Oakland today is ground zero for the travails and struggles of American labor unions.
A vicious war has broken out between the Oakland-based California Nurses Association (CNA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). To make matters even more complicated, Sal Roselli, the leader of the SEIU's United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), a 140,000-member affiliate of the SEIU also based in Oakland, is now leading a fight within the SEIU against its president, Andy Stern. Charges, and counter charges are flying on web sites. It must be said that the union movement has mastered the ability to quickly put up a colorful and hard-hitting web site.
Given the decline in union membership and strength, the debate within labor about the way forward is ferocious, as well it should be. These unions had rightly been considered to be making progress, in uniquely difficult times, on the future of ways to unite people at work in the 21st century. But today their fights have made it a sad time locally for the movement that truly did, as the bumper sticker says, bring us the weekend.
On one hand, these Bay Area battles are discussions, though often carried out in a Rovean style, over the best way forward. On the other hand, we see leaders, many of whom began as superb organizers and strategists and who chose their lives' place in service to the labor movement, descend to power struggles that have more in common with contemporary politics in Zimbabwe than "Solidarity Forever." Of course, each side claims the other is Mugabe. It is especially tragic that these fights involve some of the union movement's best and brightest. At various times, all involved, including the SEIU, its affiliates such as the UHW, and the CNA have been in the vanguard of new ideas for labor, pioneering new approaches, targeting forgotten workforces, and standing up as few others will do to the grotesque gulf between the plutocracy and those who labor to secure the archetypical American Dream.
First, CNA v. SEIU. In the last six weeks, the CNA's National Nurses Organizing Committee has ventured into Ohio to break up a unionization election for health-care workers that the SEIU was able to schedule after a multi-year campaign at a large hospital chain in the state. As a result of the actions of the CNA effort, no unionization election was held; a leader of the CNA was quoted as saying that this was a "victory" for the workers. In retaliation, a group of SEIU members chanting "Hey, hey, ho, ho, union busting has got to go," attempted to enter a labor conference in Detroit earlier this month in which CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro was scheduled to speak. Then, on April 16, oddly claiming in legal papers that they "anticipate attacks on the California office" as soon as the following morning, the CNA obtained a temporary restraining order from Alameda County Superior Court Commissioner Jon Rantzman that prohibited the SEIU and its president, Andy Stern, "from stalking, threatening or following [CNA] leaders staff at work, in hospitals, clinics, and offices, at their homes." Only six days later, however, after the judge had an opportunity to review videotapes supplied by the SEIU, the restraining order was lifted. Litigation between the two parties is sure to continue.
Second, Sal Roselli v. Andy Stern. Internal struggles within the SEIU also have the East Bay as their epicenter. In Berkeley in March, an organization formed to oppose Stern held a California-wide reform conference. Sal Roselli, a respected local trade unionist, has resigned from the executive board of the national union and is campaigning against Stern's policies. While the style of the Stern/Roselli tiff is nowhere near the level of the CNA/SEIU war, the same type of charges and counter charges are being traded. Roselli claims to favor a "rank-and-file strategy" against Stern's "corporate unionism." Stern's supporters, of course, contest this characterization. In contrast with CNA v. SEIU, however, it is still possible that some light will come out of the heat of this fight.
In any case, the tenor and timing of these battles are impairing the ability of the labor movement to rationally consider how workers can unite in the face of unfavorable labor laws, a culture of ideological "me-firstism," and the bizarre economic philosophy in which Americans are constantly told that, as investors and consumers, we should all cheer the pain from the "downsizing" of a company's work force.
But, showing the depth of local labor movement activity, two positive developments must be mentioned, each of which attempts to link local and societal concerns. First, in a smart and democratic unionization campaign, many Bay Area editorial employees of the MediaNews Group chain, including the Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune, Hayward's Daily Review, and Fremont's Argus are working to join (or rejoin) the Newspaper Guild. As part of its campaign, the unionists are not only stressing pocketbook issues but also promise to advocate "the traditional values of daily journalism while also pushing into the new frontiers of online media." Second, showing the intrinsic power of organized workers, on May 1, the Port of Oakland along with others on the Pacific coast will cease operation during an eight-hour day-shift as members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) hold demonstrations in protest of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ILWU, which represents 25,000 dockworkers on the Pacific coast, has asked other unions to join the protest. Few other institutions in American society have taken such direct action against the war.
As is usually the case with the labor movement, even in bad times you can see glimmers of hope for those who believe that human solidarity has an important role to play in the modern workplace.
Jay Youngdahl is a distant cousin to SEIU political director Jon Youngdahl.
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