SEIU and other unions facing crisis as disputes between and within unions escalate
The following is a lengthy discussion of the current developing situation within the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
For example, the SEIU leadership recently ordered all local affiliates to withhold their dues from central labor bodies which share information, develop local solidarity, and wage campaigns such as strike support, living wage and establish common political agendas. The reason? To stop all such union groups from having any relations with the California Nurses or their National Nurses Organizing Committee. Their crime? To organize and push publicly for single-payer universal health insurance, for good nurse: patio staffing rations, and to criticize and compete with SEIU. Among teachers, SEIU’s impact is being felt in larger and larger ways. In addition to this California blackmail, SEIU is currently trying to replace the existing teachers’ union in Puerto Rico who were forced to strike this past winter. In fact, the SEIU offered to break the strike with scabs. Teachers from that union are picketing SEIU’s quadrennial convention being held in Puerto Rico right now, the first week of June.
In Chicago’s public schools, SEIU (Local 73) is the second largest union representing CPS workers (with approximately 5,000 members in CPS), after the Chicago Teachers Union. The following article traces the current internal divisions and issues at stake for working people over the undemocratic, corporate-style, grow-at-any-price unionism pursued under SEIU President Andy Stern and shared to some extent by his opponents. The challenge for us all is to understand these developments and how things got this way and create organizations for a fighting alternative. Andy Stern has led the SEIU to double its size, now 1.9 million members, since he was appointed organizing director back in 1985. Much of this growth has come from deals with employers that win some gains while locking new workers into huge organizations where they have little say-so. As attached documents here show, Stern’s grow-the-union deals in northern Calif. have meant freezing workers out of contract negotiations, blocking their right to go public about health and safety issues, and locking them into no-strike contracts under pre-set ‘template’ agreements.
At the same time, Stern has called international union conferences that generated pressure on global employers. He has sponsored creative coalitions to support organizing drives here in the U.S. A mixed bag.
Sal Rosselli is the president of United Healthcare Workers - West (UHW) now with over 140,000 members. As such, he signed off on and enforced those very same agreements with nursing home operators in northern California that he now denounces Stern for. Rosselli casts this fight as one between ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ union models, but all that glitters is not gold . At the same time, he has generated more rank-and-file pressure on operators than other Calif SEIU locals, something not appreciated either by the operators or, apparently, by Stern. Again, a mixed bag. This is not a simple conflict between good and evil. Even as Rosselli now challenges Stern’s one man rule and favors membership election, he
The fight is heating up in the country’s largest union, SEIU, the Service Employees. It concerns insider in-fighting, yes, but expresses widespread worker disaffection with top-down, corporate-partner unionism. Millions of working people are fed up with frozen pay, disappeared benefits, and growing insecurity. All driven by Corporate America’s insatiable drive for higher profits and abetted by ineffective unions. SEIU workers are coming forward to make the union serve their needs. You can visit them at _www.seiu reform.org_ (http://www. Seiu reform.org) .
The challenge is “Can the SEIU activists create an alternative to the union-corporate partnership they confront?”
This conflict is personified in now-open conflict between United Healthcare West’s president, Sal Rosselli and SEIU’s national president, Andy Stern. offers no challenge to the fundamental direction of union partnership with corporate management to ‘add value’ to their bottom line. Instead, he favors more pressure but towards the same accommodation and using the union to help employers As I hope to show here, this partnership strategy has meant and must mean undermining workers’ strength, creating divisions, and even attacking workers who resist corporate-imposed conditions. It is complicated and needs our critical investigation if we’re to move towards an alternative outlook and leadership. This clearly is an opportunity to build an alternative to this union-management cooperation path both Stern and Rosselli share — along with most U.S. union leadership and many conservative members. This internal conflict is as old as capitalism itself — some workers and leaders choosing the conservative, ‘go-along-to-get along’ tack while others take up the militant, class - solidarity approach.
Internally, Stern models the SEIU on corporate forms, such as “Local” unions of 100- 150,000 members with power concentrated in a few hands that he controls. This model of ‘efficiency’ just happens to coincide with the widespread practice of breaking up smaller, local unions when militant, democratic leadership wins elected leadership. Faced with this, top leaders in many unions often take over such locals, called receivership. In fact, that’s exactly what the SEIU did when the famous Justice for Janitors rank-and-file organizers won all the seats they contested in their local’s elections after organizing and leading successful mass actions in L.A. back in 1991. SEIU’s leaders, John Sweeney and his VP, Andy Stern, put them in receivership and diluted their influence by merging it into a huge, statewide ‘local’. The union-liberal publicity machine was big on the janitors’ marches, but said little about this undemocratic takeover.
Stern’s combination of controlled activism and partnering with Corporate America has paid off; the SEIU is the fastest growing major union in the country at a time of steady decline in union membership. However, bigger isn’t always better. When such growth reduces workers’ actual power in the workplace and makes us dependent on the union’s political machine, we’re reduced to being bargaining chips. Passivity is not strength. Just look at what the insurance companies did when the hurricanes hit New Orleans — no pay off when the chips are down. Activism brings some results, not insurance policies.
“Union-corporate partnership: a wet blanket ”
In my experience, the union-corporate “partnership” Stern embodies and that Rosselli continues to champion is little more than a wet blanket. It makes union leaders into firemen who dampen or put out our resistance to corporate-imposed conditions. Such union corporate jr. partners don’t’ just sit back; to protect the sr. partner — corporate profits and power. Experience shows that they actively undermine workers in the fight for solidarity and power to stand up for our needs. Any resistance to corporate attacks and for a workers’ agenda must start from this reality: we have to fight on two fronts, not just one. Below are examples from PATCO, the UAW and AFSCME:
PATCO- it didn’t have to be a defeat In the critical 1981 PATCO strike, President Reagan fired 11,000 overstressed air traffic controllers and brought in scabs. Unions from across the country passed resolutions calling on the AFL-CIO to call a general strike to defeat this union busting. Instead, that leadership refused, holding fast to their union-corporate junior partnership, upholding the corporate ‘order’ over workers’ struggle.
Locally, here in Chicago, the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, Robert Healey, threatened to cut off all union aid to the PATCO strikers if they dared hold a labor rally downtown and lead a motorcade to O’Hare International Airport to spark an airport shut down. The proposal and local contacts for the action came from a local group of radical worker - activists, something corporate partners like Healey feared like brain cancer. Such a powerful action might have turned the tide, shown the way forward around the inaction of the AFL leadership and most union bodies. Shutting down the country’s largest airport might have rallied and inspired wider sections of workers to effective action. It also would have shown workers that class struggle ideas can be useful. Healey spiked all this; the PATCO leaders caved under his threat. Healey was rewarded for his many years of such dependable service to Corporate America with an appointment to the Chicago branch of the Federal Reserve Board. The rest of us were treated to an onslaught against the working class that hasn’t stopped since.
“UAW firemen and the fallout”
Take the United Auto Workers’ political machine in Solidarity House. Once the giant of American labor, they’ve taken the big fall. Over the years, they’ve agreed to hundreds of thousands of job cuts .The rationale? To protect company profitability. Results? This past year, they agreed to 50 percent wage cuts for tens of thousands and accepted a deal where all retirees’ health benefits are underfunded by $14 Billion. Those working are screwed; those who made it to retirement face greater insecurity. This collapse opens the door for many more employers to cut wages and benefits. After all, if the once-mighty UAW stands for this, what’s to stop others?
Faced with the market competition inherent in capitalism, this dedication to the corporate bottom line means us going down with their ship. Anyone fighting to renew our unions must start with this reality if we’re to create an alternative. Otherwise, we’ve got no answer to the race to the bottom already under way.
“How did things get so bad in the UAW?” conditions and disrespectful treatment.
This already-radicalized layer of factory workers fought the conditions they faced in auto, steel and other industries. Fighting management, they ran into the a hidden reef— UAW political machine.
To fight speedup, these young workers sent a delegation to Japan to set common production speed standards directly with Japanese auto workers and their unions. They also sent out teams to various U.S. plants to make a common stand. To counter this, the UAW leadership machine attacked them and stirred up nationalist (“Buy American!”) and racist (“ It’s the Japs!”) sentiment. It got so bad that UAW officials and some auto workers smashed some auto workers’ Japanese-made cars in parking lots and several thugs actually murdered a Chinese man in Detroit under the impression he was Japanese. Domestically, the UAW machine pushed the company line of competition between domestic plants for work, called whipsawing — where each plant competes against others for work, all under the same UAW collaboration. It was competition vs. solidarity. The radical workers lost, a loss we all feel today. Lessons must be taken if we’re not to repeat that loss and that opportunity.
When these auto workers organized wildcat strikes against unsafe work and racist job practices, the same UAW machine brought out hundreds of supporters to attack their pickets with iron bars. When these workers ran slates for local office, the same machine stole elections and used openly racist and red-baiting tactics against the often Black-led upsurge. (Some history: Starting around the late 1960s, mostly young auto workers began to resist speedup and unsafe conditions. Many younger workers came to auto plants as combat vets from Vietnam or veterans of struggles here against racist conditions in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Both black and white, they were not prepared to quietly accept the dangerous this is visible in the movie “ Finally Got the News!” about the Detroit-based League of Revolutionary Black Workers.).
To fight back, auto workers ran into the partnership machine. The pro-civil rights, ‘progressive’ UAW leadership machine typified the ‘jr. partnership’ approach that Stern and Rosselli both share, There will be no advance for us if we don’t face and learn to grow under this reality.
“The AFSCME story, our experience”
In our union, AFSCME, my fellow-teachers and I got a similar education. When our local introduced a motion at our state convention calling for our state union, Council 31, to actively campaign for single-payer health coverage, the state leadership opposed the resolution even as they supported one that called for no action. Then, when we apparently won the vote, the Executive Director ruled against us and moved the agenda before we
In February 2003, our Local (3506) was five days from shutting down the City Colleges’ largest program with 60,000 GED and ESL students in a legally-sanctioned strike after three years of preparations. In the last day of scheduled negotiations, AFSCME’s state leadership told us that they’d label us a wildcat and sit back when management fired anyone they chose. You could feel the air pumped out of our lungs. When push came to shove, you could see which side they too were on.. “Class solidarity vs. class collaboration”
Hopefully, these examples and everyday life shows that union-corporate ‘cooperation’ really means isolating us as workers, playing divide-and-rule that protects corporate domination and union insiders’ perks. Of course, there were, are, and will be workers who have no taste for any challenges and who support this collaboration. Such divisions between conservative and militants are natural; there is no pure group just waiting for someone to call “Charge!” on their trumpets! All efforts to challenge the current path require open discussion and decisions by those committed to resistance and a real alternative. This is a profoundly political process. Clarity is critical. Ideas influence actions, so we must be able to investigate them and their usefulness for us — from Andy Stern’s to Karl Marx’s.
Since we are all connected by the global economic system, a genuine fight for an alternative path in SEIU would offer hope for us all. And especially now, as North America sinks further into economic turmoil, with bailouts for the mendacious corporate thieves and growing hardship for huge numbers of ‘ordinary’, i.e. working class, people. Right now, hunger gnaws at more bellies, here and globally. Food pantries here go empty while food riots
grow across the world. Now, more than ever, we must have vision, organization, and leadership that connects us as a class, local to global. This alone can brings our strengths together like tendons connect bone and muscles in our body.
How can we defend better union pay when most people around us are going down? Our reform groups must connect with the millions outside our unions or risk being isolated and defeated as ‘greedy unions who only look out for themselves’. Unions can take up this challenge and opportunity. Concretely, the SEIU activists can lead a fight for worker-patient conditions. They can unite with millions if they campaign for publicly - funded health care, against subsidies for the profiteers. They can seek allies and build bridges of solidarity in action for things most people need and support. This kind of strategy gives us ways to connect our common interests, concretely.
History gives us positive examples to learn from, for example, the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) of the 1920s-30s,, led by the Communist Party and organized around the strategy of industrial unions vs. the conservative, narrow-interest AFL trade unions. This group was national, organized around an alternative path. Many of its members went on to help organize the breakaway Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s.
Right now, rail workers from many trade unions are forming a new, national organization called Rail Workers United. (www.railraod workers united. org_(http://www.railraodworkers united.org) ). It’s goal is to unite rail workers, beyond the narrow limits of each trade. While we lack any viable national left organization, we do have people coming forward, building towards broader solidarity unionism.
All that glitters is not gold
Such reform fights are not new; but how many have led to disappointment and greater hopelessness among workers? As everyone knows, ‘talking the talk’ isn’t ‘walking the walk’. We owe it to ourselves and so many others to take a careful look, to investigate some of the contradictory experience here and draw useful lessons. Creating an alternative to today’s corporate union partnership is a hard job. Part of that job means untangling workers’ interests from specific leaders who often use language of
democracy and workers’ power to cover their own aspirations and loyalty to corporate collaboration.
We see this today (April, 2008) with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama using populist language of ‘the people vs. special interests’ to cover their own loyalty to Corporate America and its domination.. At the same time, many ‘union reformers’ have used similar appeals to gather discontent and lead it into the same dead end, only with news faces and under new banners. We saw this with John Sweeney and the New Voices winning AFL-CIO leadership in 1995. No fight. More sellouts. Some change.
Sal Rosselli’s challenge to some of Stern’s methods will come to a head at SEIU’s May 2008 convention. He’s proposed one-member, one-vote elections of national officers, not convention delegate elections. His proposals, while apparently democratic, do not in any way challenge SEIU’s current union-corporate partnership. Still, as Rosselli said in a recent interview , “The convention will not be the end” of this conflict. Rosselli has framed this as a fight over democratic, powerful, worker-based unions vs.,boss run, weak, sellout, corporate-style unionism. As stated and shown in the attached letter from UHW executive board workers, he has also sponsored real grass-roots worker activism. Still, some facts stand out as red flags, warning activists not to take things at face value:
• Rosselli agreed to and enforced for years the 2003 agreement that blocked nursing care workers in his local from making public management’s mistreatment of patients and overworking the workforce.
• Rosselli authorized the internal union study of that agreement’s harmful effects on workers and patients ONLY AFTER Stern threatened to take out 65,000 of Rosselli’s 140,000 members and AFTER Stern froze Rosselli out of negotiations.
• Rosselli practices corporate partnership with Kaiser Permanente , California’s largest health care provider. That partnership deal helped kill an organizing drive by California Nurses Association to force Kaiser to increase nursing staff care for patients; instead, corporate management now has veto power over any proposed workload changes.
Thus, we’ve got a fight within the ‘partnership’ camp, but bigger. Within this conflict, SEIU activists have organized a new group, called S.M.A.R.T with a website: _www.seiureform.org_ (http://www.seiu reform.org) .
The challenge is to build an opposition to Stern/Rosselli’s ‘partnership pact’ while building on the rank-and-file movement Rosselli has sponsored. The trick will be making concrete steps towards winning tangible reforms, in a way that also builds confidence, power and organization.
• Concretely, this starts from campaigning publicly for better conditions and more workers. Lerning from teacher’s union militants, one slogan could be “Our working conditions are your living conditions.”
• Another would be to campaign for publicly funded, national health care. This means breaking from deals to get more tax money for the profit-first operators in order to get some trickle-down for workers. That approach divides healthcare workers from others, taking our taxes to pay your employers, with peanuts for workers. Instead, campaigning for Canadian-style single-payer or the broader, British National Health Service mode would mean “Healthcare for All! Kick the profiteers our of our healthcare!” A path towards unity and real gains, not peanuts and passivity.
“fighting with one arm tied behind our backs”
The current mantra in some union reform movements is ‘rank and file democracy’ as if this alone will solve our problems. I disagree. Democracy and worker-based resistance are absolutely necessary to stand up to corporate greed and their attacks on workers, period.
What’s more, democracy enables us to find the best path, the best ideas, choose the best leaders and hold them accountable. This also teaches us to work together, to plan for our common good. Thus, we build for now and prepare the ground for a future social system based on meeting everyday life needs for all, based on actual solidarity, with respect for all,and the growth of everybody’s potential. Democracy is vital, like oxygen.
Even so, democracy alone is not enough. It’s like running a race on one good leg. Not enough, is it? Would you want to fight with one
arm against a powerful opponent with two good arms? Simply opposing the hardships of the corporate agenda is not enough. Rank-and-file democracy alone does not tell us how to fight the corporate agenda and power. We need positive alternatives; class struggle-solidarity unionism is such an alternative- one with real promise. We need organizing that fights for working class interests, like healthcare for all. It means creating solidarity in action opposing corporate globalization with the vision and strategy of global solidarity, not retreating to nationalist protectionism, like th UAW did in the ‘70s. For those who begin to question capitalism, this offers a way to create a world free of capitalist domination. Towards a world of freely associated working people, not people daily chained to working under corporate capital’s agenda.
Union caucuses are one way to fight back. They also begin to make real links instead of the go - it- alone reality of most unions. That’s where the outlook and practical fights for better working/
living conditions and publicly-funded healthcare have promise. These are concrete actions that counter ‘business-as-usual’ unionism. They could inspire real tangible support for
workers and union leaders making such moves. This could break though, making unions central to everyday life for millions of ‘ordinary people’. They could generate the support unions need now, more than ever. We are all connected like the cells in our body. The body is global capitalism. We, the cells that make it work, are like our immune system, only imbued with consciousness. We face the same implacable, inhuman, profits - above - all corporate agenda that generated today’s economic recession and real human suffering. We
have the same corporate face, from Chicago to China. We also have the capacity to link up into an effective immune response to cancer.
Solidarity isn’t just a nice idea; it’s a necessity and reality-based. The employers need to accumulate profits, using whatever they can, whether it’s technology to replace more expensive labor or cheaper labor. This drive generates our resistance, if only to defend ourselves, our families, and to fight for our future. Workers face this, mostly alone or in one plant or city or country. This class-based unionism has the potential to link us up, conscious of ourselves and our potential.
The internal SEIU fight between Stern and Rosselli opens up space for this resistance to grow. This resistance comes up just as naturally as the sun rises. It develops organically, just as our personal relationships do. Our understanding and creativity guide us as we face powerful opponents in corporate power and their union partners. We develop our democratic, cooperative, solidarity tools of struggle and resistance, just as car mechanics use the tools available to get the job done. We face many choices; nothing is predetermined. The outcomes will come from the conscious efforts of so many workers linked as cells in one body, just as the SEIU workers are linked with us all by the very system we live under. Their fight can add to the brewing movements for change, to benefit us all.
We all need to support and nourish them as we would our personal friends and family
In solidarity, Earl Silbar. Thanks to everyone for your help. You know who you are! Of course, all mistakes are my responsibility.
[About the author. I worked for 40 years in shops, offices and schools with many unions, including the Teamsters’, Laborers’, IBEW, IAM and the AFT .I also helped organize and lead our AFSCME local (3506) where I served as local steward, Executive Board member, VP, negotiator, delegate to state and national conventions, and as chief steward — all elected by my fellow adult education teachers in Chicago’s City Colleges where I taught GED for 27 years before I retired in 2006. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org_ (mailto:email@example.com)]