Rifts in labor appear as discussions intensify over health care coverage

When Art Pulaski, the head of the 2.1 million-strong California Labor Federation, picked up his Oct. 26 Sacramento Bee, he was not pleased: There in the opinion section was a piece written by a top carpenters’ union official blasting fellow union members for “effectively” killing health care reform.

“In a misguided attempt to remain relevant, the California labor movement has resorted to a hyperpartisan approach and tactics such as fasting, candlelight vigils and chanting that forces one to assume that labor has lost the ability to do what it is supposed to do best—negotiate,” wrote Daniel Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters. “Labor has lost sight of a fundamental political maxim: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he added.

The commentary fell like a bomb in the organized labor community, partly because of the sentiments expressed, partly because some in labor view Curtin as a too-close ally of the Republican governor, and partly because health care reform is back on the table and labor is actively engaged in the discussions.

Some in the labor ranks complain that Curtin enjoys easy access to the Horseshoe—access that his colleagues in labor often don’t have.

Curtin’s letter stirred anger among organized labor executives, some of it rooted in philosophical differences between unions, some of it personal, some of it historic. In the eyes of some unionists, Curtin, who has directed the Carpenters’ Conference for the past six years, enjoys unusual access to the governor’s inner circle. In a Nov. 1 letter to Curtin, the angry Pulaski said Curtin “mangled the facts,” and described him as “an ill-informed spokesperson of this administration.”

Pulaski, whose group represents 1,200 union locals across California, added that Curtin “failed to contact us about any concerns you may have had with our positions on health care. That is why we find your op-ed, which publicly disparages our unions in the effort for fair health care reform, disconcerting.” Privately, Pulaski’s language was far sharper. “I guess you could say, he really ripped him a new one,” one labor supporter said.

Curtin flatly dismissed Pulaski’s contentions.

“I’m not a spokesperson for the governor. We fought him on all that stuff in 2005 (special-election ballot initiatives that included anti-labor provisions) and we wrote and produced campaign material. The carpenters spent a substantial amount of money.”

“We did it on our own,” he added. “We don’t speak for the governor, but when the governor supports $37 billion worth of infrastructure bonds, and we’re a construction union, and when he supports a $1.25 minimum wage increase, and now he supports universal health care and a water package – I have a hard time arguing against those. But to say I’m a spokesperson for the governor, that’s a stretch.”  

But others in labor also are critical of Curtin.

“I haven’t seen the carpenters make any big move on health care,” said Jeanine Meyer Rodriguez, a spokeswoman and health-care activist for the Service Employees International Union, SEIU. She has worked for two years on health care reform, and she was particularly unahppy with Curtin’s comments. “I can’t say where he got his information, but he was certainly siding with the governor in that ‘op-ed.’ ”

“He’s been in a vacuum on this,” she added. “He hasn’t been involved in health care reform here at all. I’ve been running this health care campaign for months and months, and I haven’t seen Danny Curtin once,” she said, noting that the controversy surrounding Curtin’s purported relationship with the governor’s staff arose in earlier during the debate over the minimum wage.

“This came up over the minimum wage, and he was pretty much siding with the governor. The fact is, he was wrong then, and he is wrong now,” Rodriguez said.

Sal Roselli, the president of SEIU in California, was equally blunt. Roselli called Curtin the “chief lobbyist for the carpenters’ union” and an “ally of Gov. Schwarzenegger.” Roselli made the comments in an email to Andy Stern, the national head of SEIU in Washington, D.C., and other labor officials. Capitol Weekly reviewed a copy of the email.

“Curtin’s op-ed needs to be seen for what it is – part of the governor’s spin…,” Roselli said. “Curtin is not in a position to understand much of what labor and the Speaker are doing to achieve real reform.”

The dispute over Curtin, who is not a registered lobbyist, reflects differences in labor that have percolated for years—differences that resemble a family feud.

Partly, it shows the unhappiness that some in labor have felt for the carpenters’ decision years ago to split off from the larger Building and Construction Trades Council. SEIU’s decision at the national level to split off from the American Federation of Labor has also played out in California, where SEIU Local 1000 has become an autonomous union with some 85,000 state employees—the largest state employee bargaining group. Other unions are critical of each other –SEIU and the California State Employees Association, for example—and others maintain a public silence, but their members privately leave little doubt about their feelings.

In part, it was the public nature of Curtin’s comments that angered other unionists.

“He doesn’t really even speak for the carpenters. We got no sense from the carpenters that they share the same sentiments that he expressed in that article. We think this came from Danny alone. He’s out there sort of by himself, except for the governor. I mean, he’s taken positions that are really against labor,” said Anastasia Ordonez, spokeswoman for the California Labor Federation.

As for Curtin, he’s taken the rhetorical barbs in stride.

“We’re not affiliated with the AFL-CIO, we are relatively independent minded, we are independent spirited, and we have been for quite a while. We tend to be more pragmatic, we’re focused on our organizing and trade issues,” Curtin said.
“But I’m not driven by any relationship with the governor,” he added.

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