Wednesday, March 4, 2009 | 2 a.m.
A new joke is making the rounds in union circles: Organized labor is an oxymoron.
Nationwide, unions are fighting among themselves at a time when they should be marshaling their forces to win their biggest priority since the Great Depression, card check.
That’s shorthand for a process to make it easier for workers to organize, likely reversing labor’s decades-long decline. But union infighting — on the national, regional and local fronts — plays into toxic stereotypes long promoted by business and its Republican allies, threatening to derail the federal legislation.
To be sure, the ranks of labor have a long and storied history of civil war leading to reorganizations.
Just last week, tens of thousands of California health care workers signed a petition to decertify the Service Employees International Union as their collective bargaining representative, alleging threats and intimidation.
They’re forming the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
From Washington, SEIU officials dispatched staffers to California to maintain control. They accused the leader of the breakaway union, Sal Rosselli, of being power-hungry, misappropriating dues money and bargaining in bad faith with employers to lay the groundwork for poaching SEIU members.
The fight now threatens to spill into Nevada, where the SEIU is already fending off a strong challenge from the rival California Nurses Association.
On another front, the leaders of Unite Here, the 400,000-strong parent union of Culinary Workers Local 226, are embroiled in a vicious legal battle for control.
SEIU President Andy Stern has urged either or both sides in Unite Here to join his union, and one of his close advisers, Steve Rosenthal, is running a fierce campaign against the Here faction on behalf of Unite leaders.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the infighting is not unlike that during the 1930s between the American Federation of Labor and its Committee on Industrial Organizing. The two factions argued vigorously over organizing strategies as President Franklin Roosevelt prepared to sign the National Labor Relations Act.
(United Mine Workers leader John Lewis, who founded what became the Congress of Industrial Organizations, punched Carpenters President William Hutcheson onstage at the AFL’s convention in 1935 after the two exchanged words. Lewis then re-lit his cigar and resumed his speech.)
Back then, the internal fight and subsequent split ultimately strengthened the labor movement, Lichtenstein said.
That attitude is now carried by SEIU’s Stern, who led a number of unions, including Unite Here, out of the AFL in 2005 to form a rival labor federation, Change to Win. But labor leaders have since questioned the success of the revolt and are engaged in ongoing reunification talks.
The high-profile civil wars not only threaten the prospect of reunification but also play into business’s playbook as it mounts an aggressive anti-card-check campaign. Republicans, led by Nevada Sen. John Ensign, have called the legislation “un-American,” saying it would encourage coercion and intimidation and fatten the wallets of “union bosses.”
“It’s a mess,” Lichtenstein said of the infighting. “This will be ammunition for the right, no question.”
The turmoil also could present an opportunity for employers to divide workers and purge the workplace of unions. Consider the situation at St. Rose Dominican Hospitals: The SEIU and the California Nurses Association have battled for nearly a year to represent 1,100 nurses. A third union, the SEIU breakaway, is promising to enter Nevada to siphon support staff from the service workers.
But labor leaders say the fights are too important to quash.
And, as Lichtenstein said, “any political organization, if it’s lively, is going to have debates. That’s a good sign. It’s far better to have energy than to be dead.”