions makes sense in a post-PPACA world. Within ten years nurses and orderlies may not be in any meaningful sense private sector employees. So until D.C. nationalizes the hospitality industry, that will put the goals of hotel workers, Aramark hashslingers, janitors and other private sector workers in conflict with the goals of healthcare workers.

Rosselli has brought in Chicago muscle to help in his efforts. Organizer Ed Sadlowski describes the lack of democracy in SEIU:

The labor movement in our country has done many fine, great things. It has developed people to help us provide for ourselves, to live a better life tomorrow than we did yesterday. But there are few unions that really try to develop a "two-party" system. Most of them, with few exceptions, become single-party, autocratic power structures. Most constitutions allow for competitive elections, but in reality they rarely happen. It breeds a feeling from the workers that they aren't really part of the union itself. It breeds discontent. They can become dictatorial. This is what has happened in SEIU… so the worker on the shop floor doesn't have any voice at all.

This is a fair point. The only thing less democratic than union democracy is actual democracy. But it's not clear how having more choice in union leadership decisions would do much to end the exploitation of the proletariat. The more time you spend choosing between Rosselli and Henry, the less time you have to, maybe, build some value for the people who pay you 100 percent of your income (not counting moonlighting), or even check out Craigslist to find a better job.