I'm at the San Jose Convention Center at the annual SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West leadership conference. You thought unity was the theme of the Democratic convention? This conference gave it a serious run for its money. When I was at the SEIU convention in Puerto Rico, my fellow bloggers and I wrote briefly about the conflict brewing between the international and this 150,000 strong California-based healthcare worker local but since then it has escalated and UHW-W intends to fight back.
On August 25 SEIU President Andy Stern announced a trusteeship hearing on whether SEIU should appoint a trustee to "take charge and control of the affairs of SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West and a trusteeship imposed over UHW-W." The hearing is to be held Sept. 26 & 27 somewhere in Northern California.
The timing is curious, coming on the heels of allegations of corruption on the part of Tyrone Freeman, head of another California healthcare workers local and a Stern appointee; it also came mere days before UHW-W's leadership conference and I can tell you from being here, if the international wants a fight, they found one.
The conference was attended by more than 2000 elected UHW-W workplace leaders and the sense of purpose and resolve among them is palpable. They are motivated, they are unified and as one woman addressing the convention put it:
The giant is awake and we are pissed.
The membership here unanimously passed a resolution vowing to fight the trusteeship:
Let it be resolved that we will fight to ensure that UHW members maintain full control of our union and oppose any attempts to unlawfully trustee our local and place it under the watch of appointed leaders from Washington, DC for purely political reasons; and
Let is be further resolved that UHW will fight to keep our members united in one statewide healthcare workers union and will use all available means, including mobilizing our 150,000 members to support our union and directing our President and Officers to take all appropriate actions including deploying the necessary resources, staff, and other means to carry out this resolution.
A good 4000 or so also marched through downtown San Jose and then held a rally, waving signs reading "We built this union and it's ours" and "Our union, our voice." They feel that Stern, with his threat of a trusteeship, wants to weaken their power by trying to divide their membership. No one here intends to let that happen.
In the short term, that fight entails deploying members to DC to meet with all 53 members of California's congressional delegation. How many of the 53 will actually meet with UHW's members is unclear, of course, but they intend to try. In addition, leadership here repeatedly rallied the crowd of 2000 to take off work on Sept. 26 & 27 to attend the trusteeship hearing and bring 10 co-workers with them. They want to overwhelm the international with 20,000 plus to let them know they're not going down without a fight. There is a sense from people I've spoken to that the trusteeship is probably inevitable; they're calling the hearing a "kangaroo court." But at the same time members are saying quite simply "We won't go", referring to their refusal to be taken from their union without their say.
In the longer term, what UHW-W hopes to achieve is 1. to build one statewide healthcare workers union in California; and 2. to, as they put it, "reform SEIU into a democratic union with leadership accountable to its members." At the heart of this conflict, it's really union democracy that people are fighting to preserve.
Robert at calitics nails why this matters for all of us.
Whatever the outcome, there is a strong commitment to democracy among the 2,000 members here - democracy in the workplace, democracy in their union, democracy in their nation. Despite the internal politics that is an extremely positive sign. The labor movement has been at the forefront of social democratic politics in this country for over 100 years. When labor is strong, progressive politics are strong. Which makes the SEIU's efforts to trustee UHW all the more disappointing, as we need unions to be laser-focused on this election and on the policy battles that will begin as soon as the dust settles in November.
On a more local level, it also matters to us here in California because UHW-W has literally been one of the most reliable and most generous progressive partners in our fights here in California. In its attempt to undermine UHW-W's leadership, the International is actually undermining the progressive movement in California as well.
For a more complete rundown of the conflict you can read SEIU-UHW shop steward Shayne Silva's piece over at Open Left.
(Disclaimer: SEIU-UHW flew me up to San Jose to cover their leadership conference.)