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Dissent in Big Purple: Democratizing SEIU

Peter Brogan, Andrew Cornell
Date Published: 
November 1, 2008

Although the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has led the Change to Win labor federation since 2005, many of its members now claim the union itself needs to change substantially if it is to continue winning improvements in the lives of working people. Representing approximately 1.9 million workers in the low-wage healthcare, service, and building maintenance industries, SEIU is one of the most dynamic unions in the US labor movement. As organized labor has continued its downward spiral—only 12.4 percent of the US workforce is unionized—“Big Purple” has brought nearly 800,000 new members into its ranks in recent years. Moreover, with a membership that is 40 percent people of color and 60 percent women, SEIU has focused on organizing some of the most economically vulnerable sectors of the workforce.

Yet, two forces this year have emerged inside SEIU to challenge the direction President Andy Stern has set for the union and the labor movement more broadly. United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), which represents over 150,000 healthcare workers in California and is SEIU’s fastest growing local, has been engaged in a fierce battle with Stern and the leadership of the international union since the local’s leaders publicly aired criticisms of Stern’s agenda last January. According to John Borsos, one of UHW’s vice presidents, the international has been trying to place the UHW in trusteeship—a process in which the international takes direct control of the local, usually to root out corruption—because UHW is “in the forefront of calling out SEIU for negotiating sweetheart deals” with management.

Alongside this fight, rank and file members have been building a national organization, SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today (SMART), to transform SEIU into a more democratic and “bottom-up” union rooted in the membership. Though SMART has its strongest presence in California, members from all divisions of SEIU have begun to participate.

Union densityIn order to reverse the crisis faced by labor, Stern and his allies argue that unions must prioritize “organizing the unorganized”—the vast majority of US workers— at all costs. Stern argues that greater union density (the percentage of workers in unions) increases labor’s power to set standards within regional markets and industries. This, in turn, will provide the political leverage necessary to alter the legal environment that currently makes organizing so difficult. While SEIU has doubled the money it spends on organizing in the past four years it has also significantly centralized power and resources into the hands of a few top officers. In the name of streamlining its organizing efforts, SEIU has carried out a widespread program of merging locals, opening call centers to service current members, and signing “neutrality” or other partnership agreements with employers.

As one SEIU organizer in northern California told us, this grow-at-any-cost mentality lacks a clearly defined “vision of what we’re fighting for,” and risks conceding core principles of unionism, such as the right to strike. Recently, long time labor organizers Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin have termed this singular focus on growing numbers the “ideologizing of organizing”—a belief that organizing workers is inherently progressive, regardless of the character and vision of the unions involved. Radicals inside and outside the union charge Stern with ushering in a dangerous new form of corporate unionism—one that rejects class struggle in favor of cooperation with employers, marginalizes workers and members from union life, and embraces the transnational corporation as its organizational model.

A major component of Stern’s program has been a vast consolidation of members into “mega locals” which represent workers across large geographical areas, in some cases more than four states. Ostensibly these mergers were implemented to transform SEIU into an effective industrial union with the power to, according to Stern, “build industry and geographic strength for members,” and eventually standardize contracts and win national standards in each of the industries it represents. However, as labor journalist Kim Moody writes, the mergers have significantly increased the power of the international over locals and made it increasingly difficult for members to participate in the union.

In many cases, the leadership of locals that were merged was replaced entirely by Stern appointees. In her 2005 book Poor Workers’ Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below, Vanessa Tait writes that, “Since 1996, some 40 locals, or about 14 percent of SEIU affiliates, were forced into trusteeship with officers newly appointed by the national union, usually from outside the units they headed.” Borsos claims that a majority of SEIU members in California belong to locals with unelected officers.  “When the mergers were first proposed, some of the smaller locals, like 790 [in San Francisco], had been more democratic, member driven unions,” said Larry Bradshaw, Chief Shop Steward of Local 1021 and member of SMART. “All bigger meant was more bureaucratic; it did not translate into any more power. The latest budget fight in California demonstrated how ineffective these mega locals have been in mobilizing against job cuts.” 

SEIU has also established “Member Resource Centers,” essentially telephone hot lines intended to address members’ basic inquiries and grievances, ostensibly freeing up staff and stewards to organize. While the SEIU staff we spoke with admitted that these call centers have been effective in lightening their workload, it is not clear how effective they have been in bolstering the work of shop stewards or empowering members. SMART contends that members of Service Workers United (SWU), formed by SEIU and UNITE/HERE, report calls to their Member Resource Center often went unanswered for months. It is also unclear how the International intends to use call centers in the long run. Critics question whether they will be used to displace the steward systems, make organizers themselves into more “flexible” workers, or potentially serve as tools for taking over dissident locals like UHW.

Stephen Osserman, an organizer on a leave of absence from the healthcare division of SEIU, doesn’t see the centers as inherently demobilizing. However, he argues, “You can’t replace organizers in workplaces with a call center and expect to organize. In order to be a democratic organization, if you have a call center, you have to keep staffing levels the same for the old representatives and organizers and you have to immediately replace everyday grievances with other things as the center of the fight. There need to be other issues for members to experience collective action and win on.” John Borsos agrees with Osserman but is skeptical that the centers will be used to promote an active membership. “The justification behind call centers was to enhance the work of stewards, not to replace them,” he says. “But when we tried to put language into the official resolution making that explicit, it was voted down on the floor [of the SEIU convention].”

Neutrality agreementsPerhaps the most contentious issue in recent years has been SEIU’s growing reliance on neutrality agreements with employers. Current regulations make union elections organized by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) exceedingly difficult for workers to win. Employers have wide latitude to feed workers false information about unions, intimidate, and fire them. When companies commit illegal practices, arbitration is so delayed that it frequently kills organizing momentum, and violations carry such minimal penalties that they rarely serve as a deterrent to aggressively anti-union companies. Under these conditions any alternative mode of organizing is seen to offer a better chance at victory, so SEIU has pioneered strategies to win recognition by promoting card-check elections and by signing neutrality agreements with employers. The labor movement is currently promoting the Employee Free Choice Act, federal legislation that would enable groups of workers to unionize by simply convincing a majority to sign cards stating their desire to affiliate. The Act would also institute stiffer penalties for employers who violate their workers rights while seeking union representation and would provide for mediation and arbitration to settle first contracts if after six months both sides are unable to reach an agreement.

Until such legislation passes, SEIU organizers have developed a strategy for circumventing NLRB elections on a case-by-case basis by persuading employers to severely limit their anti-union efforts in exchange for promises from the union. Initially, SEIU was able to secure deals by aggressively attacking a company’s public image, stock valuation, or political leverage by running “corporate campaigns” prior to organizing workers. More recently, however, SEIU has begun to seal such deals by agreeing to limit in advance the terms of bargaining, future organizing campaigns, and curtailing workers’ rights to take job actions like strikes.

Osserman explains that unions seek neutrality agreements using a “carrot and stick” strategy. “I don’t think anyone in the labor movement would object to signing neutrality agreements with employers if they were obtained solely by pressuring the company and without giving away any of the workers’ options,” he argues. “But when the balance is starting to tip toward more carrot and less stick, its easier to question whether the outcome will be good for the workers.”

In 2006, for example, San Francisco based UNITE-HERE Local 2, won a neutrality agreement through a hard fought campaign that included strikes, lock-outs and other actions against target hotels that opened the way for it to organize in suburban markets. However, UHW officers and other critics say the “sweetheart” agreements SEIU has been making in recent years have been more beneficial to employers than workers and have marginalized union members in the process. For instance, when SEIU secured a quiet quid-pro-quo agreement with California’s Nursing Home Alliance that gave the union organizing rights at facilities the companies chose, it was in exchange for the union lobbying the state legislature to increase funding for the nursing home industry. The union spread “template agreements” to newly organized homes that gave up the right to strike, limited workers’ ability to talk about patient conditions publicly, and contained wages and benefits below those in other SEIU-organized nursing homes. Ironically, SEIU organized more non-Alliance nursing homes while the agreement was in effect, often wining better contracts and standards.

The problem, Osserman maintains, is that employers have developed more effective responses to the pressure tactics that SEIU and other unions successfully wielded in previous years, forcing the union to increasingly rely on incentives and giveaways to wrangle neutrality agreements from companies it is attempting to organize. Bradshaw finds this explanation unconvincing: “When the international is making secret deals to organize workers, they’re keeping workers outside, making them third parties. It doesn’t really give them any control over the work place. The workers are not being empowered,” explains Bradshaw.

Fighting for reformTaken together, the mergers, call centers, and neutrality agreements threaten to virtually remove members from meaningful participation in their own unions. A founding member of SMART, Lev Kvitky argues that: “SEIU is now the perfect labor-based counterpart to our corporate bosses, preferring short-term gain over long-term health, quantity over quality, and growth at any cost.” He sees the union becoming “akin to a Sierra Club for workers— little more than a non-accountable member association and a massive political lobbying arm. Members are on the verge of losing control at all levels over the direction of SEIU.”

The reform agenda SMART and UHW share is based on two fundamental principles: 1) a rejection of deals that marginalize workers and make serious concessions with employers in order to increase membership in the short term; and 2) a recognition that the key to rebuilding the labor movement is by building a more democratic and accountable union with an active and empowered membership. Central to this task is guaranteeing members a right to elect their own negotiating committees; develop and vote on their bargaining proposals, which are formulated through membership surveys and other consultation processes; vote on contracts; and directly elect their local and international leadership.

While hardly a radical one, at its core the reform agenda is about bringing organized and unorganized workers back to the center of their own struggles, which requires the rank and file, rather than unelected and disconnected union leaders, to be in control of their unions. Reformers are demanding that more resources go towards training member organizers and leaders so that they can be a central part of new organizing campaigns. UHW and SMART are demanding that SEIU help workers change their lives, not simply bulk up membership rolls in one particular union. Although Stern begins from the premise that many members and local officers do not recognize the importance of organizing, these reformers are strong proponents of organizing—just not at the expense of democratic control of their union. SMART contends that strong contracts and local unions members feel connected to are the best motivators for workers to join SEIU.

“As activists in SMART we’re talking about democracy and accountability not just because they’re good principles but because they’re key to building an effective and powerful union movement,” says Bradshaw.

Peter Brogan is a writer and labor organizer living in Brooklyn, New York. He is a former officer of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3903, which is currently on strike.

Andrew Cornell is a member, and former staff organizer, of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee/UAW at New York University. He has also organized with the Carpenters Union, the Steelworkers, and SEIU.