SEIU Announces Trusteeship over UHW

by Paul Garver

Just as I was preparing to post the following article, I received the news that SEIU had formally invoked trusteeship over UHW as of 5PM on 27 January. Rather than rewrite the draft, which attempts to analyze and comment on the response to SEIU’s ultimatum that UHW issued on 26 January, I am choosing to publish it in its original form. I regard the invocation of trusteeship as at best a catastrophic blunder by the leadership of a union I personally spent many years helping to build. What remains is a comment on what might have been, if SEIU leaders had had sufficent wisdom and vision.

In response to SEIU’s International Executive Board (IEB)resolution demanding that UHW accept the recommendations of the Marshall Report on Trusteeship within five days or face immediate trusteeship, the UHW Executive Board sent a letter to SEIU President Andy Stern on 26 January. A careful reading of the full text of this letter is needed before rushing to judgment about whether or not it complies with the IEB Resolution and the Marshall Report.

The letter begins with a general statement of intention to work within the framework of SEIU to unite workers in a democratic and progressive labor movement, and to negotiate with its national leadership. After outlining some of its reservations about Marshall’s conclusions, the UHW expressed its “hope to use his decision as a jumping-off point in hopes of reconciling our differences.”

The nine specific items in the response included compliance with items related to fully informing all UHW members of Marshall’s report and the IEB decision, of purging its database of names from the International union’s Convention database, and of continued cooperation with the Monitor appointed by the International President to supervise UHW expenditures. It proposes methods for arriving at a new statewide long-term care local that include a provision for a voting process that differs from that in the IEB’s resolution on long-term care jursidiction. It further proposes a mediation process for re-integrating UHW into SEIU, followed by establishing benchmarks for the eventual creation of a statewide healthcare workers’ union in California.

One notable inclusion is that “UHW would continue to abide by the International Constituion and By-laws and all legal orders of the International President and the IEB rendered pursuant to the Constitutions and By-Laws.” One notable exclusion is the absence of any threat to disaffiliate from SEIU.
SEIU International now faces a stark choice. It can choose to interpret UHW’s proposal as a half-empty glass and invoke trusteeship, using the failure to immediately and unconditionally accept the report and decision as a casus belli. Or SEIU could to see a half-full glass that accepts most of Marshall’s stipulations and proposes a credible way forward to implement the others through a negotiating process. I see the issue not as whether or not SEIU has a legal case for invoking trusteeship, but as whether it is the wise and right thing to do.

We should note the process through which UHW arrived at this particular letter, signed by 82 members of its Executive Board. In the very few days between the time the ultimatum was issued and the union sent its response to President Stern, it conducted mass meetings to consult 5000 of its shop stewards. From what I know of Northern California there must have been many diverse views about how to respond to the ultimatum. Certainly many members would simply have preferred to scream defiance at SEIU. For such a nuanced position and even modest change in course to emerge from the process, there must have been an extraordinary level of institutional loyalty and self-discipline among UHW’s Executive Board members and shop stewards.

I draw two conclusions. First, it was a remarkable achievement for the UHW to have produced in so little time a consensus response that substantially modifed its confrontation course with the International. Second an attempted trusteeship over such a highly mobilized and well organized local would surely do serious damage to both SEIU and the UHW.

SEIU leadership may consider only that the UHW response falls short of immediate compliance with the letter of the Marshall Report and IEB decision, and decide to go ahead with trusteeship. Thereby it will have missed a historic opportunity to demonstrate its own vision and leadership. SEIU would be making war against a part of itself that embodies many of the best traditions of trade unionism.

The likelihood of an acceptable outcome for SEIU from invoking a trusteeship over UHW is negligible. One scenario might lead to a mass of sullen discontented members and a discrediting of SEIU’s image as a progressive social force. More likely would be large-scale decertifications and defections to other unions, leading to the wreckage of UHW/SEIU as a coherent social force in California.

If on the other hand, SEIU leadership chooses to accept the UHW proposal as a good faith step towards reconciliation and attempts to reach agreement through some sort of a negotiation process, it would have to show patience, foresight and forebearance. There would be no guarantee of ultimate success. But the potential rewards justify the toil and risk involved. The UHW reconciled to SEIU would be a tremendous asset not only to SEIU but to the future of progressive unionism in America.

A positive response would not demand that SEIU accept any particular feature of the UHW proposal, but merely that it recognize the necessity and value of opening serious negotiations over the modalities of the issues involved, and not foreclose possibilities by resorting to force.

Postscript: We intend that Talking Union remain an open forum to debate the issues raised by this trusteeship. We invite serious contributions from the various protagonists to this conflict, just as we have previously posted articles by Eliseo Medina and Gerry Hudson from SEIU, Paul Kumar from UHW and Steve Early as a critic of SEIU. We also invite comments, questions and contributions from all who have a stake in the conflict, whether as members of UHW or SEIU, or simply from the larger community that will suffer collateral damage.

5 Responses

  1. This is a case of the wolf minding the henhouse. It was win win for Stern and lose lose for Roselli, but what has been demonstrated is that the will of the dues payers is secondary to principle internal power struggles.

  2. This has never been about jurisdictional issues. It is about Andy Stern’s vision of “21st century unions” run like corporations, with himself as all powerful leader. There is no room for democratic dissent in this vision. SEIU international would never accept anything less from UHW than an agreement to join the Stern cult and be uncritical cheerleaders of Stern, surrending all rank and file voice in bargaining, politics and everything else to the Stern clique. There are only two ends to this – the overthrow of the stern clique by SEIU rank and file, or the establishment of a new union competing with the SEIU cult.

  3. update

    “UHW leaders announced the formation of an independent union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, and signaled their intention to decertify SEIU in hospitals and nursing homes, declaring that they would not permit appointed staffers to decide which union members belonged to.”


  4. […] [the former Secretary of Labor} on this Talking Union blog on January 23, 2009 (full article at that justified the imposition of a trusteeship by SEIU over the UHW, then led by its president Sal […]

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