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JUNE 22, 2006


Pride 2006
Labor has long ties to LGBT rights fight
by Kevin Davis

Sal Rosselli, one of the community grand marshals of this year's 
LGBT Pride Parade, has for 40 years had an active role in two 
social justice movements: workplace democracy and LGBT 

First, as a student reporter and later as a college radical turned 
college government leader, Rosselli aided the indigent and was 
active in Democratic Party politics. He was an early organizer 
in the city's response to the AIDS epidemic and, in recent years 
has used all that hands-on experience to work within organized 
labor as it faces friction from within its own ranks.

With a slightly lower profile than many in the city's gay political 
establishment, Rosselli has, since 1988, served as president of the 
140,000-member Service Employees International Union's United 
Healthcare Workers-West. Rosselli leads one of the few expanding 
union affiliates.

Last month the San Francisco Labor Council's Political Education 
Committee honored Rosselli and Assemblyman Mark Leno 
(D-San Francisco), the first time that two openly gay men were 
honored on the same night.

Attending parochial schools in Albany, New York from pre-
kindergarten to senior year, where he served as class vice president 
and school newspaper editor, Rosselli was raised in a "very loving, 
together," and "extreme Catholic" family, attending daily Mass 
with two younger sisters and his father.

"The cultural expectation as the oldest grandson was that I would 
enter the priesthood," said Rosselli, 56, who dated women until his 
mid-20s, his sexuality off the radar.

Enrolling at Catholic Niagara University at 17, he studied biology, 
but was expelled after two years for successfully organizing students 
to reject mandatory basic ROTC in 1968.

In 1969, Rosselli lived and worked at Manhattan's Chrystie Street 
Hospitality House, cooking meals and sheltering the homeless with 
Dorothy Day (1897-1980), the pacifist conscientious objector and 
journalist who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Day 
lived through the 1906 earthquake, and was jailed multiple times 
for acts of nonviolent resistance ? with suffragettes in 1917, after 
refusing to take shelter during WWII civil defense drills simulating 
nuclear attacks, and in 1969, protesting with California farm workers.

A poetic symmetry is apparent between Rosselli's union philosophy 
and Day's conviction advocating personal responsibility and 
performing works of mercy.

"She had the most profound influence on my social and economic 
justice work, a most extraordinary woman," he said.

In 1971 he volunteered in an arts and crafts cooperative in 
Lawrenceville, Indiana, with Volunteers In Service to America, the 
one-year national domestic service program initiated by President 
Kennedy that began in the Johnson administration. The program 
was part of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act.

Rosselli then sped cross-country on a Triumph motorcycle with his 
best friend, and ended up broke in Oakland. He started attending 
City College in San Francisco at age 21, where he served as student 
council president and was the student representative on the 
community college's board from 1979-1980. Motivated, he said, 
by his "great appreciation for free higher education," he ran for an 
elected seat on the board in 1980 and 1982 (against out lesbian 
Carole Migden, now a state senator. Both lost).

In 1980, while working nights cleaning TV stations, an SEIU 
leader asked Rosselli to help with a protracted battle to unionize 
theater janitors.

"I put medical school on the back burner," he said.

Others in organized labor took notice.

"I could see he had exceptional skills," said Howard Wallace, who 
in 1974 helped unite Coors beer boycotts by both the Teamsters and 
gay community, supported rent control with the 1970s Bay Area 
Gay Liberation, and led the AFL-CIO-affiliated Pride at Work and 
Lesbian-Gay Labor Alliance.

Wallace is currently vice president of the San Francisco Labor 

Rosselli is "effective at reaching out to a broad formation on 
picket lines ? a multinational, multicultural composition," said 
Wallace. "He fused together a number of friendships, and is very 
good at speaking one on one with people, getting commitments to 
do work. He's had that gift a long time. He doesn't try to do 
anything alone. He's unusual in that respect."

"A tireless worker" with "strong commitment," and "a certain 
amount of charisma," said Wallace. "People are attracted to him. 
He's a person of action. He doesn't just sit around. He gets things 

Rosselli served as president of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT 
Democratic Club in 1984, which previously supported Rosselli's 
run for college board.

"As president of Alice he was very dynamic," said Steve Walters, 
the club's president in 1980. "Under his leadership we had the 
largest membership before and maybe since. He had an incredible 
amount of energy and focus."

"He's always been out-front gay," and "able to bridge both 
communities, gay and straight, by focusing on the issues," said 
Walters, who called Rosselli credible and "forthright for what 
he thought was in the best interest of the [LGBT] community. 
What's wonderful about him is he doesn't bullshit. He really 
tells it like it is."

During the early years of AIDS, Rosselli led the KS Foundation 
(now the San Francisco AIDS Foundation), meeting in a second 
floor Castro Street storefront). During its grass roots development, 
the foundation depended on the SEIU's resources for printing 
treatment and safety materials.

With little known information, union members on the frontlines 
were fearful when the epidemic first surfaced, but later, Wallace 
noted, "The United Healthcare Workers did a major amount of 
work in terms of educating people about AIDS ? that it's not 

In Rosselli's successful 1988 election bid for the Local 250 
presidency, in what he called a "bitter, divisive race," his 
opponent mailed a "sophisticated targeted gay hit piece," 
juxtaposing various Bay Area Reporter headlines to publicize 
his role as a gay rights leader.

But does the McLaren Park-area resident who works out at 
a 24-Hour Fitness and occasionally attends Harvey Milk LGBT 
Democratic Club meetings, attempt to butch up his act when 
across the bargaining table from gruff, intransigent management?

"I'm just myself," Rosselli said. "I am who I am."

The two biggest events under Rosselli's Local 250 tenure have 
been his leadership in unifying the north state SEIU Local and 
the Southland's Local 399 into the biggest healthcare workers' 
union west of the Mississippi, and SEIU's decision last year to 
leave the AFL-CIO due to fundamental philosophical differences.

SEIU favors investing in organizing workers in a single industry. 
The SEIU's course echoes Day's conviction of achieving better 
standards through direct action, not the elusive anticipation that 
elected leaders will one day appoint to state and federal labor 
offices officials who keep corporate America in check and 
safeguard worker rights.

"The organizing skills of Sal Rosselli are extremely evident," 
said San Francisco Labor Council Executive Director Tim 
Paulson. "He successfully led the merger of two unions with 
common employers, and can now bargain together on an 
industry-wide basis rather than piece by piece."

Rosselli's industry-based strategy, of challenging one big 
hospital chain, for example, results in better contracts and 
stronger leverage. With union members in the state's remote 
corners pounding on elected officials' doors, "They can't 
escape us, or our voting capacity, and ability to form 
coalitions," said Wallace.

"Sal had an inspiration that this was possible," said Wallace, 
contrasting Rosselli's "risky vision," with shrinking unions 
that lack such vision.

Rosselli is inviting healthcare workers, especially those 
caring for people living with AIDS, to walk with him in 
Sunday's Pride Parade.

"I'm personally honored in this, the 25th anniversary of 
AIDS, to be honoring those who care for people with AIDS," 
he said.

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