David Rolf, the president of SEIU 775, is on his way out.
His departure comes amid internal questions about his leadership and increasing external challenges to his union’s ability to continue coercively collecting dues.
Rolf’s nearly 16-year tenure at SEIU 775 was defined by his authoritarian management style and his union’s exploitation of tens of thousands of Washington home caregivers. The heavy-handedness extended even to the union’s leadership change.
In an announcement, SEIU 775 claimed, “Caregivers from Washington and Montana have elected Sterling Harders as the new president of SEIU 775, the long-term care workers’ union, by an overwhelming majority.”
Harders is a longtime SEIU 775 staffer and executive. While Harders was undoubtedly elected by an “overwhelming majority” of those who participated in the election, it is doubtful she received votes from more than a handful of SEIU 775 members.
Rolf described Harders to the Seattle Times as his “designated successor”— an apt description, since a copy of the “SEIU 775 2018 Officer Elections Ballot” obtained by the Freedom Foundation included only a single choice for each of the union officer and executive board positions. To make things easier, members could vote for the entire “unity slate” of four officers and 33 executive board members by checking a single box on the ballot.
Given that she was literally the only choice, it is surprising that Harders received merely “overwhelming” and not unanimous support.
For a union that claims to be “member-driven,” the sham election was reminiscent of those conducted in failed states in which dictators receive almost unanimous support. Even banana republics typically try to provide at least the illusion of a choice to keep up appearances.
Equally dubious was the explanation for Rolf’s departure. Rolf stated, “I’m leaving because, back in its infancy, our union had the foresight and courage to adopt term limits for its top elected leaders.” The union’s website echoed the talking point, claiming Rolf had reached “officer term limits set when he and other members wrote SEIU 775’s Constitution and Bylaws in 2003.”
But this is simply not true. If Rolf had abided by the term limits originally established by the union’s bylaws, he would have stepped down years ago.
Through 2012, the union’s bylaws provided the president could only serve 12 years in a row and no more than 14 years total.
SEIU Local 6 was the union initially certified to represent caregivers in Washington. Rolf was appointed its president by the national SEIU in 2002, only to be voted out by the membership later that year. In response, the national SEIU chartered a new local, SEIU 775, gave it jurisdiction over home caregivers, and appointed Rolf the president on Dec. 13, 2002. The new union’s first set of bylaws was approved on Feb. 27, 2004. Thus, under the original rules, Rolf would have had to step down no later than early 2016.
In 2013, however, the bylaws were amended to allow the president to serve up to 15 consecutive years in office, granting Rolf another three years on the job.
This raises some interesting questions. If Rolf wanted to remain at the helm, why not simply change the bylaws to extend his term as he did before? And if he was looking to leave SEIU 775, why blame his departure on term limits?
Perhaps Rolf’s departure had nothing to do with the bylaws at all.
Last year, the Freedom Foundation reported how the union representing SEIU 775 employees described the workplace atmosphere as “toxic” and had requested the union’s leadership take “third-party management training.”
At the same time, the Freedom Foundation exposed how the union had been paying political firms where Rolf’s wife worked, in apparent violation of either the union’s ethics policy (if Rolf authorized the payments) or the union’s bylaws (if someone other than the president authorized the payments).
While dismissing the Freedom Foundation’s exposé as “lies,” the union admitted to making the payments but claimed “President Rolf was not involved in the decision” to contract with his wife’s firms. If true, it appears the payments may have violated the union’s bylaws which grant the president “sole authority” to hire contractors and vendors and the power to “authorize and make all expenditures and disbursements, and to sign all checks on behalf of the Union.”
Some of these issues may have come to the attention of the international SEIU, which has been forced by scandals to begin cleaning house in recent years.
It is also possible that Rolf, who has sought to reverse the decline of organized labor generally, has become increasingly uncertain about the future of his own union.
From day one, SEIU 775 has existed by using government policy to coerce home caregivers into paying union dues. From 2003-14, the union’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the state of Washington governing Medicaid-paid individual provider home care aides (IPs) required all caregivers to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment.
At 3.2 percent, SEIU 775 dues are more than twice as high as the 1.5 percent dues rate paid by state employees. Additionally, SEIU 775 provides comparatively few representational services to its members, the vast majority of whom work at home providing care to a relative.
As a result, the union collects tens of millions of dollars in Medicaid funds from caregivers’ wages each year, much of which is used to advance a political agenda that has little to do with union representation.
The U.S. Supreme Court denounced the arrangement as an unconstitutional “scheme” in its 2014 Harris v. Quinn decision, finding that caregivers could not be forced to financially support a union against their will.
But that did not stop SEIU 775 from continuing to exploit IPs. Working with politically aligned state officials, SEIU 775 has concocted a host of coercive schemes to keep taking dues from caregivers’ wages against their will.
Gradually, the tide has been turning. Since the Harris decision, the Freedom Foundation has worked to help educate IPs about their rights and assisted thousands of caregivers in resigning from SEIU 775. After another loss for compelled union dues before the U.S. Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME in June, the Freedom Foundation brought a federal class-action lawsuit against SEIU 775 on behalf of IPs who had dues taken from their wages without their prior authorization. As a result, the union has been forced to stop seizing dues from as many as six thousand additional caregivers.
Whereas the union used to boast that, “Less than one half of one percent of caregivers have chosen to give up their rights and withdraw from membership,” Rolf told the Seattle Times this week the union’s membership stood at 80 percent and “rising.” That’s some pretty interesting math.
And bigger threats are on the horizon. The Freedom Foundation has documented how federal Medicaid laws prohibits unions from collecting dues out of caregivers’ wages and the Center for Medicaid Services is moving to end the practice. Without the ability to seize dues from caregivers’ wages, many of the coercive schemes SEIU 775 has relied on would be significantly hampered.
Despite all the talk about the support of its membership, Rolf’s departure looks like somebody deserting a sinking ship. The cold reality is that not even David Rolf knows just how many caregivers see enough value in SEIU 775 to pay dues under a truly voluntary arrangement.
Unfortunately, his departure is unlikely to do much to change the union’s direction or priorities, which is bad news for Washington’s caregivers.
The good news is that the Freedom Foundation will continue working to hold union officials like David Rolf accountable and to prevent unions like SEIU 775 from hijacking the voices and funds of home caregivers to use for their own benefit.