A Test for Union Leadership

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The LA Times recently published an excellent investigative story on Tyrone Freeman, the leader of California’s largest SEIU local, which represents home health care givers. It’s an outrageous tale of self-dealing, with money from union affiliates going to the business pursuits of Freeman’s wife and mother-in-law.

Freeman, 38, is a young and talented leader; I saw that firsthand as a reporter covering labor for the LA Times in 2006. Freeman is popular within the union movement, and close to SEIU’s international president, Andy Stern. (The last time I saw Freeman, he and Stern were sitting down to a meal at the Pacific Dining Car). So this is going to be a difficult test of the union movement in LA and nationallly.

But it’s a test. Freeman needs to step down and offer a full-throated apology. The union needs to ask for an independent audit of the local. And the public needs to hear immediately from union leadership — Stern, county labor chief Maria Elena Durazo, other top SEIU leaders such as janitors’ union chief Mike Garcia — about how such conduct must not be permitted in the movement. So far, the silence is deafening. Stern, in the story, refuses to address the conduct in question. That won’t cut it.

Why does the action need to be so clear-cut? Because the labor movement is on the rise in Los Angeles. To attend a city council meeting or a mayoral press conference is to watch the labor movement governing the city. As the journalist Harold Meyerson has written, the rise of the LA unions as a labor force has been aided by the widespread perception that our unions are not old-style, corrupt empires. This is supposed to be new labor. The public needs to see transparency and accountability in the response to this.

As for Freeman, I hope he can make amends for this conduct and have a future in the labor movement. But it can’t be as president of this local.

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