SF Weekly Reaches New Low in Hit Piece on SEIU

by Randy Shaw on April 16, 2007

The SF Weekly’s current cover story attacking SEIU President Andy Stern involves a level of disinformation exceeding that routinely promoted by FOX News. While the story argues that “SEIU bosses” have engaged in a “secret sellout” of their members and nursing home patients, its only “evidence” is a 2003 agreement between the union and nursing home operators that was widely and publicly debated at the time.

The weekly’s claim that SEIU is aligned with corporate interests is also off base, and would come as a great surprise to the owners of downtown office buildings targeted by SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaigns. The New Times Corporation that publishes the SF Weekly is notoriously anti-union. It has attacked SEIU not because it is ineffective, but rather because it fears its increasing success.

The SF Weekly is such a politically inconsequential news source that I prefer not to raise the profile of its stories by commenting upon them. But its April 11-17 cover story attacking SEIU’s international leadership targets some of the key players in America’s progressive labor movement, and is so duplicitous that the record must be set straight.

The story, “Union Disunity,” argues that SEIU President Andy Stern is in a “showdown” with Sal Roselli, President of SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers-West over “the rights of unionized health care workers and the patients they care for.” Writer Matt Smith claims to have obtained “secret” and “for-top-union-officials-eyes-only” documents confirming that “SEIU bosses” advanced a “secret sellout” of workers over the objections of Roselli and others.

The first question is why a 2003 agreement between SEIU and nursing home operators is suddenly front page news. Far from being “secret,” the legislative deal between SEIU and nursing home operators was widely discussed and debated at the time. In fact, all of the criticisms of the agreement have been extensively detailed by other publications, including, if my memory is correct, in a previous attack on SEIU and Rosselli in the SF Weekly.

Under the 2003 agreement, nursing home operators would not oppose union organizing drives in exchange for SEIU’s support for higher reimbursement rates. Some interpreted the deal as also including reduced state monitoring of nursing home conditions, which is why critics of SEIU claimed that it would compromise patient care.

I do not monitor the nursing home industry, and cannot state with certainty whether critics’ fears have been realized. I assume, however, that if the SF Weekly had evidence of declining nursing home conditions since 2003 it would have been included in the article. But no such evidence was produced.

I had extensive discussions in 2003 with one of the key SEIU players involved in the deal, someone totally committed to improving nursing home conditions. This SEIU leader, unlike the owners of the SF Weekly, has dedicated his life to improving the lives of working people. He is not someone who would support the weakening of patient care.

Smith’s claim of “union disunity” is based on memos showing that Roselli had concerns about some of the terms in the 2003 agreement. Doesn’t this free expression of criticism reflect the type of vigorous internal union debates that the SF Weekly claims to endorse? But rather than praise Stern and SEIU for being open to internal criticism, Smith interprets Roselli’s comments as a “serious rift.”

Nor does Smith understand the legislative process. In my own experience developing tenant legislation at both the local and state level, a proposal is circulated for comments and critical feedback is solicited and appreciated. Internal debate is seen as fostering a better result, and has never been seen as a sign of “tenant disunity” or as reflecting a “serious rift.”

While Smith highlights Rosselli’s local issuing a recent report questioning the benefits of the 2003 agreement, activists frequently question deals they have made to pass legislation. There would be something seriously wrong with a movement that did not regularly assess its decisions, and activists must always be willing to accept that not all of their prior strategies worked as planned.

The SF Weekly could have seen Rosselli’s report as an example of SEIU’s willingness to promote internal union democracy. Instead, the weekly views any disagreement within SEIU as a “fight” and sign of internal problems.

Returning to my original question: why has the SF Weekly trotted out a four year old memo in order to attack what it describes as “SEIU bosses”? The obvious answer is that the anti-union New Times Corp. is concerned about SEIU’s increasing success, and the positive strides of the Change to Win labor federation that Stern pushed to create in 2005.

When one compiles a list of America’s most effective progressive organizers in any field of social change, multiple representatives of Change to Win unions would be included in any top 25 list. SEIU Building Services Director Stephen Lerner, who conceived Justice for Janitors and SEIU Vice-President Eliseo Medina, who is probably responsible for organizing more workers into unions than anyone over the past 25 years and has also played a leading role in building the nation’s immigrant rights movement, would both be in the top ten.

Lerner and Medina are close allies of Andy Stern. John Wilhelm of UNITEHERE, and San Francisco’s own Mike Casey, of UNITEHERE Local 2, are also Stern allies who would be on any top 25 list.

So by attacking Stern, the SF Weekly is essentially targeting the leaders of America’s progressive labor movement.

Smith’s claim that Stern is aligned with corporate interests would come as a great surprise to the powerful interests spending millions battling SEIU organizing drives.
Stern and SEIU realize that accomplishing their goals on issues from immigration reform, health care, and union organizing, often requires strategic alliances with corporate or business interests.

Here’s a recent example of an SEIU “corporate” alliance. After spending years battling with the large national janitorial company known as UNICCO, SEIU reached agreement with UNICCO to support its efforts to expand its contracts in exchange for UNICCO not opposing janitor organizing drives.

This agreement means that UNICCO’s growth expands SEIU’s organizing possibilities. Since unionized janitors typically earn nearly double their non-union colleagues, and have far better benefits and job security, by facilitating unionization this strategic alliance represents a “win-win” model. I suppose the SF Weekly would prefer that SEIU drain its resources in battles with UNICCO, but this hardly serves workers’ interests.

By linking UNICCO’s success in securing janitorial contracts to increased union membership, SEIU is creating what Lerner describes as the “union density” necessary to raise janitorial wages throughout the industry. This is precisely how the auto industry came to provide middle-class jobs to union members in the 1950’s.

SEIU’s strategy is no different than that followed by UNITEHERE. UNITEHERE also has a “corporate alliance” with its unionized hotels, steering millions of dollars of business to these hotels each year. UNITEHERE President John Wilhelm showed in Las Vegas how to link hotel workers earning power to the industry’s growth, and this model has brought UNITEHERE great gains in recent years.

The SF Weekly relies on a strategy of concealing its Libertarian politics by attacking progressive activists and causes from the political left. We saw this in its infamous cover story, “The Case Against Rent Control,” which argued that rent control hurt those it sought to help.

Now we have the SF Weekly accusing SEIU and Andy Stern of hurting workers and the poor, two groups they are investing their lives to help, and which the New Times Corp. views as mere cannon fodder for advancing its anti-union political agenda.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org

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