Union Members Decry Loyalty Oaths, Cozy Deals; Reform Movement Forms
On the heels of a public fight over the Service Employees (SEIU) International's move toward labor-management partnership deals and hyper-centralization, members are joining a newly founded national reform group.
Several pockets of reform already exist in the union, but the largest is the SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today (SMART), founded in California in January. The group already claims members in 11 other states and Canada.
Members' grievances against SEIU officials have been mounting after President Andy Stern merged many locals into mega-locals, removed elected leaders, and appointed his own agents in their place. SMART's formation mirrors a conflict between Stern and Sal Rosselli, head of the 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers -- West local, over the international's consolidation of authority.
"The union is now a corporate-style organization where members and their issues are ignored. Members are furious," said Joel Solis, a registered nurse and steward at the Department of Mental Health in Los Angeles County, now in Local 721.
Catherine Alexander, a member of Local 521 and SMART, is the former chief steward at the Santa Clara County Libraries, located south of San Jose, California.
"The new local has meetings but they don't publicize them," she said. "We can't even get copies of the minutes. They want member-leaders and staff to sign 'loyalty oaths' saying they will only promote the views of top SEIU officials who were appointed by Stern."
Zev Kvitky, president of Local 2007, which represents service workers, technicians, and other workers at Stanford University, said he joined SMART because the union's lofty goals have mutated.
"We agree with President Stern that we need to organize the unorganized," he said. "But the way the International is organizing new workers, it is weakening our union. Their top-down deals with employers, the exclusion of members, the erosion of democracy and free speech undermine our power."
Dan Mariscal, a steward in Local 347 representing Los Angeles city workers, said his local is so strongly opposed to over-centralization that they filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against SEIU with the city's employee relations board to stop their local's forced merger.
SMART members and other SEIU reformers held a California-wide reform conference in Berkeley on March 22. Discussion ranged from how to regain freedom of speech in the union, re-establish election of leaders, and ensure membership involvement in contract negotiations and the life of the union, to how to prepare a reform delegation to attend the SEIU convention in May.
The clamor for democracy in SEIU is springing up across the country. Dave Peter, a steward with SEIU Local 1107 in Nevada and a member of Members for Union Democracy, said the Stern-appointed leader of their local, Jane McAlevey, has been abusive to members, and growing numbers are calling for her dismissal.
Bruce Boccardy, chief steward of Local 888 in Massachusetts and a member of Bring Back Our Union, said Local 888's appointed head officer, Susanna Segat, has driven 3,000 members at the University of Massachusetts out of their union and into the Massachusetts Teachers Association.