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SEIU Pres Andy Stern's Last Stand with San Francisco Janitors?

by Steve Zeltzer
San Francisco
February 13, 2005

lvpsf@igc.org
Special To www.labornet.org

WHILE THE NATIONAL DEBATE on the future of the AFL-CIO continues despite the folding up of the SEIU President Andy Stern's group the New Unity Partnership NUP, an important vote was taking place at a San Francisco plumbers union hall this past weekend. On Saturday February, 12, 2005, several hundred San Francisco janitors voted on whether to accept a proposed "Unity Agreement" brokered by some of the leaders of break away United Service Workers For Democracy Local 87 USWD and the SEIU International and it's California janitors division SEIU Local 1877. The vote of 263 for the agreement with 123 dissenting now brings San Francisco janitors back into the fold of the SEIU and the AFL-CIO. The agreement at the same time, allows the restoration of the SEIU Local 87 charter and promises that no merger will take place without a majority vote of the members until the 2012 convention or place it in trusteeship until the 2008 convention. It also provided that the union hall and other property including a parking lot would revert to the local and that the local would be provided with financial reserves of $300,000. A vote is now required within 3 months for the membership of the new SEIU Local 87 to decide who their leadership will be. At the same time however it puts only two members of the successful disaffiliation vote in charge of the Local. These two members, Olga Miranda and Ahmed Abozayd apparently worked with Oakland attorney and school board member Dan Siegel in crafting this deal.

The vote which was supervised by Attorney Dan Siegel also included the entire membership of the janitors and the vote location was changed only days before it was to take place.

Major Clampdown and Embarrassment For Stern

In one sense this was a major climbdown and political fiasco for Mike Garcia, president of SEIU 1877 and Andy Stern, national president of the SEIU. The local had previously been merged without a vote of the members into Local 1877. The resulting merger led to a revolt in which the membership voted to disaffiliate and form a new independent union.

Andy Stern has also engineered dozens of forced mergers throughout the country with appointed trustees who never have worked as janitors or hospital workers. Stern has argued within the AFL-CIO and the SEIU that these mergers are necessary for the labor movement to fight multi-national employers. Stern also personally came to San Francisco to argue against the decertification told janitors that a merged local would be more effective in protecting them from contractors that run buildings throughout the country. His personal stake the keeping control of San Francisco janitors make this an even more important issue.

The experience of the San Francisco janitors, however seemed to run counter to Stern's promises and agenda.

In meeting with hundreds of workers, members felt that they were no longer being backed up on the jobs and that SEIU 1877 was allowing management to ignore seniority and a implement a massive speed-up on the job. With over 1500 janitors voting, the janitors voted 950 to 550 to disaffiliate from the SEIU. This was a clear rejection of Andy Stern and his plan to merge all janitor's locals in California and it came despite the fact that the SEIU had warned janitors that if they struck they would not get the support of any AFL-CIO locals and would lose their healthcare and pension benefits.

The SEIU of course did not take this lying down. It sued the USWD's lawyer Daniel Siegel for illegally taking $50,000 from the former president of the local, Richard Leung.

Leung is now in management at the California Nurses Association CNA and is a long time associate of Dan Siegel. The SEIU also claimed that the employers had allowed many workers to vote who were not members of the local in order to influence the vote. The bosses had allowed time off for the voting which was highly unusual.

The SEIU international was successful in its' lawsuit against Siegel and won a judgement of $37,000. The SEIU had argued that after the trusteeship took place the money that was paid to Siegel that had not yet been used on services should be returned.

Despite this judgement against him, Siegel continued to represent the new union USWD creating a possible conflict of interest. Seigel was now representing himself and the USWD while negotiating with the SEIU over reafilliation.

In fact in the "Unity Agreement", it releases "Dan Siegel and Siegel and Yee from liability under the judgement that the local has obtained against them."

The whole question of the ethics and even Siegel's license is now bound to be raised.

Many of the USWD's members felt that Miranda and Abozayd with the advice of Siegel had refused to allow a democratic process to take place in the new local and had refused to call regular meetings for updates and reports of the negotiations between the new union and the international.

Apparently no bylaws were developed and voted on and many members felt disenfranchised from their new union.

This had led to a growing bitterness of many of the leaders of the disaffiliation effort.

At the same time. the majority of members of the union felt that the ongoing internal battle was weakening their conditions and rights. It showed in the small participation of the members in the "Unity Agreement". The building contractors have stepped up discrimination and the vacancy rate has been used to increase speed-ups and layoffs at the same time.

At the same time, the cost of medical coverage is skyrocketing. Starting March 1, building contractors will be required to pay an addition $200 a month for each janitor. This will bring the monthly costs of healthcare to over $1,000. With the majority of janitors making $16.00 an hour this will put additional pressures on the contractors and the janitors.

At the same time Stern and the SEIU have refused to support the "single payer" campaign in California and nationally that would remove the insurance companies from the healthcare business.

This added pressure will take place in the midst of the coming election campaign in the newly chartered local.

The vote to reafilliate may also be challenged by former members of the USWD who believe that under no circumstances do they want to be part of the SEIU. This anger and hatred of the SEIU and its' method of operation is a dangerous threat to all the plans of Andy Stern and may portend that his foundation of support is not all that stable. These janitors now have the experience of how to run a decertification and they are not going away. The failure of the "Unity Agreement" could lead again to another decertification drive and again throw the battle onto the lap of Stern again.

The position of both Andy Stern and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and in fact the entire AFL-CIO leadership is that they need a "partnership" with management. This labor management partnership which was pushed by Stern and his supporters at Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and in every other industry allows management much more control of the workforce. Many workers who challenge management over health and safety and contract rights are seen as a problem under Stern's "partnership" with the employers. "Stern talks about giving ''added value'' to employers, some of whom have come to view him, warily, as a partner."

This has of course led to a growing frustration among SEIU members from throughout the country and it is combined with the growing mergers and centralization that has taken local control out of the membership's hands. It also takes place as the Bush administration and the governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger have launched major attacks on pensions, disability and all the social programs that the public unions like the SEIU and AFSCME have organized over the last 20 years. Stern however seems to have doubts about protecting basic gains of labor. In a recent interview Stern said. "Could it be that the Social Security system devised in the 1930's isn't, in fact, the only good national retirement program for today's wage earner? Is it possible that competition is the best way to rescue an imperiled public-school system?"

This building confrontation will now pit a divided labor movement into the fire without any real game plan and this will likely exacerbate the contradictions and fissures.

In the bay area and around the country many members are also increasingly unhappy with the growing centralization and bureaucratization of the union and the ongoing saga of the Janitors' Local 87 is a vivid example of a union gone awry.

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