by Harry Kelber, Labor's Voice for Change

There is no rulebook on trusteeships. The subject is not even mentioned in the AFL-CIO Constitution. In decades past, it was hardly used. When union leaders embezzled funds, engaged in corrupt practices or disregarded members’ rights, they would be removed after a hearing. The international union would then send in a trustee to administer the local. until it was stabilized. Usually a new election would be held, after which the trusteeship would be withdrawn.

The precise duties of the trustees or the length of their authority and other important details were rarely spelled out, but usually left to the discretion of the parent union. The end goal was to establish a healthy local union, with its leaders responsible for serving the needs and desires of the members.

Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, has transformed trusteeships into a fine art. If he is criticized by an SEIU local union for undemocratic behavior, he can clap a trusteeship on the local for refusing to follow SEIU policy, and then send in his own trustee to run it, in accordance with his wishes.

Since there are no s federal regulations governing trusteeships, Stern has been making up his own rules that work to his advantage. There is no fixed time limit on how long his trusteeships last or the terms when they would be withdrawn. Trustees have unrestricted powers, subject only to Stern’s approval.

Stern has added a new wrinkle to trusteeships. He appoints trustees with the understanding that they can run and be elected in the local union they are administering, even though they have had no connection or work experience in the industry. That’s one of the ways he builds a political machine that is loyal to him.

With his authority to restructure, eliminate or merge SEIU locals virtually at will. Stern decided to break up the California-based United Healthcare Workers West, the fastest-growing health care union in the nation, by raking 65,000 of its 150,000 members and putting them into another local.

In response to a storm of protests against his breakup plan, Stern removed the local’s president, Sal Rosselli, his strongest critic, and 100 elected UHW officers. He appointed two of his trusted SEIU officials, Eliseo Medina and Dave Regan, as trustees, who are now in total control of the local union.

Rules to Protect Members Against Unwarranted Trusteeships

Union members must be protected against the high-handed behavior of officials like Andy Stern, who operate as though they own their union. We suggest that this issue be taken up at the AFL-CIO convention in September and that proper safeguards be established against the abuse of trusteeships. We offer the following suggestions:
  • No trusteeship over a local union be permitted without a hearing and the approval of a majority of the members of the affected local.
  • The authority of the imported trustees shall be defined, including their duties and how long they will serve,
  • No trustee shall be permitted to run for elective office in the local union that he or she is supervising.
  • Where members feel that trustees are acting against their interests, they have a right to demand a hearing to consider their removal as trustees.
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