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Scandals scar triumphs for head of SEIU

THE NATION

Andy Stern helped elect Obama president, but a former union leader in California is under investigation.

December 31, 2008|Paul Pringle

But the SEIU has been clear that it expects its agenda to advance under the new president. Among its top priorities is the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workers to unionize by signing petition cards. Business interests are lobbying hard to defeat the measure, because it permits unions to avoid secret-ballot elections if a majority of workers sign up. Union activists say employers routinely undermine such elections by coercing workers against voting for representation.

The scandal in Stern's ranks has given ammunition to opponents of the bill, and to those wary of moves to roll back financial disclosure requirements for unions. Labor leaders contend that the Bush administration has toughened the rules to harass their organizations.

After The Times' reports on Freeman's financial dealings, which included lavish expenditures on golf tournaments, restaurants and a Beverly Hills cigar lounge, the SEIU stripped him of his office and later banned him for life. The president of its biggest Michigan chapter also has been removed, and the head of its California council has gone on leave pending a union investigation.

Stern's travails began with an uprising by the Oakland-based local, United Healthcare Workers-West, as Rosselli resisted a plan to shift thousands of its members to Freeman's chapter.

Rosselli and his supporters assert that Stern has wielded mergers to oust elected local officers, and is boosting membership by accepting sweetheart contracts with employers that agree to recognize the SEIU as a bargaining agent.

Stern has denied the accusations, and the SEIU has brought internal charges against Rosselli and other officers of his local, alleging that they misappropriated money -- not true, they say -- to fund their political ambitions within the union. The SEIU also has proposed another merger that would dilute Rosselli's local.

"It's outrageous that they're doing this campaign of retaliation against us," Rosselli said. "We're the fastest-growing union within SEIU. We're the most politically active. We've been the model union within SEIU."

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at UC Santa Barbara, has lauded Stern's accomplishments over the years, but sympathizes with Rosselli. He said Stern's consolidation program "lends itself to a more autocratic leadership style."

Peter Dreier, an Occidental College politics professor and labor expert, said Stern should not be judged too harshly in light of the "rotten apples" in the union.

"It's an organization with human beings in it, some of whom are selfish and corrupt," Dreier said. "This is a time for the labor movement to celebrate its victories, and nobody deserves to celebrate more than Andy Stern. He helped elect the president of the United States."

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paul.pringle@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Stern's appointees

Three appointees of SEIU President Andy Stern are under investigation.

Tyrone Freeman

Once a rising star in the labor movement, now banned for life by SEIU for allegedly engaging in a broad corruption scheme as head of its largest California local, he has been ordered to repay more than $1 million. He is the subject of a federal criminal investigation and a Congressional inquiry. He has denied wrongdoing.

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Rickman Jackson

Former chief of staff to Freeman, he was removed as president of SEIU's biggest Michigan local. He is accused of improperly taking $33,500 in payments from a housing nonprofit sponsored by Freeman's local. SEIU says Jackson is returning the money.

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Annelle Grajeda

The SEIU executive vice president, the union's highest-ranking official in California and head of a local in Los Angeles, is on leave. She stepped aside in SEIU investigation of payments to her ex-boyfriend, Alejandro Stephens, former president of an earlier incarnation of Grajeda's local. She has denied wrongdoing.

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The Investigations

U.S. Labor Department, FBI and the U.S. attorney's office are investigating Freeman and his local, and his dealings with two affiliated charities, sources say. The House labor committee also is investigating. The city of Compton has probed whether it was defrauded when it donated parcels to the union-sponsored housing charity.

Freeman required workers of a second charity to work on political campaigns -- despite laws barring such activities -- then denied it to the Internal Revenue Service during a 2006 investigation, sources say. The IRS declined to say whether it has reopened the probe.

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Source: U.S. Labor Department, IRS records, Times reporting

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