First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

by Paul Garver

Dave Regan, current president of the SEIU local United Healthcare Workers’ West (UHW-W), is bitterly complaining about a decision by national SEIU to remove 70,000 home care workers from his 150,000 member local and transfer them to a newly chartered SEIU local in California.

In a missive written sometime after the May 21 decision, as reported in the San Francisco Business Times, Regan charged that SEIU’s decision:

“marks the first time in my 25 years in SEIU the union has knowingly, intentionally, and willfully taken a major action that is contrary to the basic interests of its membership” and called the decision “a massive betrayal of our stated principles and values.”

SEIU President Mary Kay Henry justified the decision to charter the new SEIU Local 2015 that would include 280,000 California home health care workers, including 200,000 transferred from UHW-W and other SEIU locals in California, as uniting all long-term care members in California into one strong union with the clear goal of winning $15 an hour and a union for everyone in the state who provides care and support to seniors and people with disabilities.”

According to Regan, “This decision is malicious and undertaken with the full knowledge that the interests of California healthcare workers are being sacrificed to the political needs of Mary Kay Henry.  We are ashamed and embarrassed for our Union.”

A clear clash of principles?  David vs. Goliath?  Local union democracy vs. bureaucratic centralism?

Some historical background may help clarify the roots of this clash.  The current dispute between Mary Kay Henry and Dave Regan represents an eerie and uncanny echo reverberating from a much more momentous clash between national SEIU, then led by its President Andy Stern, and the then United Healthcare Workers (UHW) in 2008-2010.

I reported in detail on a decision by SEIU Hearing Officer Ray Marshall [the former Secretary of Labor} on this Talking Union blog on January 23, 2009 [click for full article] that justified the imposition of a trusteeship by SEIU over the UHW, then led by its president Sal Rosselli.

National SEIU had justified its imposition of the trusteeship by various charges against Rosselli and the UHW leaders, which Marshall had not found sufficient to justify a takeover of UHW by the national union.  However in an obiter dicta [overstepping the normal function of a Hearing Officer], Marshall asserted that a jurisdictional conflict over the long term care workers then part of the UHW was the underlying issue in the conflict.  Marshall ruled that the trusteeship could be imposed if the UHW leaders do not accept the amalgamation of its long-term care members with those of SEIU locals 6434 and 521 into a single statewide local of long-term healthcare workers.

SEIU’s International Executive Board [including Dave Regan] voted to accept Marshall’s recommendation.  The UHW criticized Marshall’s recommendation because “by structuring the decision in the way he does, Marshall appears to allow his report to become a bludgeon to force UHW members into accepting a wrong-headed, undemocratic decision by Andy Stern and the IEB to divide rather than unite California’s healthcare workers.”  The UHW leaders had stated that they would agree to the transfer only if the affected members voted to support it in a referendum.

Refusing to consider this offer, SEIU immediately imposed the trusteeship on UHW.  After more years of bitter conflict and decertification elections at its largest bargaining unit at Kaiser Permanente [in which 13,000 workers voted in favor of the fledgling NUHW against SEIU] SEIU-UHW retained most of the former members of UHW.  However the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) created by  former leaders of UHW, now has a membership of 11,000, some of them former UHW professional and technical members at Kaiser, but including several thousand newly organized workers at non-Kaiser facilities.

SEIU’s main leader at UHW throughout the trusteeship and the ensuing jurisdictional battles has been Dave Regan, who was elected President of UHW-W after the trusteeship was lifted.

However for several years SEIU did not actually follow through the success of its trusteeship over UHW by creating the single local of home healthcare workers in California, nor did it transfer the long-term care members from the UHW.  This may have been because the leader of SEIU Local 6434, Tyrone Freeman, who was projected to be the leader of that statewide local, was removed from office and jailed for embezzlement.  SEIU only decided to try again in 2015, thus incurring Regan’s “born-again” wrath.

I can only speculate why Dave Regan now opposes a national SEIU decision he had originally supported and which catapulted him into his positions first as Trustee, and then as President of a 150,000 member local.  Perhaps he discovered that the former leaders of UHW had correctly assessed the loyalty of their members to their local union as an entity, and is now democratically representing the will of his members.

But Regan is hedging his bets, and trying to avoid the national union from having a pretext to remove him through a new trusteeship:  “I want to make it clear that I have offered my thoughts not in my capacity as the President of UHW, but rather in my capacity as an individual member of SEIU, who is protected by the SEIU Constitution.”

Sal Rosselli, now president of the NUHW, who did try as President of UHW to represent the will of his Local members and was removed from office as a consequence, probably enjoys the spectacle of his imposed successor Dave Regan being hoisted on his own petard.

As for this writer, who even in 2009 cautiously urged a compromise solution between national SEIU and UHW that would have set up an orderly and unpressured process to properly represent long-term healthcare workers in California, I do not know who is right on the jurisdictional issue of whether long-term home healthcare workers are better off with their own mega-local or not.  The reasons Mary Kay Henry cites appear legitimate.    But I think Marshall was wrong in thinking that the jurisdictional disagreement was the crucial factor in the 2009 dispute.  More likely the national SEIU leadership wanted to curb any autonomous power center in a big local, particularly one led by the strong-willed Sal Rosselli, and would have found another pretext to remove him if Marshall had not provided a convenient mechanism.

I am much too long gone from SEIU to have a good feel for the internal union politics involved.  But I did note some months ago that a rumor was circulating that Dave Regan might challenge Mary Kay Henry’s re-election as SEIU President.   His power base would be reduced if he headed an 80,000 member local instead of a 150,000 member one.  And the leaders of a new mega-local 2015 with its 280,000 members would surely be indebted to the current national leadership that created it.

In any event, the new Local 2015 will face major internal organizing challenges, since about half of the former 6434 members are agency fee payers rather than full union members {UHW’s internal organizing efforts in the home health care sector had resulted in more actual union members than mere agency fee payers].   This may become even more true if and when the Supreme Court makes all union membership purely voluntary.

Not only SEIU, but all union supporters need to keep our eyes on the paramount issue – the just and legitimate cause of the millions of long-term home health care workers, whose rights even to join unions and bargain collectively, let alone earn decent wages and benefits, are being threatened by hostile politicians throughout the country.

I am indebted to Steve Early for correcting a numbers of errors contained in a previous draft of this article.  Steve’s book, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old? (Haymarket Books, 2011) is an invaluable resource on the recent history of the SEIU.

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