Tuesday, January 13, 2009

United Healthcare Workers-West to consider disaffiliation as the SEIU moves to carve Local up

Lisbeth Latham

On January 9, the International Executive Board of the Service Employees International Union voted to begin a process of breaking up its third-largest local, the 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West. The move follows months of hostility between the leaderships of the SEIU and UHW over the direction of the union, particularly how to build the union and achieve the best outcomes for workers. Part of the hostility has surrounded ongoing threats that the UHW-W would be put into trusteeship by the SEIU. The UHW-W has responded to the International Executive Board’s decision by requesting that the IEB initiate a ballot on disaffiliating from the SEIU.

The IEB decision means that 65,000 UHW-W members in long-term care will be moved into a new union local which will also include members from two other Californian SEIU Locals 6365 and 521.

The UHW-W has opposed the removal of 42 per cent of its membership on three levels. The SEIU has pushed to form state-wide mega-locals with memberships clearly defined along industrial lines, giving the union increased clout with both employers and politicians. The UHW-W, which organises across the healthcare workers, has argued that its structure is consistent with this logic.

SEIU’s President Andy Stern has argued that unions need to build “a ‘working relationship’ that can add value to the business and help improve performance [that] will result in workers sharing fairly in their employers’ success”. The UHW-W has argued that this results in the conditions of existing members being undermined. It also believes its more militant mobilisation of members against employers has not only delivered better outcomes for members in long-term care but has facilitated the organising of new workplaces. Finally the UHW-W’s leadership argues that any decision regarding how members are moved between locals should be made by the members affected rather than by the International’s leadership.

Ballot on the future of the Californian long-term care workers
The IEB’s decision to restructure long-term care has been justified on the outcome of a ballot of Californian SEIU members in November and December 2008. In the poll 21,008 members voted in favour of forming a new California-wide long-term care local. At the time of the ballot the UHW-W raised concerns over the democracy of the ballot, including:
• The ballot was only advisory, so its outcome could be ignored by the SEIU if it wished;
• The ballot was a pooled vote rather than a ballot by local, so all votes were included together, reducing the ability of the wishes of the members of individual locals to be taken into account;
• The vote did not give members a true choice as they were only offered a choice of forming a new long-term care local or a new combined healthcare local; there was no option to maintain the existing local structure;
• The leaderships of the affected locals were not informed at the same time, with the leaderships of both Locals 6365 and 521 being informed of the ballot in advance of the papers being sent to members, while the leadership of UHW-W was only informed of the ballot after the papers were sent to members.

In response the UHW-W called on members to boycott the poll and initiated a petition campaign where SEIU members in long-term care were encouraged to fill out cards protesting the ballot. This campaign was successful: just 24,366 votes were received out of 309,000 eligible voters (an 8 per cent return) and the UHW-W collected cards from 40,000 members including 1,000 members of Local 6365. In addition the UHW-W collected the signatures of 85,000 members on a petition against the ballot.

On January 11, the leadership of UHW-W sent the IEB a request that it initiate a ballot of UHW-W members to formally disaffiliate from the SEIU. The request follows the UHW-W’s executive board receiving letters and petitions from members across California requesting that UHW-W disaffiliate from SEIU. According to the UHW-W the requests for disaffiliation have cited three concerns as motivating the requests:
• The forced removal of 65,000 long-term care members from UHW;
• The stifling of union members’ free speech rights;
• Widespread corruption by Stern-appointed union leaders (the president of Local 6365 is one a number of SEIU senior officials to have been stood down in 2008 for the misuse of hundreds of thousands of dollars of members’ money).

Despite requesting that a ballot on disaffiliation be held, the executive board of the UHW-W has indicated that it will not be taking a position in support of disaffiliation. This is due to the changes in the SEIU’s constitution that were made at the SEIU convention in July 2008, which state that “no officer or local union or affiliated body shall support or assist any efforts to dissolve, secede or disaffiliate from the SEIU”.

It is unclear how the SEIU will respond to the UHW-W’s request for a ballot or what the UHW-W will do in the event the SEIU refuses to allow a ballot. The IEB’s decision to re-organise the Californian locals will not be implemented until at least February 9, while a disaffiliation vote takes at least 60 days to be scheduled, making it likely that the conflict between the SEIU’s IEB and the UHW-W will intensify.


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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