Healthcare Union Challenges Parent

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday April 08, 2008

Posted Wed., April 9— The United Healthcare Workers-West members who met with the press outside the San Francisco Federal Building Tuesday are in a fight—but this time it’s not with their corporate bosses. 

Five executive board members of UHW, the 150,000-member union that is part of the Service Employees International Union, filed a lawsuit in federal district court Tuesday against SEIU President Andrew Stern and other high-ranking SEIU officials. The plaintiffs say the international is trampling on their free-speech rights in an attempt to prevent them, as members of the UHW, from pushing for a debate on union democratization, including the direct election of union officers, at the SEIU convention in June. 

“We’re a member-driven union that’s bottom up and not top down,” Martha Vasquez, a radiology technician and member of the UHW executive board told the press.  

“We’ve always been able to participate in decision making,” she said, accusing the international of muting the voices of the membership in its efforts to centralize the union. 

The lawsuit, filed by Oakland-based labor attorney Jonathan Siegel, says SEIU violated the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act by exercising conduct “designed to limit, inhibit and chill the exercise of [the members’] rights of free speech and equal participation as active members and advocates for democratic policies within their union.”  

It appears, however, that discontent within the UHW’s ranks has not spilled over to the city SEIU unions in Berkeley.  

James Wallace is a shop steward with Legacy 790, the union that is in the process of merging with what was formerly known as SEIU 535. Both are city employee unions and have become part of SEIU 1021. Wallace said that at first he and others in Berkeley did not like the idea of the merger. "We didn’t appreciate what was happening—it was forced down our throats," he said.  

But now he said he sees that the greater numbers mean a stronger position at the bargaining table. "We’re stronger together," he said, adding he is unaware of the problems within UHW.  

Asked whether the Berkeley city unions will have a voice at the SEIU convention in June, Wallace said they are sending two delegates. "I’m comfortable our voice will be heard," he said. 

The UHW lawsuit addresses the June convention directly and says some directives coming from the national union are intended to prohibit UHW from encouraging debate on the convention floor. 

“SEIU is at a crossroads. [UHW] has a right to participate in debate," Siegel said, accusing the parent union of having told UHW to take down its website.  

The suit says SEIU leadership wants to prevent the UHW from speaking out in support of a platform it wants to put forward at the June convention. The platform includes a demand for direct election by members of all international union officers, a guaranteed right for members to vote on contract proposals and collective bargaining agreements and the right of members to participate in and elect representatives to bargaining committees and more. 

Siegel underscored that the fight was not a clash of personalities between Stern and UHW President Sal Roselli. “It’s not a personal fight,” he said. The workers “should have their voices heard.” 

Specifically, the lawsuit says that SEIU ordered the UHW to take down its website, www.seiuvoice.org, which had outlined the group’s platform, at the same time that it put up a website of its own, seiufactchecker.org.  

“SEIU has denied plaintiffs the right to campaign concerning their convention resolutions and positions regarding policy matters by repeatedly instructing the UHW to ‘take down’ their website,” the suit contends, “while utilizing International Union funds to maintain their own website which sets forth distorted and false claims concerning the positions of the UHW in these matters.” 

UHW also claims that the international has threatened to place the union under trusteeship “which would include the removal of the plaintiffs as convention delegates.” 

UHW was formed in 2005 when two locals, 250 in northern California and 399 in Southern California agreed to merge. It makes up about 10 percent of the SEIU membership. 

Siegel said the international has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit. If they don’t respond satisfactorily he said they may seek a preliminary injunction so that UHW delegates can go to the convention in June and fight for their platform. 

The international union did not return calls for comment on this story by deadline.