Defending their union against the SEIU

January 28, 2009

Jessie Muldoon, of the Oakland Education Association, reports on efforts by members of United Healthcare-West and their supporters to defend the union against a raid by the SEIU International.

CHANTING "WHEN in doubt, kick 'em out," hundreds of members of United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) rallied at their union's offices in Oakland, Calif., January 27, as the national leadership of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) threatened to take over the 150,000-member affiliate.

Earlier in the day, SEIU President Andy Stern announced that the UHW was being placed in trusteeship. Last night's protest was called on short notice after a UHW mobilizing meeting of hundreds of workers. Members of other SEIU locals--and of other unions representing nurses, dockworkers, painters, carpenters and teachers--attended and voiced their support.

UHW members are preparing to defend their union office and worksites against the International's raid. "We see no reason we shouldn't have a voice," one member told the crowd, which shouted back, "That's right!"

In anticipation of this move by the International to take over the UHW, members have been sleeping in the office for days, and hundreds more are on call in the event that there is a showdown.

UHW members are mobilizing against the SEIU takeover
UHW members are mobilizing against the SEIU takeover (IndyBay)

The battle between the UHW and the International stems from the Stern machine's attempts to curtail union democracy and local leadership. According to Stern, unions need to streamline and centralize their operations. But in practice, this has meant the International leadership concentrating power in its hands and pursuing collaboration with employers.

Last year, UHW leaders publicly challenged an initiative (to which they were originally a party) that put the SEIU in an alliance with California nursing home operators. The union and the employers agreed to lobby the state legislature to obtain increased funding for the industry. In exchange, employers allowed 3,000 members to join SEIU--but only under a pre-arranged "template" contract that banned union members from speaking out on patient ratios, prohibited strikes and otherwise limited workers' rights.

The conflict between UHW leaders--along with their allies in the opposition group SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today--and the Stern machine escalated on a range of issues, leading to an attempt by the International to carve up the UHW by moving half its members into a California statewide "long-term care" local.

Ironically, Stern and his allies are accusing the UHW of undemocratic behavior, as part of its campaign to take over the local. But it is Stern who has regularly flouted union democracy with similar maneuvers against anyone in the union who resists his rule.

The SEIU statement on the trusteeship described the following future for the UHW: "Under trusteeship, the local's current constitution and bylaws are suspended, elected officers are removed, and a 'trustee' is appointed by the International President to replace the previously elected body."

The multiracial crowd that gathered at the UHW offices--mostly rank-and-file members who work in home health care and hospitals workers--expressed their outrage at this high-handed behavior by the International.

Against a backdrop of low union membership, a state budget crisis and the global recession, UHW's fight for the life of their union is call to action. While the presence of other unions at the rally last night is positive, much broader solidarity is needed to win this battle.

As the rally broke up, a small multiracial group of mostly women continued chanting, "We are the union, the mighty, mighty union." They're right--the struggle of UHW members against the SEIU bureaucracy represents the future of the labor movement. They deserve our support.

Kyle Schmaus contributed to this article.

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