Leaving SEIU and Joining NUHW

An Open Letter to my SEIU friends, former co-workers, and all SEIU members and staff

As a former staff worker for Service Employees (SEIU) Local 660 (now 721) in Los Angeles from 1998 to 2007, I am appalled by the degeneration of SEIU under the direction of President Andy Stern. While Local 660 had its share of problems, it had been in many respects a vibrant union.

While on staff I worked as a lead field representative/organizer, an acting director, and chief negotiator for over 5,000 Los Angeles County registered nurses, working to build a strong, democratic, member-empowered union. I was an organizer of a successful worksite campaign to get Los Angeles County to comply with California’s statewide 2004 nurse-to-patient ratio law, helped lead campaigns to build stewards councils in the County’s two largest hospitals, and received commendations from SEIU leaders and members during my first six years on staff.

Members’ Needs Ignored and Rights Given Away

By 2004-2005, I saw Local 660 changing from an organization that had allowed considerable local control and member involvement into an organization that dampened freedom of speech, weakened internal democracy, reduced meaningful member involvement, made secret deals with employers that harmed members’ interests, and isolated and punished members and staff who disagreed.

This was part of the program that Stern had developed for the entire union: to make large and unnecessary concessions to employers in return for the easy sign-up of more dues-paying members, without real member involvement or approval. As his program was being implemented in Local 660, here are some of the things I witnessed.

During contract negotiations, other negotiators and I were told by top officials of Local 660, such as Annelle Grajeda (then General Manager) to end negotiations before we could mount a campaign to achieve the most important issues that the members wanted resolved, such as improvements in staffing for nurses. The goal, I was told, was not to upset management. I asked, “What about management upsetting our members?” I received no response.

I was informed in January 2004 that top Local 660 officials had made a secret deal with Los Angeles County to exempt the County indefinitely from meeting the new state law spelling out nurse-to-patient ratios. This new law set the legal ratio for 2004 at one 1icensed nurse for six patients, and one less patient per nurse for the next two years. In Los Angeles County, one licensed nurse had 10, 15, and even 20 patients. I saw stressed-out nurses in tears, worried about whether they could give adequate care to all their patients. When I tried to help the nurses get management to abide by the new staffing law, I was told by top Local 660 officials to stop my activities immediately or face possible discipline.

In the past, Local 660 had put a lot of effort into well-researched, in-depth educationals, say on the county budget: why there’s a shortfall and what we can do to fight against it. At my facility the stewards council would pass out flyers advertising the educational and also organize mass distribution at the doors. Then we would do several educational sessions in a day, at 7 a.m., lunchtime, and between shifts—with good attendance. As time went on, such educationals and steward trainings were scheduled less and less often—just one session would be held and the effort put into building it was minimal.

I saw top Local 660 officials come into LAC+USC Medical Center, where I was a rep, and tell workers that certain elected stewards (excellent stewards who organized to protect workers’ rights and resist the Stern program) were bad stewards and should not be supported. Members became increasingly angry and alienated from SEIU.

Members Weakened before Mega-Merger

Early in 2005, staff were directed to spend most of our time signing up members to attend a convention to take place on October 15. The goal of the convention was to “make us a stronger and more effective union.” We were given weekly sign-up goals that were so high we had little time to work with stewards and members to address their issues on the job. This, combined with the routine neglect, dropping grievances, and making secret deals that hurt the members, resulted in a bigger disconnect between the top officials and the membership, making it even harder to meet our goal--which was 5,000 attendees. When the convention took place, less than 800 people showed up, and that included family members. There were no elected delegates, no elections, and no previously prepared proposals to be debated.

The “convention” was really a very expensive three-hour rally, with high-tech light shows, live music, and chanting, costing the local $1 million of members’ dues. Perhaps 15-20 minutes was devoted to passing several vaguely worded motions about making our union bigger and stronger, but there were no details and no discussion on the motions. A union official asked the crowd if they agreed with building a stronger union, and the cheers and clapping from the crowd was interpreted as affirmation--all the “motions” passed.

Charades like this are touted as evidence that SEIU is a democratic union. The motions then served as a “democratic mandate” to merge Local 660 with other locals in Southern California and do away with practices that had benefited the members.

It also gave Stern’s agents a way to identify those members who would go along with the program without question--a number were bribed with paid-time off to do union work, free trips, promises of union positions, and other benefits. The staunchest Stern supporters were appointed to positions in the new Local 721. This convention also served to identify members who didn’t enthusiastically endorse the dog and pony show.

Activists Retaliated Against and Removed

In November and December 2005, I and other staff members asked for and held meetings with top Local 660 officials to alert them to the improper and possible illegal behavior of a Local 660 director who counseled female staff members to wear low-cut blouses and very short skirts to get things from male managers. This was done in a New Employee Orientation, and individually. One young woman staffer came to me nearly in tears and asked if wearing revealing clothing was a job requirement at SEIU. Our staff union, United Union Representatives of Los Angeles, held two meetings to discuss this, and 15 staff members wrote statements about improper behavior by this director.

I was the spokesperson for the group in meetings with top Local 660 officials; we demanded an immediate end to such a practice, and that the director be removed. We also stated our concerns about the other harmful practices mentioned above and in the written statements by staff. I was immediately targeted for termination. I was given a performance evaluation that was marked unsatisfactory in nearly every category of work by a young, inexperienced director who prior to this had called me sometimes almost weekly to get my advice on how to handle a wide array of union problems. Due to the increasing pressure, I went out on sick leave in 2006. Members and staff kept me informed about developments in Local 660, and Local 721 after it was formed.

Democracy Subverted and Scrapped

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In 2006-07, Stern initiated the campaign to merge Local 660 with six other locals to form Local 721, one of many such mega-mergers happening across the country. After working to undermine workers’ strength on the job, SEIU told members that the only solution to their problems was to make a bigger local.

However, there were few or no details on how the new union would function or what rights members would have. Committees of active members were set up to advise the leaders, giving the impression that member involvement was valued. But, since the majority of members were so alienated and disconnected from the union, most paid little attention to SEIU mailings and announcements. And those members who did participate had no vote on any of the ideas; the top officials made all the final decisions.

Now conditions were ripe for a merger election. Ballots were mailed, and SEIU contacted supporters, who were reminded to vote “yes.” The turnout was tiny.

Stern and Grajeda, using a weakened SEIU constitution and bylaws, then removed all the elected officers and executive board members of Local 660 and the other merged locals. Stern appointed Grajeda president of the new Local 721. Grajeda kept members in the dark on important issues, made decisions without meaningful member involvement or vote, stopped holding membership meetings, and weakened or dismantled existing steward and other member structures.

While this was happening, 19 staff members, including myself, were fired. We all had worked to build member power on the job, and many had attended the whistle-blower meetings mentioned above. There was no just cause for terminating any of us. Stern and Grajeda then put the rest of the staff on probation for a year, even staff members with 15 and 20 years’ experience. The message to staff was clear: you will support our program 100% or you will be fired too.

Under Stern, Bigger Means Weaker

Stern brags that SEIU has 2 million members, which makes it “bigger and stronger” than practically all other unions. But what could those 2 million SEIU members do for workers in any given location? Nothing, under Stern’s administration, because he has taken away their rights, too.

Many members and staff expressed to me similar views. I heard many members complain that they felt weaker after the merger, while Local 721 was announcing that it was “bigger,” “stronger,” and “more united” than ever. One member told me he felt like he was in the Twilight Zone.

Members are told if they have a grievance to call an 800 number to a remote call center. Members have told me that when they phone the call center, they either get a taped message and no return call, or usually someone who does not know how to help them but says they will get back to them, but doesn’t. Members have said they have not seen a rep in months, and those members who do see one are usually told by the rep that they cannot help them.

To make matters worse, shortly after Stern’s appointment of Grajeda as Local 721 president, she was the subject of several articles in the Los Angeles Times which revealed her alleged improper practices that resulted in her former boyfriend, former Local 660 president Alejandro Stephens, receiving unauthorized and improper payments. When the exposé of Grajeda stirred up Local 721 members, Stern promoted her to become special assistant to SEIU’s national secretary-treasurer in Washington, D.C.—in other words, the financial office of the entire union.

NUHW Forms for Member Power and Protection

In January 2009, Stern arbitrarily removed the elected leaders of United Healthcare Workers-West, a 150,000-member union within SEIU, and placed it under appointed trustees who have given away wage and benefit gains in just a few months. They agreed, for example, with Kaiser Permanente management’s demand for cutbacks in workers’ pensions.

The day after the trustees took over UHW-W, former leaders and members formed the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), based on internal union democracy, member empowerment, freedom of speech, and the right to vote on NUHW leaders and their contracts. Almost the entire elected leadership and staff of the old UHW-W left SEIU to build NUHW. Within the first six weeks, 100,000 members of the old UHW signed petitions to leave SEIU and join NUHW.

There are some in SEIU local unions across the country who want to reform it. I wish them the best of luck. But Stern has centralized so much power into his own hands that I believe it will be very, very hard. The leaders and members of the old UHW-W tried to reform SEIU, and they all were summarily removed.

I joined NUHW, which has a solid core of volunteers who are seasoned and excellent organizers and representatives, and is successfully challenging SEIU, whose budget and staff are many, many times larger. NUHW welcomes donations to help this work. Go to fundforuniondemocracy.org, or send a contribution to The Fund for Union Democracy, 465 California St., Ste. 1600, San Francisco, CA 94104. All donations will go toward building NUHW. Contact NUHW.org for more information.