By Josh Richman
Saturday, April 12th, 2008 at 11:06 pm in General.
The ongoing war between the Oakland-based California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee and the Service Employees International Union might’ve hit a new low tonight at a labor conference in Dearborn, Mich. Find differing accounts of the fracas, in the form of the two unions’ dueling news releases, after the jump; as with so many things, the truth of the matter probably lies somewhere in the middle, and the only sure loser is organized labor as a whole. (Full disclosure: I’m part of a Newspaper Guild organizing drive right now.)
UPDATE @ 11:18 A.M. MONDAY: CNA/NNOC spokesman Chuck Idelson — and, I presume, the entire CNA/NNOC — is angry at me for how I phrased the above entry, specifically, “dueling news releases” and “the truth of the matter probably lies somewhere in the middle.” Let me clarify: I wasn’t at the Labor Notes Conference in Dearborn, Mich. at which this fracas occurred. Nor did I, as of Saturday night, have any independent, objective account of the fracas from a source other than parties involved in this ongoing CNA vs. SEIU dispute. Each union clearly has an axe to grind with the other, and so I must assume neither one’s account can be completely trusted without corroboration. I still can’t find any mainstream media accounts which aren’t predicated on the unions’ news releases; a dispatch I received yesterday from the Labor Notes organizers lays blame at the SEIU’s feet. Ultimately, assigning blame for the fracas will be the responsiblity of law enforcement authorities in Michigan. Meanwhile, I welcome the varied accounts of the matter which are popping up in the comments attached to this post.
UPDATE @ 2:05 P.M. MONDAY:
Listen to an account (transcript here) of the fracas by Doug Cunningham of Workers Independent News.
Dearborn Police Sgt. Derek Hadder tells me no reports of a crime or charges have been filed, yet he has been fielding media calls from across the nation.
“It’s definitely been blown way out of proportion,” he said. “Once police arrived, they left without any problem… It was done within minutes, and I don’t know why it’s been blown out of proportion as it has.”
Labor Notes editor Chris Kutalik said although some SEIU members had attended the conference in good faith and engaged in principled, if heated, debate earlier Saturday, several SEIU organizers had used fake names to register for the conference. It was two of these who opened the hotel’s outer doors to admit some of the hundreds of SEIU protestors who arrived by bus Saturday night.
“Most of the crowd was pretty peaceful,” Kutalik said, but about 100 rushed the conference banquet’s doors. When conference-goers including Kutalik linked arms to block their way, “they started pushing us, knocking people to the ground – a number of those in front were really, really aggressive.”
A retired auto worker and former Labor Notes business manager was hit by “a guy who was flailing around,” fell and hit her head on a table, opening a bloody wound which required a trip to the hospital, Kutalik said.
“At this point the Dearborn police showed, it was about four officers, they didn’t make any arrests but they tried to get in between, get in there. It really started to de-escalate after that,” he said. “Honestly, I think it’s just inexplicable. I understand the depths of their anger… but I think this was really just above and beyond anything we would’ve anticipated. … I wouldn’t have believed this if I had read about it somewhere else, it’s pretty shocking to us.”
Some have criticized the SEIU for consolidating its authority by merging workers into mega-locals and pursuing labor-management partnership deals, a trend at odds with the philosophy of union democracy – a more grassroots, rank-and-file-driven approach to organizing – espoused by Labor Notes. The magazine’s most recent edition carried an article about dissent within the SEIU, as well as another about the recent dustup between CNA/NNOC and SEIU in Ohio.
From the CNA/NNOC:
The California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee tonight condemned a brutal assault by busloads of purple cloaked staff of the Service Employees International Union who smashed into a conference of union members Saturday night in Dearborn, Mi. and physically assaulted women and union members who stood in their path.
“I am deeply concerned about this heightened attack on women and nurses, directed by SEIU President Andrew Stern,” said CNA/NNOC Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro, who was scheduled to speak about the campaign for genuine healthcare reform at the banquet.
DeMoro cancelled her appearance at the event to coordinate support for CNA/NNOC leaders in California after Stern and SEIU began sending roving bands of staff to the homes of CNA/NNOC RN board members in California Thursday and Friday, stalking and harassing them.
“There is an ugly pattern here of physical abuse and tactics of intimidation that have no place in either our labor movement or a civilized society,” DeMoro said.
In Dearborn Saturday night, at least seven busloads, carrying up to 500 SEIU staff in purple jackets and T-shirts drove up to the Hyatt Regency Hotel where the banquet was being hosted by the magazine Labor Notes culminating a weekend conference on topics including union democracy, health care reform, and encouraging the resurgent growth of labor.
Upon unloading from the buses, the hundreds of picket-sign wielding staff stormed the hotel and pushed their way through doors to break into the ballroom where the event was being held.
While breaking in the building, the SEIU staff, now joined by SEIU staff inside the building, physically assaulted a group of union members and activists at the door.
At least one woman, a retired auto worker and former business manager for Labor Notes, was injured and went to the hospital after being pushed to the floor and hitting her head on a table.
As the SEIU staff broke into the hall, some three dozen CNA/NNOC nurses and leaders, there to attend the conference, including Malinda Markowitz, RN, a member of CNA/NNOC’s Council of Presidents, who was scheduled to speak in DeMoro’s place, were whisked out the back of the hall for their safety, leaving in vans. The atmosphere was so tense that hotel cooks tried to climb into the vans to join them for fear of their own safety.
The evening assault at Labor Notes followed a day of disruption by SEIU staff at workshops throughout the day at which various CNA/NNOC members were on panels or participants.
“I am disgusted with the tactics of SEIU and their total disrespect for what was going on here — members from multiple unions who were discussing an agenda to fight the increased corporate attacks on working people,” said Markowitz. “It’s clear their only agenda here was to disrupt and try to divide labor and workers. Physical violence is absolutely unacceptable.”
“I am absolutely appalled, to have a union coming in here with tons of people ramming down doors. If they have these kind of resources, why aren’t they using them to help people in the trenches rather than attacking nurses and other working people,” said Danielle Magana, RN, an NNOC member from San Antonio, Tex.
“If I were a nurse here I would not join such an aggressive union,” said Prudencia Mweemba, an RN from Zambia who is a PhD candidate at Kent State who was attending the conference. “What they did today showed me they are irresponsible. I don’t see how they can represent people with such an attitude.”
“Had I not seen this with my own eyes I would not have believed it,” said Kimberly Helmick, an Ohio RN. “SEIU did a big injustice to all the labor movement people who were here.”
DeMoro noted that irony of the attack on a conference, in which union democracy was a major topic, coinciding with growing efforts by Stern and SEIU International to suppress dissent in his own union and signing contracts with employers that limit the voice of SEIU members at the workplace.
SEIU contracts with nursing home chains, for example, have limited the ability of caregivers to protest and report unsafe conditions. Within SEIU, Stern has been engaged in targeting dissenters and seeking to limit participation at his international convention in June.
Another example, she noted, was SEIU’s pact with a Catholic hospital chain in Ohio where SEIU had the employer file for an election to impose SEIU as its handpicked union for RNs and other staff. The deal also barred employees from discussing the election or the union. Ultimately, Stern and the employer cancelled the election when the deal was exposed in part because of CNA/NNOC criticism of the deal, the pretext of the Michigan attack Saturday night.
For more information about SEIU’s efforts on behalf of employers, see www.ServingEmployersInsteadofUs.org.
And, from the SEIU:
Dearborn, MI—Hundreds of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members from across the country joined in protest tonight, renouncing recent actions by the California Nurses Association (CNA) to interfere in other unions’ organizing efforts. SEIU members made their voices heard during the Labor Notes Conference in Dearborn, Michigan, where CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro was scheduled to speak but cancelled at the last minute, anticipating the scrutiny her actions were expected to receive. Below is a statement from SEIU Executive Vice President Mary Kay Henry:
“Tonight, SEIU members stood up for the future of the labor movement and called on the California Nurses Association to stop fighting with other unions and start helping us build a stronger labor movement to help all workers reclaim the American Dream.
“At a time when the economy is in a downward spiral, when income inequality and economic uncertainty are at record levels and when only 12.1 percent of the U.S. workforce has union representation, we simply can not abide by union-busting and member poaching between unions. Unions must stand united for the interests of working people.
“The more than 800 SEIU members who traveled to Dearborn from all parts of the country tonight would much rather be at home: holding their local state and national representatives accountable; going door to door to elect pro-worker candidates; and helping security officers, janitors, healthcare workers, and other service workers unite to attain a voice on the job. But CNA’s recent actions threaten the future of the labor movement for all workers—and we cannot remain silent.
“Open debate serves an important role as we work to strengthen our movement. The Labor Notes Conference is the right time and place to discuss our differences. Emergency room hallways and days before contentious union elections are not.
“Our ability as workers, progressives, and labor leaders to ensure that unions play a role in mending the economic woes of our nation depends on our ability to grow and our ability to work together. Tonight we call on CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro and the entire labor movement to take a deep breath, to realize what is at stake, and to put the interests of working people ahead of union differences.”