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Leaders of healthcare workers union are relieved of duty

Officers of the United Healthcare Workers West are replaced by two executive vice presidents of its umbrella organization, the Service Employees International Union. The two groups have been fighting for months.

January 28, 2009|Evelyn Larrubia

The leaders of an Oakland union were removed from office Tuesday by their Washington bosses, the culmination of months of fighting over who will represent tens of thousands of home health aides.

The Service Employees International Union served the officers of the 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers West with a trusteeship notice Tuesday afternoon. It appointed its executive vice presidents, Eliseo Medina and Dave Regan, as trustees.

UHW said in a statement that it has "rejected this imposition."

Word quickly spread among rank-and-file UHW members, some of whom began leaving their hospitals and other workplaces to converge on their Commerce office, the union's Southern California headquarters, for a meeting.

"We knew it was coming, and now we have to get real and decertify" SEIU, said Eleanor Mendoza, a receptionist for Kaiser Permanente in Cudahy and a UHW member.

The two groups -- SEIU, led by President Andy Stern, and UHW, led until now by President Sal Rosselli -- have been in a protracted disagreement over organizing and negotiating methods and how best to represent California's healthcare workers.

The battle lines have been drawn over 65,000 home health aides, currently members of UHW.

Rosselli said those members want to stay in UHW, which has represented them well. SEIU has decided to merge them with home health aides in two other California unions, forming a new 240,000-member local that would initially be run by Stern's appointees. He said the larger local would be a stronger force in Sacramento and similar mergers have been carried out across the nation.

Tuesday's action strips UHW officials of power over all members, not just the health aides, SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette said.

"They're no longer the elected officers of UHW," she said. "We are the legal authority over that local."

Trusteeship proceedings began last year, when SEIU accused UHW of hiding money in a tax-exempt fund and spending about $100,000 of it to fight SEIU. UHW denied any improprieties.

Stern tapped former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall to serve as a hearing officer.

Marshall's report, which was made public last week, found that UHW did mishandle dues, but said the specific allegations were a symptom of the underlying disagreements between SEIU and UHW. Rather than impose trusteeship on the grounds of financial improprieties, Marshall said that UHW should be given five days to bury the hatchet and cooperate with the merger and a monitor, saying the public dispute was becoming a distraction to labor's national goals.

SEIU's board passed a resolution last week incorporating Marshall's conditions and allowing UHW to be put into trusteeship if it did not comply with them.

UHW responded Monday with its own conditions. It agreed to cooperate with the monitor and other provisions, but its leadership said UHW would agree to the merger only if a majority of its affected members voted in a separate secret-ballot election to join the new local. Rosselli called on Stern to agree to this "compromise" to keep the peace and avoid trusteeship.

"It's going to be a horrible, horrible battle," he said Monday. UHW members will "consider all lawful options" to a takeover, including starting a new union, he added.

Stern responded to UHW's letter with Tuesday's trusteeship notice. He said in a statement that he took over UHW because it "engaged in serious financial wrongdoing, attempted to evade democratic accountability and oversight."

Ringuette said she hoped the transition would be smooth but SEIU has legal recourse if trustees and staffers are barred from union property by UHW members.

Those members have been signing petitions and attending rallies.

UHW staffers have complained that SEIU recently hired a surveillance officer to photograph those coming and going from UHW's offices. They said the man, who did not identify himself, was aggressive. They called the police.

On Jan. 20 and 21, it was SEIU staffers who called police after UHW members pushed their way into SEIU offices in Los Angeles and Alameda and took documents showing SEIU's trusteeship plans. Inside, they confronted SEIU employees, saying they would fight attempts to oust their leadership. Ringuette said some were hurt in the scuffle.

"We will not allow you to come in and take away our members. You want a fight? You will get a fight," Beverly Griffith, a UHW member who works at Summit Medical Center in Oakland, said angrily to an SEIU staffer in a video of the confrontation posted on the Internet. "As you open up this Pandora's box, it will not be closed."

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evelyn.larrubia@latimes.com

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