Service Employees Vote to Split United Healthcare Workers-West, Members Call for Disaffiliation

UHW Members protest the advisory vote for long-term care workers.

The Service Employees’ internal battle took a decisive turn January 9, when the union’s top body approved plans to split apart a big dissident California local, United Healthcare Workers-West.

The move would create a single local union for all of SEIU’s nursing home and homecare workers in California, taking 65,000 long-term care workers out of United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), the union’s third-largest local.

In response, UHW’s executive board notified SEIU President Andy Stern that rank-and-file members are calling for a disaffiliation referendum for the entire local within 60 days.

Based in Oakland, the 150,000-member UHW has clashed repeatedly with its parent union over the past year, publicly criticizing SEIU’s top leaders for shutting rank-and-file members out of bargaining and accepting lower standards for existing members in exchange for organizing rights at non-union workplaces.

The union's decision to consolidate California’s long-term care workers reflects SEIU’s decade-long strategy of creating large statewide or multi-state "megalocals."

SEIU leaders argue that strength lies in numbers. Where locals are clearly defined along industrial lines, the union has clout with employers and politicians.

UHW leaders have countered that this logic calls for all health care workers to be in the same union, and that their more aggressive stance toward employers has brought long-term care workers in UHW better contracts.

They also insist that rank-and-file members—not officials in Washington—must have the final say over the union's local structure.

Although SEIU released no official tally from the January 9 vote, reports indicate 47 board members voted in favor of the international's plan, seven against, with three abstaining.



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UHW leaders declined to comment. In their letter to Stern they maintained they were complying with the SEIU constitution, which was amended at the June convention to bar local union officers from supporting or assisting efforts to secede from the international.

Failure to comply with these new provisions is grounds for disciplinary action, even expulsion from the union.

In a media statement Stern said, "UHW leaders are apparently unwilling to accept the democratic processes of this union and are instead hiding behind opposition that they manufactured after a months-long campaign of scare tactics and misrepresentations to their members."

Union sources predict the international may take over UHW directly through trusteeship. In late August the international launched a trusteeship investigation against UHW, a move widely regarded as retaliation for the local’s high-profile criticism.

The report from that investigation is expected by January 15 and the union's top body will release its recommendations by January 22.


Many worry the escalating fight inside SEIU spells trouble for the union's fight against California's looming budget cuts, and that this conflict could derail labor's efforts to secure health care reform and pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) early in 2009.

"This internal fight will come back to haunt labor when EFCA gets rolling," noted Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "The right wing is paying close attention, and this gives them plenty of fresh meat."

There are also signs that SEIU is feeling the financial strain of the conflict. The international has scaled back a convention commitment to deploy 50 percent of national staff time and resources to advance the union’s political agenda during the first hundred days of the new administration.

Current plans call for 30 percent of national resources be channeled into national political efforts for 2009.

International Vice President Mary Kay Henry said the union reduced its commitments to ensure adequate resources were available for organizing, and dismissed a connection to the fight with UHW. "That's chatter," she said, "not fact."


Anonymous (not verified) | 01/20/09

There have been many cases like this through the years. For example who can forget all the bad press AFT got over the Puerto Rico teachers union? And then SEIU jumped in to get bad press too with Puerto Rico.

This is extremely damaging. Look at the message we are sending to workplaces where perhaps some people are thinking of trying to unionize. Few people are going to risk their jobs and reputations against a hostile management and coworkers in order to then have control of their local taken away from them by arrogant paid staffers and national/international union officers who want corporate officer level lifestyles.

So what's missing here is anyone coming up with any kind of plan for
unions to avoid the corporation-like union syndrome. The syndrome is where a local affiliates with some national/international union and then is viewed as a commodity acquisition to be merged, dismantled, whatever. Why aren't there any legal experts or labor intellectuals
coming forth with a solution to this?

Off the top of my head I can think of a couple potential avenues.
1. organizing help doesn't come from a potentially acquisitive national/international union but instead from a meta organization. Let us imagine an all-union organizing association. When a local is formed via the help of the association it is independent, not merger fodder.
2. legal local sovereignty. Imagine the is some legal pathway to a local that affiliates with an international/national union to retain
it's identity in its charter and it is non-revocable. The scope of the original local always applies to affiliation rights. Even if the
local decides to merge with another local and that merges with another
local etc the original scope of the local can vote to disaffiliate and
cannot on that basis be put into trusteeship by the larger body. No merger mania ending up with gigantic locals that couldn't possibly gain enough votes to disaffiliate or disband. The same boundaries that
formed the local should endure throughout it's life.

We need to get back to the original and best concept of unions: a free assembly of workers in a workplace representing themselves against the massive power of the employer. I would advocate creating
a different kind of "union" and not calling it "union", say "workplace
collective bargaining unit" or whatever, to get away from the decades of bad habits we're inheriting from the classic unions. New rules, new "unions",that's my suggestion. Let the classic unions merge themselves into
oblivion and be as top down as they want to be but we need another
kind of "union" that is true to its human rights roots.

If it's a democratic union you want, might I suggest the IWW. Yes... we are still around after all these years. The Rank and File of the SEIU deserve better then the dictatorship of Andy Stern.

In general we try and organize the unorganized rather then create sects in the movement, but since you're already making changes, you might as well take a look at our unions structure and history if you haven't had a chance.( We'd be glad to take you in; and hey... you would increase our membership by something like 2000 percent!

In either case, so long as you're not a paid officer in another union, and you generally agree with our constitution, you can hold a second card with us and join anytime you please.

In Solidarity,
A hopelessly optimistic worker.

Anonymous (not verified) | 01/19/09

IWW doesn't believe in collective bargaining tho does it?

That's one of the really big issues in a lot of unions: who has
something to say about bargaining negotiations.
How about an IWW offshoot that does do the traditional exclusive
representation union thing ... but does it better and more fair
and more democratic than some of these other unions?

In my experience unfortunately there are such deeply ingrained bad habits in a lot of long standing unions that I really despair of anyone ever changing anything.

hrdcndy (not verified) | 01/12/09

It must be noted that earlier this year 95% of UHW-West long term care workers voted in favor of remaining within UHW-West and NOT being merged with another local or forced to be merged with another local. Lets hear it for ANDY's macheviallian tactics and disrespect to all california long term care members. One would calculate that if all of andy stern's appointee's has been implicated in fraud and deception, just three as of late, then would it be far-fetched to assume that apples do not fall from the tree?
The only way to deal with this issue is to eliminate SEIU from california altogether. Why be a part of an organization that doesn't respond and respect the will of its workers. Time for change, and change means moving on.

Anonymous (not verified) | 01/10/09

SEIU International is embarking on its latest phase of its committment to reducing democracy within the union. Top-down authoritarian decision making rather than the bottom up process that has been the hallmark of UHW is the preferred process. Only 25,000 out of 150,000 members voted for this new consolidation, yet Andy Stern calls this "a democratic process"? That the SEIU Executive Board approved his plans for consolidation is no surprise given that almost every single member of the board owes his/her job and positon on the board to Andy Stern.

UHW members presented SEIU International with petitions from a majority of its members that stated that they did not wish to become a part of another local and wanted to remain in UHW, but significantly Andy Stern chose to ignore these petitions, and instead insists that he knows what is the best thing for the members.

Unions have been the example of democracy in this capitalistic society, and if we cannot even trust SEIU to carry out the democratic wishes of members of UHW, then what hope is there for the rest of our democracy?

Ler the members decide what local they would like to represent them!! Leave UHW alone!!

Anonymous (not verified) | 01/10/09

Open letter to all SEIU workers and rank and file members

Dear brothers and sisters

It is true that unorganized workers decide to seek union representation and get organized to make the working place a better place to earn their living. They are seeking recognition, respect, fairness, equality , choice and hope. But they will not get organized until they almost have lose hope and think that a union is the last resource and even with the fear of retaliation and the treat of losing their jobs they will find courage to confront the unknown and chart themselves into a venture with the hope of a better future for themselves and their families.
It is in the union halls where they find the knowledge and the foundation of trade unionism and learn the tactics to fight back, in an intelligent and strategically way. The union is the place where they find their long lost voice and where they empower their needed solidarity. It is in this place where they gain the power to talk equally to a manager, supervisor or abusive owner and learn to make their case for needed improvements in their benefits and wages. All of these under the umbrella of solidarity, discipline, organization and loyalty. But organized labor does not stop in the workplace, after workers have awaken to their possibilities; they know that the sky is the limit and with the guidance of elected leaders, goals are set to expand their benefits to another workers, organizing new workplaces and to set objectives that will change their communities, where they live, through a political-legislative agenda and community organizing.

It is also in the local's union where they learn to dissent and not to believe everything they hear from corrupt leaders. After all, members' dues are the resources that allow union leaders to live comfortable lives and in some instances very lavish ones. But union leaders must remain accountable to their members and respect their decisions made in a democratic process by the members affected by changes in their union.

Democracy is the tenet of union workers, where unions must be created by workers to benefit workers and run by workers. Unions are not to create bureaucracies and leaders that do not respect workers' will and actions. The rank and file leaders is the best representation of a democratic union. Members represented by workers, bargaining tables staffed by elected workers and Executive Boards made up of democratically elected leaders. This structure should mirror local and internationally unions, where accountability can be king and decisions made by elected leaders should reign.

A check and balance system must prevail to identify, ill intentions, wrong goals and/or mistakes by corrupt, ignorant, stubborn, uneducated or power hungry leaders that by, power drunkenness, corrupt allies or just luck have been able to climb the ladder of the leadership and drive a union to a cliff and the possible destruction of years of hard work and possible future.

A union president must have the capacity to, in a diplomatic way, seek the win-win strategy and resolve the hard decisions, allowing the participation of the parties involve to reach a beneficial decision in a union building process.

It is true that no union worker seeks a totalitarian union where decisions are made from appointed leaders that do not know or do not care about the consequences of their acts. Workers learn in union halls how to fight back those totalitarian structures in the working place. These structures are detested and avoided at all cost.

Now I have a few questions for all of you. What will you do if your union is treated by the removing of almost half of your membership where the affected members were not given the opportunity to participate in the decision making process or their opposition was blatantly ignored?
What will you do if your local union has demonstrated its organizational ability and become one of the top organizing union in the region and still is not recognized?
What will you do if your local union has never missed a union dues payment to the International and yet it has to resist an all resources' attack from the International?
What will you do if you find yourselves in the crosshairs of a vicious attack, in a cannibalistic way from your international union.

The labor movement is at cross roads in history and the top down structure of corporations has shown to be inadequate for our times. Just when we are at the brink of the possibility of a better future for our movement and for the workers of the world.

A vibrant bottom up organization is needed to capture the minds and souls of workers in America and around the world, to create a new, innovated and brighter future for workers. It is time to send the message, that we the workers are the ones that construct the buildings, bridges and roads. We are the ones that cleaned the places that need to be clean and help to heal the people that needs to be heal. We are the ones that sweat the sweat, feel the pain and bleed the blood that is needed to create a house, building, road, community, state or country, we are the hope of a better and brighter future. Workers must make the decision of their future and not corrupt union leaders or greedy corporations,

Do not allow an ill leader and his appointed posse to push us over the cliff. Workers must stay united and in solidarity to each other to keep a check and balance organization and to avoid a lunatic president to destroy a vibrant rank and file union.

I request your solidarity, a request from worker to worker. I would support you if this were happening to you. A top down organization is obsolete and a totalitarian one is detested. Side with us and reform SEIU! It is time to hold Andy Stern and corrupt appointed Executive Board accountable!

In Solidarity
Roberto A. Alvarez
Certified Surgical Technologist
SEIU-UHW West rank and file leader.

Cynthia (not verified) | 01/10/09

SEIU has broken up several Locals since the mid-2000s. Something has gone wrong in this organization and sooner or later it will surface; and when it does, it is going to be a bigger mess than anyone can imagine. SEIU is going down because this union is not being truely honest with its members.