All posts by Mary Kay Henry

The Lessons UHW’s Rosselli Seems to Have Lost Sight Of

Note: Background information about this diary can be found at the new website Mary Kay Henry is International Executive Vice President for SEIU

I would like to thank Calitics for hosting this debate about the future of workers in this country.  

I have worked along side Sal Rosselli, the president of SEIU United Healthcare Workers West (UHW-W) for 25 years, starting when both of us worked on staff for SEIU Local 250 (which is now called UHW-W).  I was the organizing director and he worked in the East Bay as a union representative.

I also worked closely with him when I was in charge of SEIU’s hospital organizing campaign in Southern California from 1999 to 2004 that ultimately resulted in 26,000 workers becoming members of UHW and gaining major improvements in pay and benefits.

So I am surprised by his recent actions. He has been attacking the democratic decisions made jointly by the huge majority of SEIU local unions across the country. In fact, he recently resigned from the SEIU Executive Committee, saying he could no longer abide by decisions made by “simple majorities” of elected SEIU leaders.  

Sabotage in Ohio

For the past three years, SEIU has been working with hospital workers in Ohio to help them organize to win improvements for themselves and the patients they serve.

Like most workers in this country, they didn’t stand much of a chance as long as management was using its power to intimidate them and discourage support for a union. For three years, they waged a campaign with support from the community to persuade their employer to accept a fair vote where workers could freely choose without management interference.

But this month, just as the workers were about to vote to unite with SEIU, Rosselli went to San Diego and met with Rose Ann DeMoro, president of the California Nurses Association (CNA) at the executive council meeting of the AFL-CIO.

Two days later, CNA organizers showed up at the Ohio hospitals with flyers telling workers how bad SEIU is, parroting many of the arguments being put forth by Rosselli.

CNA’s materials referred workers to a website co-sponsored by leaders of UHW that has anti-SEIU propaganda.

It’s hard to imagine a more unconscionable act of sabotage against workers who were courageously standing up for their patients and themselves. Because of the confusion caused by a union putting out anti-union propaganda, the vote had to be called off and more than 8,000 Ohio healthcare workers were denied a chance to improve their lives.

Some California Organizing History

The idea that Rosselli could be connected in any way to the situation in Ohio is puzzling given the history of his local union. That history provides several lessons that Rosselli seems to have forgotten.

1. The road to winning better pay and benefits for workers and better communities depends on uniting many more workers with us.

2. With so many employers now regional, national, or global, it takes the combined strength of workers and their local unions from across the country to get management to respect workers’ rights.

3. With labor law so heavily stacked against workers, the first step in winning the right to form a union usually is to wage a community campaign to get management to agree not to intimidate workers in the process.

In the early 1990s, the only national chain where Southern California hospital workers had a union was Kaiser. Those members had good pay and benefits and thought they could never lose them. But Kaiser looked around, saw it was the only union company in the South, and started pushing wage cuts.

It was then that SEIU local unions and the national union made an historic decision to pool our resources and unite our strength to help workers organize the other big hospital chains in California – because we realized that uniting tens of thousands of other workers to win better lives was the only way to protect the pay and benefits of our existing members.

In this profound strategic shift, SEIU local unions from Ohio Florida, Michigan, Illinois, New York, Maryland, Washington, and Pennsylvania made the decision to send tens of millions of dollars, and top staff and members came from all over the country to help Local 250 (Rosselli’s local union at the time) and Local 399 in southern California to unite nonunion workers at major hospital chains in the state – Catholic Healthcare West (CHW), Tenet, and HCA.

The national union – which pooled the resources of our local unions — could bring resources to bear that no one local union could. At one point the national union had 150 organizers on the ground in Los Angeles.

Through our united action, we won agreements that limited the interference by these big chains in their employees’ right to organize a union. As a result, 26,000 hospital workers gained a union and became members of what is now UHW-W, added to California members’ strength, and helped all SEIU hospital workers to achieve and maintain better standards for pay, benefits, and working conditions.

These organizing wins led directly to dramatic changes in workers lives. In the first contract with CHW hospitals, healthcare workers won raises of 14-28% and full, employer-paid family healthcare. Better yet, the new union benefits became the industry standard: Within months after the CHW contract was ratified, the other large hospital chains began providing family healthcare as well, improving the lives of an additional tens of thousands of families.

By 2004, more than 50% of Southern California hospitals were union. Rosselli was strongly supportive of those efforts and provided resources because he knew that a stronger union presence in southern California would help his members at Local 250 in northern California improve and maintain their pay and benefits.

Rosselli’s local also benefited from another key strategy decision made jointly by SEIU local unions at our national convention in 2000. We all decided that workers could win more for their families and communities if members in the same industry and geographical area were united in the same local instead of being divided into multiple organizations.

Under that strategy, the hospital worker members of Local 399 in southern California voted to merge with their counterparts in Local 250 in the North to form UHW-W.

Between that merger and the California organizing led by the national union and supported by local unions from across the U.S., Rosselli’s local nearly tripled in size between 2000 and 2006– growing from about 50,000 to 140,000 members.

When the newly merged local was formed, it was SEIU President Andy Stern’s responsibility to appoint the local leader until elections were held. Stern appointed Rosselli in 2005 to be the leader of UHW-W, believing that his understanding of how California hospital workers had made gains would lead him to use his local’s strength to unite more workers in nonunion states where his local’s national employers operated.

Withdrawing from Democratic Decisionmaking

But over the last few years, I’ve watched Rosselli slowly withdraw from the democratic decisionmaking process of our union.

He has chosen not to attend a series of meetings of national healthcare leadership bodies when debates were taking place and recommendations were being made by local leaders about how to allocate union resources and unite workers’ strength. He chose to sit out key sessions at the January 2008 International Executive Board meeting, depriving his members of a voice in decisions that directly affect them. And most recently, Rosselli resigned from the SEIU Executive Committee – the committee of elected SEIU leaders that makes national decisions about union strategy. In resigning this post, a move that deprives 140,000 UHW members of representation at the highest levels of SEIU, Rosselli said he could no longer accept decisions made by “simple majorities” of the union’s elected leaders.

Rosselli’s actions reflect a decision on his part to put his own priorities above the lives of his own members and the lives of healthcare workers everywhere.

What Is at Risk

Rosselli through his efforts, is risking the pay and benefits of his own members: The massive resources and time he is putting into his divisive attacks is distracting his local union from focusing on the upcoming contract negotiations of more than 70,000 members – about half his membership.

His efforts risk the ability of nurses and hospital workers in the 33 states where there is no union to unite without interference from their employers. By criticizing the same employer neutrality agreements he once fought for alongside his members, he is giving employers ammunition to use against workers who dream of having what UHW members have.

Through his unwillingness to participate in the democratic process within SEIU, he is forgetting how his local union itself was built and is relegating nonunion workers in California and across the country to permanent second-tier status.

Last year UHW-W helped only 888 California healthcare workers organize, but the number of people working in the healthcare industry overall grew by a much greater number. As a result, healthcare workers in California have less strength this year than last.

As the industry grows and the number of workers who have a union does not, workers’ strength diminishes. The labor movement already has too many union leaders who have adopted the business model of unionism – focusing exclusively on their own members – only to see their failure to grow turn back on them and ultimately decimate the pay and benefits of those members in a constantly changing, globalizing economy.

I urge readers to go to the new SEIU website, to learn the truth about SEIU’s record of uniting workers to raise their standards of living and our exciting plans for the coming years to build workers’ power and achieve the goals we all share in the progressive movement.

There is a legitimate, healthy debate to be had in the labor movement about our strategies and our shortcomings, but the lives of workers should always come first. I am afraid Sal Rosselli has lost sight of that.