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SEIU Union Hears Rumbling in Its Ranks
Date 08/03/01/02:49

Union Hears Rumbling in Its Ranks -- Service Employees Sound Off Against Their Leader's Style

By Kris Maher

29 February 2008
The Wall Street Journal

ANDY STERN, PRESIDENT OF the Service Employees International Union and one of the country's leading labor leaders, faces dissension within the union over his centralized management style and consolidation strategy.

In recent weeks, grumblings about Mr. Stern's policies have become louder as the union's June convention approaches. Union members have set up two Web sites urging more union democracy, others have posted critical comments online, and one top official resigned his post on the union's executive committee.

At issue is Mr. Stern's approach to unionism. Mr. Stern has pursued national contracts with employers and merged smaller locals along industry lines, grouping nurses or janitors into larger groups to strengthen bargaining power. He often appoints his own leaders to newly created locals and has also sought direct agreements with executives to streamline the organizing process.

In doing so, he has distinguished the SEIU as a powerful union that is rapidly adding new members while much of the labor movement is in decline. The SEIU has 1.58 million members, according to the Labor Department. Mr. Stern also got national attention when he pulled the SEIU out of the AFL-CIO in 2005 and led six other unions in forming the rival Change to Win federation.

Some within the union say his approach undermines rank-and-file authority and argue that some locals don't want to merge with others or have him intercede in negotiations. They say that in some cases Mr. Stern has put organizing new members ahead of negotiating and providing services for current members.

The most vocal critics are in California, where Sal Rosselli, president of the SEIU's second-largest local, which represents 150,000 health-care workers, resigned his post on the SEIU executive committee this month. "Stern is further consolidating power," Mr. Rosselli says. "Our members are unanimously and with great anger frankly saying, 'No. Enough is enough.'"

Steve Trossman, director of communications for the SEIU, said Mr. Stern declined to comment on recent criticism by union officials and members. Mr. Trossman characterized the current dissension as largely between Mr. Rosselli and other leaders of locals. Mr. Trossman said changes in the SEIU have been voted on by union leaders and members. "The results in SEIU I think speak for themselves in our ability to grow and maintain standards for working people and our ability to really change people's lives."

Dave Regan, president of an SEIU local that represents 35,000 mostly health-care workers in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, said Mr. Stern has appointed leaders of new locals only for transitional periods and that he has stepped into negotiations only when local leaders couldn't agree on how to negotiate with employers. "Do we think there's going to be 100% support for these things? Of course not," Mr. Regan said. "But the vast majority of our members recognize they are stronger in unified organizations."

Other current and former SEIU leaders say the rift is broader. Jerry Brown, former president of a local representing 22,000 health-care workers in Rhode Island and Connecticut, said his local prevented SEIU leadership from negotiating on its behalf with nursing-home chains in 2006 because it had a special clause in its merger agreement. "Most of SEIU does not have those protections," said Mr. Brown, who believes Mr. Stern has often overstepped his authority by failing to seek membership approval of plans. Mr. Trossman said he didn't know enough about the situation to comment on it.

Labor experts said the dispute highlights broader tensions among unions as leaders try to consolidate power through mergers to maintain clout with employers as union membership dwindles.

Mr. Stern, 57 years old, was elected SEIU president in 1996. He has been credited with successfully organizing workers in growing sectors of the economy like health care and building services, but the criticism could prove embarrassing and disruptive as the union approaches its four-year convention in Puerto Rico. Mr. Stern is expected to win re-election without a challenge, but a dissident faction plans to press for changes, which would allow individual members, rather than delegates, to vote for president and top officials, and have more say in mergers.

Tony Koumantzelis, 47, a building manager in Lowell, Mass., says his union was merged with other SEIU locals that represent public-sector employees in 2003 and Mr. Stern appointed a president, rather than let members elect their own, which angered members. "The big issue is the lack of a democratic process," he said. An SEIU spokesman said union rules allow for appointed leaders following mergers.

More than a dozen SEIU members of California locals have complained of mergers in videotaped comments posted online. "There's a groundswell growing among the membership. They realize they have no voice," said Arturo Diaz, 58, a computer programmer for Los Angeles County, who appears in one of the videos.

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