Review Essay: Reutherism Redux

Against the Current, No. 112, September/October 2004

Steve Early

An essay/review on:

Poor Workers’ Unions: Rebuilding Labor From Below by Vanessa Tait (Boston: South End Press, forthcoming in January, 2005).  300 pages, $ 20 paper/$40 hard cover.

Hard Work: Remaking The American Labor Movement by Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) 244 pages, $19.95 paper/$50 clothbound.

Reorganizing The Rust Belt: An Inside Study of the American Labor Movement, by Steven Henry Lopez (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004)292 pages, $21.95 paper/$55 clothbound.

Labor Pains: Inside America’s New Union Movement by Suzan Erem, (New York: Monthly Review Press,2001) 212 pages, $17.95 paper.

S.E.I.U.: Big Brother?  Big Business?  Big Rip Off?  by Harriet Jackson (Bloomington: Authorhouse Books, 2004)81 pages, $11.95/paper.

“Don’t they realize if they really push this organizing, the labor movement is going to wind up being a movement of strawberry pickers and chicken pluckers?”

—Anonymous 1997 AFL-CIO Convention delegate from the American Federation of Teachers, quoted in The New York Times.

Despite stepped-up union recruitment, farm workers and poultry processors still haven’t taken over the AFL-CIO.  But the old guard’s fear of being swamped by low-wage workers—expressed by this AFT delegate seven years ago—has materialized in other ways (even while organizing among “strawberry pickers and chicken pluckers” generally flopped).

Tens of thousands of janitors, nursing home workers, home health care aides, and hotel, laundry and food service employees are now in the forefront of union struggles around the country.  Under the post-1995 leadership of John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO has demanded a “living wage” for the millions of African-Americans, women, and recent immigrants who work in such jobs.

Progressive allies of labor, including minority community activists, have widely applauded this new focus on the “most oppressed.”  Many believe it represents a renewed labor commitment to social justice, empowerment of the poor, and greater diversity.  Nevertheless, leading unions for the working poor—Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its lesser satellites, the recently merged HERE and UNITE—remain frustrated with the overall pace of change.  Along with the Carpenters and Laborers, they’ve formed a New Unity Partnership (NUP)to promote their own ideas and strategies for membership recruitment and union restructuring.

“As it is configured today, the AFL-CIO has no hope of organizing the 90 percent of workers who are not in a union,” SEIU President Andy Stern told HERE and UNITE delegates at their merger convention in July. “Sisters and brothers, it is time…we need to transform the AFL-CIO or build something new.”

The New Reuther?

Although they all helped elect Sweeney’s “New Voice” slate nine years ago, so the federation could be transformed then, NUP union leaders are now mulling a challenge to his re-election next June. If that fails (or doesn’t extract sufficient organizational concessions), some NUPsters may quit the federation altogether, which the Carpenters have already done.[See note 1]

The key player in this constellation of “organizing unions”— Stern’s SEIU—is laying claim to a place in the liberal imagination once occupied by Walter Reuther’s United Auto Workers.  During the 1960s, the UAW was labor’s leading voice for civil rights in the South, “Great Society” reform, and, belatedly, peace in Vietnam.

Like Stern today, Reuther was a grand planner and big thinker.  He wanted his union to be in the forefront of progressive activism (which, in that day, meant the Americans for Democratic Action instead of the Dean campaign.) Articulate, media-savvy, and self-promotional, the UAW founder financed student and community groups throughout the country, to extend his influence.

He also poured industrial union money into the efforts of others to organize public sector workers, like teachers.  If the technology of his time had permitted, the voluble Reuther would certainly have had his own “virtual union” (like SEIU’s and been a blogger as well (see

Based on his recent blogging , Stern is now making a Reuther-style commitment of $1 million to fund “a network of workers and communities” to confront Wal-Mart —an organizing target not even within SEIU’s current jurisdiction (unless, of course, that soon expands through merger with the UFCW).

Buoyed by the post-war economic boom, the Auto Workers reached its peak membership of 1.6 million under Reuther’s energetic reign.  (That’s nearly the size of Stern’s self-described “fighting Purple Army” now.) Back then, the UAW bureaucracy had similar esprit de corps, hegemonic ambition, and organizational discipline (although not the trademark purple t-shirts and jackets).

Likewise, Solidarity House employed the best and brightest union technocrats.  And it boasted its own army of field staff—including longtime leftists—who were loyal to the leader’s vision and very adaptable, personally and politically, to the union’s top-down culture.

NUP Now, ALA Then

As defined by Reuther, American labor’s crisis 36 years ago was the product of building trades backwardness, plus the AFL-CIO’s own bureaucratic obstructionism and cold war foreign policy meddling.  The UAW founder was also tired of playing second fiddle to George Meany, head of the federation since it was formed in 1955, with UAW backing.

According to Reuther, labor’s failure to organize and grow , under the conservative Meany, could only be cured by the NUP of that era—a much-hyped, UAW-creation called the Alliance for Labor Action (ALA).

As Vanessa Tait recounts, in Poor Workers’ Unions: Rebuilding Labor From Below:

“In March, 1968, Reuther challenged Meany to call a special AFL-CIO convention so the UAW could present its program for ‘revitalizing’ the labor movement.  When the AFL-CIO refused, the UAW withheld its per capita payments, then disaffiliated in July, 1968.  Just three weeks later, the UAW…announced the formation of the ALA, inviting other unions to join in organizing millions of unorganized workers and establishing community unions for the poor and unemployed.” [See note 2]

As an alternative pole of attraction for militant workers, the Alliance had several major flaws (including the UAW’s abhorrence of shop-floor militancy in its own ranks).  The most glaring problem was Reuther’s ALA partner—the racket-ridden Teamsters, who (like Doug McCarron’s Carpenters today) were already operating outside the AFL-CIO.

“These same Teamster ‘allies’ would shortly attack Cesar Chavez’ new United Farm Workers by signing sweetheart deals with California growers and would endorse Nixon in the 1972 presidential election,” Tait writes.  “By mid-1972….  without a push to keep ALA alive from Reuther (who died in a 1970 plane crash), the UAW cut its per capita payments to the Alliance.”  Not long afterward, the ALA also expired.

Reutherism had its roots in the great radicalizing upsurge of the mid-1930s; three decades later, it was a far tamer and more confused political force (soon to be spent entirely, under subsequent UAW leaders who lacked Reuther’s personal charisma or any pretense of fighting the boss).

Similarly, many Service Employees officials have their own “movement history,” linked, in this case, to the social and political upheavals of the 1960s, on campus and off. As Tait notes, some SEIUers even spent their younger days building independent unions as a grassroots alternative to the dysfunctional organizing methods and structures of the labor establishment in the 1970s and 80s.

Today, they’re part of that establishment—in its Sweeney era form—but still see themselves as promoting a brand of “social movement” unionism that’s better and more successful than anyone else’s.  They tell other trade unionists—and their own members—that American labor faces a stark choice today: “Organize (our way)—or die.”

The SEIU Model

Since the mid-1990’s, SEIU’s own organizing—plus many mergers and affiliations—has doubled its size. As one of its key strategists, Stephen Lerner, argues in “United We Win,” an SEIU “discussion paper,” the union’s increased “market share” has helped raise the living standards of many thousands of new members among the working poor.[See note 3]

For many activists and academics, this record of success ends any debate about the best way for other unions to grow. Some observers do question whether the SEIU “organizing model” is readily transferable, however.  They note that SEIU has, until now, had the singular advantage of operating mainly in the public sector, among smaller private firms, or within health care and home care entities that rely on public funding—a ready-made environment for union political leverage, lobbying and deal-making.

IBM, Toyota, Overnite, MCI, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, or even partially unionized General Electric operate in an entirely different league—as unions trying to organize them are reminded every day.

Against such adversaries, no amount of clever corporate campaigning, Justice for Janitors pageantry, or even craven political maneuvering—such as SEIU’s embrace of industry-backed “tort reform” that would restrict lawsuits against elder-abuse in California nursing homes—is likely to secure organizing rights or recognition anytime soon.

In contrast, at the “for-profit” nursing homes that SEIU is now partnering with—to the dismay of California patient advocates—the union’s new “alliance” with management may indeed boost its “market share.” [See note 4]

Why Union Democracy Matters

When workers win—by whatever method—a greater “voice at work,” this doesn’t guarantee that they’ll have sufficient control over their union or its internal leadership and decision-making.  At the bargaining table in any industry, it’s obviously better to have “union density” than not have it; but “density without democracy” is a deficiency which can, over time, seriously undermine union contract enforcement and rank-and-file militancy on-the-job.

The absence of financial accountability and transparency, which goes hand-in-hand with undemocratic practices, leads to business unionism at its worst.  Sooner or later, corruption scandals erupt—like the massive one that engulfed liberal, black-led AFSCME in its N.Y.C. District Council 37, under Stanley Hill.

In Poor Workers’ Unions, Tait raises important questions about the empowerment of low-income members—or lack of it—within their own labor organizations, particularly those affiliated with SEIU. Read together, her study and these other four books reveal much about the upside, downside, and development of the SEIU model—while also shedding light on NUP’s “new labor metaphysic.”  That phrase is a favorite of Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss, two sociology professors clearly infatuated—to the point of religious fervor—with SEIU’s role in “remaking American labor.”  These authors view recent union developments through the narrow prism of academicians now able to operate more freely within the AFL-CIO, thanks to their generational peers in key staff positions at the federation or SEIU, HERE, and UNITE.

Hard Work argues that “new militants” from these unions have made a decisive break with the “relentlessly pragmatic business unionism” of America’s past. They are now poised to take the “sea change at the AFL-CIO when John Sweeney was elected” to the next level of union transformation.

“Sacred Narrative” and Dissent

As suggested by such rhetoric, the authors tend to measure organizational change by how much strategically-positioned NUPsters are “at ease with intellectuals and progressive activists, with whom they share both a measure of cultural capital and a set of experiences in social struggle that conjoin them as bearers of a sacred narrative.”

In Voss and Fantasia’s 6-point definition of “social movement unionism,” union democracy or rank-and-file control are nowhere to be found as part of this “narrative.”

Vanessa Tait also has a doctorate but a different kind of day job. She actually works for a local union—the CWA-affiliated University Professional and Technical Employees at the University of California.  Perhaps that explains why her case studies are more rooted in reality—and critical of union make-overs more rhetorical than real.

In her view, “the new leadership of the AFL-CIO, along with many individual trade unions, has still not come to terms with a basic concept: trusting rank-and-file workers to organize and bargain for themselves.”  While rank-and-file workers are ‘mobilized” in many SEIU campaigns, she notes, “they are not always the ones in control of the campaigns.  SEIU, though politically progressive, is known throughout the labor movement as one of the most thickly-staffed and highly-centralized unions.”

The perspective of Steven Henry Lopez, another young sociologist, is closer to Voss and Fantasia’s than Tait’s.  He also has hands-on organizing experience, acquired while serving as an intern on several SEIU organizing and contract campaigns in western Pennsylvania during his research for Reorganizing The Rust Belt.  Lopez’s book is narrowly-focused, very detailed, and with more academic trappings than Tait’s—to the point where he tries to conceal the identity of most workers, employers, local unions, and officials profiled in his “inside study.”

In Lopez’s view, SEIU’s rejuvenation efforts in Pittsburgh did encounter some organizational speed bumps.  Overall, however, he applauds its commitment to rebuilding union membership among “post-industrial, low-wage workers” and waging a protracted unfair labor practice strike against “Megacorp Enterprises” (the Beverly nursing home chain).

Recruitment is not easy in a local service sector where the legacy of mill closings, plus the real or imagined past failings of manufacturing unions, weighs heavily on the minds of the unorganized.  As Lopez observes, “workers themselves often resist union efforts to organize or mobilize them.”

Social movement unionists must “overcome substantial working class anti-unionism to create new collective solidarities oriented toward collective action” and “directly confront the power of employers to intimidate, threaten, and punish their employees.”  Like Voss and Fantasia, Lopez views SEIU’s “grassroots mobilization” and “strong social justice orientation” to be “an explicit rejection of traditional business unionism.”

Views from Below

Last but not least is the more personal and confessional literature of the disaffected.  SEIU: Big Brother?  Big Business?  Big Rip-Off is a self-published internet book (available on written by Harriet Jackson, an African-American building cleaner angry about SEIU members’ loss of local control in Pittsburgh.  Susan Erem, the author of Labor Pains, is a white leftist and former SEIU staffer, who found local union trusteeship work to be, alternately, frustrating, alienating, and exhilarating.

Erem’s more polished Monthly Review Press memoir uses real names, just as Jackson does, and, in the latter’s words, “feelings are not spared.”  In Erem’s book, the main subject of embarrassing vignettes is her SEIU Local 73 boss, Tom Balanoff, scion of an old left family in Chicago long involved in local politics and the United Steelworkers.

Jackson’s book draws on the author’s 24 years as a rank-and-filer in SEIU Locals 29, 585, and 3 (one of which we meet, in Reorganizing The Rust Belt, as “Local A”).  Jackson has had first-hand exposure to what Lopez calls “a new vision of participatory, powerful unionism” but she has not found it to be an improvement upon “the old-style business unionism of experience and cultural memory” in Pittsburgh.  A former steward, local recording secretary, and bargaining committee member, Jackson describes workplace problems and contract violations that don’t get addressed by her current union officials—and their apparent coziness with management.  According to Jackson, SEIU now “operates totally opposite from how it markets itself.”

Erem explores similar tensions and contradictions, from the stand-point of a harried, over-worked servicing rep—hired from the outside, like so many other SEIUers around the country.

Staffing Up and Centralizing

According to Voss and Fantasia, “staffing up” with non-members like Lopez, Balanoff, and Erem has been critical to the union’s success.  The process began under John Sweeney when he doubled SEIU dues “to support an increase in the staff of this traditionally decentralized union,” which had ” a strong tradition of local autonomy” and functioned “more as a loose configuration of urban fiefdoms than as a national union organization.”  Between 1984 and 1988 alone, national staffers increased from twenty to two hundred.  (They now number about 600.)

Many of those hired initially were veterans of the civil rights, welfare rights, anti-war, or womens’ movements.  Some joined SEIU via affiliations involving workers in clerical, home care, food service, and other low-wage jobs. (Their prior work, building independent unions like the Rhode Island Workers Association and ACORN’s United Labor Unions, is the subject of several interesting chapters in Tait’s book.)

As Hard Work describes it, this influx of “radical labor leaders and [their]innovative organizational experiments” brought “aggressive organizing techniques to SEIU:

“Avoiding the core goods-producing, these activists focused their efforts on rebuilding the labor movement in the service and public sectors, which often entailed organizing immigrant, minority, and women workers—previously written off as unorganizable [in] the received wisdom of business unionism.”

There was, at the same time, another internal organizational trend underway seemingly inconsistent with the grassroots spirit of SEIU’s newly-affiliated “poor workers unions.”

Having “staffed up,” Sweeney then “began to move toward centralizing the union, succeeding largely because SEIU’s expansion into the public sector gave it a growing treasury and brought a more liberal membership into the union, both of which supported his efforts.”  (One of SEIU’s first state government affiliates was the Pennsylvania Social Service Union (PSSU)—home local of Andy Stern and Anna Burger, who now serves as SEIU secretary-treasurer.) As Hard Work notes, “Sweeney proved willing to use ‘trusteeship’—the power to temporarily take over the affairs of locals—to advance a much more aggressive organizing agenda.”  In fact, SEIU made “an institutional decision not to tolerate local leaders who did not want to organize,” according to building service strategist Steve Lerner.

Since 1996, when Stern replaced Sweeney, 40 SEIU locals—or 14 % of its 275 affiliates—have been trusteed to implant new officers.  Some of those replaced ran old guard fiefdoms and treated local union treasuries like their own personal piggy banks.  Others just balked at the industry-based local restructuring called for in the union’s “New Strength Unity” program.

Hard Work describes the coordinated “Justice for Janitors” campaign that began in Denver, moved to Los Angeles in 1988, and then spread to other cities, under Lerner’s direction.  Not surprisingly, the authors place heavy emphasis on “the genius of J for J researchers,” their “intensity and commitment,” the boldness of their union recognition strategy (which by-passed the NLRB), and the creativity of SEIU’s corporate campaign tactics.

Occasionally, they remember, that “to achieve success, the janitors themselves had to be mobilized.”  But “here,too, research played a role, for it showed workers how and why they could potentially win. Once the janitors understood the big picture—and the J for J staff spent a lot of time educating them—they too saw that pressuring the building owners and big contractors was a key to victory.”

An Air Of Arrogance

Voss and Fantasia admit that many SEIUers they admire “sometimes give off” an “air of arrogance and exclusivity;” their “attitudinal style would tend to make for a closer resemblance to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs than to veteran staffers of the trade union movement.”

Erem capures this style nicely—in its trusteeship context—when she proudly describes her “privileged position as a senior staff member of a relatively wealthy union in the third largest city in the country.”  Only a few years out of college and already a Rainbow Coalition veteran, the author of Labor Pains was now an SEIU “communications specialist,”

“part of a new breed of union staff.  Tom [Balanoff] hired activists outside of the membership, people he’d identified as wanting to make change….[We] were the new blood, instigators, agitators—people who wanted to shake up their work sites, their employers, the country.  John Sweeney was leading SEIU and we would become his example of what new faces and ways could do to rebuild our movement…We strutted around the office like nothing could get in our way.”

By the late 1990s, when obstacles were getting in her way, Erem wonders whether she was “watching the slow motion death of a movement at its weakest moment or the labor pains of its dramatic rebirth.”  In her book, she also remembers lamenting that only the local’s “staff and leadership had a vision but….the union members we served didn’t want vision, they wanted a good contract and they wanted it now.”

Labor Pains is very good at describing the day-to-day grind of full-time union work—the long hours, contract bargaining pressures, difficult-to-meet membership expectations, and constant need to resolve inter-personal tensions and conflicts that threaten workplace unity.  Gradually, the stress of her job begins to wear the author down—and she starts to have some very un-PC thoughts about the public service employees in Local 73.

A one-time member of the Communist Party (which has a long history of promoting racial solidarity within the working class), Erem expresses particular disappointment with the local’s African-American majority.  Based on their reaction to the O.J. Simpson trial, she concludes that, for them, “the union was simply a vehicle for civil rights, not for black and white unity so we could all live better.”

Other frustrations for Erem include the “false starts” of 73’s “member organizer” program, an effort to put SEIUers to work signing up new members or volunteering to help political candidates.

A staffer named Cathy from the international union created [member organizing], though the best we could tell, ‘the program’ entailed hitting up reps for their best stewards and asking them if they knew other members who might get involved.  It faded away when the international assigned Cathy to another local.  It came and went many times after that…the last time,years later, with me.”

In Labor Pains, Erem finally admits that, “for all our good intentions and forward vision, our dreams of expanding leadership and hopes of creating a new kind of union, we have made little more progress than the leaders before us.”

“Reform” Via Trusteeship

Deputy trustee Balanoff remained very much focused on becoming Local 73’s new leader, however.  Other staffers might be “driving themselves to drink” because of their workloads, but “Tom’s poison,” Erem reports,”is not alcohol.  It’s power.”  According to the author, Tom’s “desire for power, for responsibility and an ability to swing with the big boys, landed him where he is, and offered him opportunities beyond his wildest hopes.”

His biggest opportunity—which he doesn’t fumble away—is to make the transition from appointed to elective office in the local.

“Chicago leftists were ecstatic when Tom was elected president of Local 73.  Tom came from a famous progressive family, one which had reached positions of power.  His extended family boasted a judge and a state representative.  His mother was a professor and his father a legend in the Gary Steelworkers union.”

Erem observes sardonically, “there would be no class warfare, no overthrow of the state, and no socialism in Chicago” due to his election.  In fact, “Tom had learned from those ‘purists,’ as he called them, in his own past. He considered himself a pragmatist and conducted his business that way.”

Before long, Balanoff is looking the part—”wearing a good suit and a new tie,” smoking cigars, and lunching with lots of local big shots.  Then he puts a “division director” system in place—”a new set of generals so he won’t have to deal with each of his staff of twenty-five individually for the smallest issues at their work sites.”

This means there are now Local 73 “bosses and boss-ees”—and an abundance of bad “attitude” at the union hall. But, according to Erem, “Tom didn’t notice.  He was in his office, with the door closed, making the deals that would eventually make life better for our members…or so he thought.”

Voss and Fantasia offer a more sympathetic account of the SEIU trusteeship in Los Angeles that became a defining moment in the union’s recent history of local take-overs.  This one occurred after the 1990 Justice for Janitors’ strike in L.A. spawned an internal struggle between fired-up members and the “old boy network” in Local 399.  As Tait recounts:

“Latino, African-American, and white activists formed a coalition with health care workers called the Multiracial Alliance to run against existing officers in the first contested elections in 399’s history.  A 120- member mobilization committee spent months talking with voters about the need for democratic reforms and leadership diversity….On June 8, 1995, Multicultural Alliance candidates won all 21 contested seats on the executive board in one of the largest turnouts in the local’s history.”

A showdown shortly ensued with the local’s president [who had been re-elected] when the new officers wanted to fire some of the local’s staff whom they accused of undermining democratic practices in the union.  The president refused to fire the staff or allow the new officers to meet in any official capacity.  In August, 1995, Alliance members launched a hunger strike outside the union’s headquarters in protest.  For many rank-and-filers, this was about moving beyond the idea that members were just the front line troops at demonstrations, to building empowerment and democracy in ‘their’ union.”

“We built this union,” strike leader Cesar Oliva Sanchez told the Los Angeles Times.  “We want to be able to make decisions.”

According to Voss and Fantasia, however, the 399 trusteeship then imposed by John Sweeney—”in one of his last acts before leaving SEIU to become president of the AFL-CIO”—was just in the nick of time. It “cleared the way for the Los Angeles janitors to leave Local 399 and join other janitors in a statewide union local established just for janitors.  Once this happened, the janitors were finally able to build a union that meaningfully involved workers in making decisions and running the union, revealing the extent to which the growth of social movement unions depends on internal union reform.”  (emphasis added).

Merger Mania

From her critical perspective, Tait describes a more recent example of such “internal reform” in northern California.  When San Francisco janitors in 3,000-member Local 87 and its president Richard Leung balked at being merged into a larger Bay Area entity in 2002, their local was trusteed as well.

As usual, this step was justified on the grounds that “master contracts,” covering more members over a larger geographical area, were necessary to “build industry power” and that, somehow, negotiating such agreements is not possible if multiple locals are involved.  According to Tait, however, the new regional local’s first round of bargaining with janitorial companies resulted in significant health benefit concessions.

“Instead of making the union more responsible to the rank-and-file, [SEIU] decided to take the corporate route through merger and acquisition to streamline their operation,” Leung charges.  “They’re trying to mirror the corporations we bargain with, but we shouldn’t be a mirror,” says ex-Local 87 organizing director Olga Miranda.  “We don’t want to look like the corporations we’re fighting against.”

Forced mergers aren’t just unpopular with ex-local officials, like Leung and Miranda, who get tossed out in disputes with the International; they’re increasingly unpopular with working janitors as well. Here, for example, is how Harriet Jackson assesses the situation since her Local 29—under similar SEIU headquarters pressure—merged into a much larger health care local (585), parts of which are now being consolidated into a new tri-state building service entity—Local 3—representing over 10,000 workers in Pittsburgh, Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland, and Detroit as well:

“The original structure of Local 29 was pretty unique.  We were very much member-oriented.  We had to inform the members about everything, and that is the way it is supposed to be…When a president was not up to what the members thought in the way of honoring the contract, he was voted out….

According to SEIU websites, the new president in question—or head of the “Local 3 Management Team”—is Peter Hanrahan,an appointee currently serving under a “provisional local charter.”  (Hailing from Chicago, Hanrahan is also still listed as vice-president of 36,000-member janitors Local 1, covering Illinois and Wisconsin.)

According to no less an authority than Andy Stern himself, Jackson’s old janitor’s Local 29 was simply an anachronism.  On his blog, Stern argued recently that dividing workers into such “local unions” only “made sense years ago; now “in an era of corporate mergers,” a “local union structure does more to handicap workers than it does to help.”

The real purpose of any “union structures is for workers to be able to unite, fight, and win together, not to make it easier or harder to elect or reelect leaders,” he asserts.  In Stern’s opinion, only “intellectuals” interested in debating things “from an abstract point of view” care about democracy.  And many of the unions that such “progressives” cite as “democratic models are losing members, losing strength, and are not the most effective.”  Says Stern:

“Workers want their lives to be changed.  They want strength and a voice, not some purist, intellectual, historical, mythical democracy.  Workers can win when they are united, and leaders who stand in the way of change screaming “democracy” fail to understand how workers exercise the limited power they have in a country where only 8.2% of the private sector are in unions.  They just don’t get it!”

As Stern’s vision has been implemented, however, the key agents of change, engineers of “effectiveness,” imposers of “unity” and would-be creators of “union power” are not rank-and-file members, but full-time staffers instead.  This has been true even when the “clean-up crews” dispatched from union headquarters had ready-made allies among rank-and-file opponents of the Bevona family in New York or the Sullivan clan in Boston Local 254—old guard-types who ran their big-city janitor locals like family businesses.

As longtime labor and Puerto Rican community activist Juan Gonzalez reported four years ago in his The N.Y. Daily News column, janitors who had courageously opposed John Sweeney’s friend, Gus Bevona, the $400,000 a year president of Local 32B-J, were pushed aside by SEIU-appointees during that local’s trusteeship.  The staffers annointed as the new leadership were so newly hired from outside that, when they ran for local office, they had to get an International union waiver of a 32B-J by-law requiring candidates to be members in good standing for at least three years.

The Take-Over Crew

Who are these people and where do they come from?  (This question gets asked repeatedly in Harriet Jackson’s book, as she expresses befuddlement about the revolving door, out-of-town staffing of her succession of locals.)

As Gonzalez notes, many of SEIU’s “well-educated organizers” are recruited “from universities and the community, as well as from other unions.”  They have, in common, “grand visions of a powerful new labor movement” but, personally, “may have suffered little in the trenches.”  According to Gonzalez:

“In their zeal, to build the new movement, they start to think that the workers under them are not as well- educated or politically sharp as they are. Pretty soon, they want to run the unions with the members simply rubber-stamping their grand plans.  Gradually, they begin to mistake the well-being of members for their own designs.  Genuine democracy, which is not always efficient, gets sacrificed for paper democracy.” [See note 5]

Among SEIU’s”best and brightest”—those who’ve made the union a career (as Suzan Erem did not)—there is another common denominator: most have never been a janitor, security guard, nursing home worker, home health care aide or public employee in their own local or anyone else’s.

According 32B-J’s website, Gus Bevona’s successor as president, Mike Fishman, has been a “union leader for 25 years.”  Most of that time, however, Fishman worked for the Carpenters Union, then briefly with the Teamsters, then at SEIU headquarters, and finally on the 32B-J trusteeship staff before securing the top job in a 70,000-member “local,” which now stretches from Trenton to Hartford.  (His executive vice-president, Kevin Doyle, likewise did his “janitoring” elsewhere—as director of SEIU/District 1199’s New England Health and Pension Funds.)

Tom Balanoff—of Labor Pains fame—became a manager of Chicago locals after previous stints at the Boilermakers Union and SEIU’s Washington research department.  Since Erem’s not-very-flattering portrait of him was published, he has switched presidencies from Local 73 to 1—the latter being the Illinois-Wisconsin building service local whose V-P is now also “president” of all the unionized janitors in Michigan, Ohio, and Western Pennsylvania.

Throughout the union, not having worked in an SEIU-represented job is clearly no bar to upward mobility—or lateral moves either.  When SEIU Executive Vice-President Tom Woodruff, turned over the reigns of SEIU District 1199 (WV/KY/OH), it was not to any experienced member; his successor is a Cornell ILR school grad named Dave Regan, who answered a “help wanted” ad in 1990, got hired as an organizer, and, six years later, became president of a local now boasting 18,000 members!

In Massachusetts, meanwhile, two of SEIU’s big public sector locals—one just out of trusteeship and the other still in it—are headed by staffers who weren’t part of any state or local government units that their locals represent.  The state’s new building service local officers have never been unionized janitors there or anywhere else.

In Oregon, a state worker leader switched locals, via a trusteeship, to became SEIU’s new Portland janitors’ president.  In Seattle, the lead organizer in the union’s southern California home care worker drive— a former political operative—is now president of Local 775, which represents 30,000 Washington state home health care aides.  775’s number-two slot is occupied by a former SEIU staffer from Oregon (who’s also never been a home care worker).

Not all of those deployed as SEIU trustees are white or from college educated, middle or upper-middle class backgrounds.  Sometimes they match the demographics of their new assigned local more closely.  But their political mission remains the same—to build a base for themselves and institutionalize international union control.

They don’t view their local restructuring or trusteeship-related roles as an opportunity to develop the full leadership capacity of indigenous militants, who have, in some cases, spent years struggling for change in a troubled local before the International stepped in. Rather, these staffers operate with the clear understanding that they—not any longtime member—will become principal officers of the local, after running with all the advantages of “incumbency” in its first post-trusteeship election.

“What I’m looking at here, Sue, is my future,” explained Balanoff, during Erem’s interview for a job at Local 73, when he was still deputy trustee.  “When this local comes out of trusteeship, I expect to be the president.  Then I want to build real worker power in this city.”

Organizer Eliseo Medina no doubt had similar plans in mind, when he was hired away from the Communications Workers of America to take over a janitors’ local in San Diego.  Medina had been a Farm Workers activist and 7-year CWA organizer in Texas but never an SEIU member; now, he’s one of the International’s four Executive Vice-Presidents.

To groom a new building service division chief for Boston janitors, SEIU parachuted in Mexican-born Rocio Saenz, a California Justice for Janitors staffer (with prior union experience at HERE and UNITE) who acted in Ken Loach’s film, “Bread and Roses.”  Saenz’s second-in-command under the Local 254 trusteeship was Jill Hurst, an Anglo out-of-towner now serving as secretary-treasurer of the renumbered, re-organized, and heavily-immigrant Local 615.

When Hurst explained to The Boston Globe that “it’s a real transition to have a leader who is part of that community,” she meant, of course, immigrants generally—because Saenz has never been part of any 254 or 615 bargaining unit. In New York City, meanwhile, the post-Bevona administration of 32B-J includes another prominent Hispanic non-janitor, Hector Figueroa, who became—via the local’s trusteeship—its secretary-treasurer after working as a researcher for SEIU and ACTWU (now UNITE).

A Membership Backlash?

Despite this well-established pattern around the country—and the degree to which new arrivals have entrenched themselves in multi-state mega locals—Voss and Fantasia still worry that SEIU’s “new militants” may be “vulnerable to electoral defeat” because their focus on organizing has “forced them to devote fewer resources and less staff to servicing.”

Such fears would appear to be unfounded, in the short term. But an increasing number of SEIU members have begun to notice that, in addition to being consolidated, many of their locals are being parceled out like McDonald’s franchises to up-and-coming union “managers” who have influential patrons at corporate headquarters.

Harriet Jackson’s book illustrates how this top-down leadership re-shuffling looks from the bottom up. It often leads to membership resentment, alienation, and desperate casting about for (not always helpful) legal remedies.

At various points in her narrative, we find Jackson reacting to her union experiences by disparaging a seminar on organizing (because she and her co-workers felt un-represented themselves); criticizing union strike preparations to other members (because of SEIU mis-representations about a strike settlement elsewhere); calling for “a serious overhaul of the National Labor Relations Board” (so it will better handle “duty of fair representation” cases); and proposing either an open shop (“people applying for jobs in the cleaning industry should have a choice whether to join SEIU or not”) or, at the very least, new “laws that would allow members to withhold dues when the union doesn’t uphold the contract.”

More significantly, Jackson’s cri de cour contains distinct echoes of the angry complaints that militant black auto workers once made about their union—its “social unionism” notwithstanding—in the late 1960s and early 70s.  Says Jackson:

“Not only members from my building, but other buildings too, are saying and asking, why are we in this union?  SEIU is in with management.  We may as well not file a grievance, nothing happens.  The officials pick and choose who they are going to fight for and how hard. SEIU mocks the members, laughs in our face…and tells us that there is nothing we can do about it. They are taking our money and not fighting for us. The union is not about us, the members, anymore—it’s about them, the union officials.”

As Reuther biographer Nelson Lichtenstein recalls in The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, UAW members were bearing “the brunt of a new speed-up” in the late 1960s and early 70s.  This generated intense membership concern about shop floor issues “that had animated UAW radicals from one generation to the next.”  But Reuther’s generation of union officials had, by this time, become increasingly disinterested in fighting back via direct action on the job or even grievance-filing.

Reuther himself was more often seen at someone else’s protest than on a UAW picket line. Among black assembly line workers, militancy thus mixed with bitter cynicism about the seeming hypocrisy of their union president’s public identification with social causes like civil rights.  “At the very moment Reuther sought to revitalize the labor movement and champion the insurgencies sweeping America, he faced the scorn of a newly politicized generation” within his own rank-and-file. [See note 6]

Stirrings of Dissent

Today’s political context—and SEIU’s industrial setting—is, of course, far different.  A few rumblings of membership discontent—or an enterprising bit of internet book publishing—can hardly be described as the makings of a revolt on the scale of the black-led “revolutionary union movement” that unsettled Detroit auto plants 35 years ago.

As Lichtenstein notes, the resulting clash between radical black nationalists and social democratic union apparatchiks was also part of a far larger trend back then—”a transatlantic surge that challenged workplace hierarchies in France, Italy, Great Britain, Quebec, and Poland.”

Nevertheless, even in a more quiescent era, mutinies and defections are spreading within the “Purple Army.”  A group of San Francisco janitors who were trusteed, under circumstances described above, formed an independent union called the United Service Workers for Democracy (USWD) Local 87.

In August, these former members of SEIU Local 87 challenged their new, merged Local 1877 in a National Labor Relations Board election that resulted in a major defeat for SEIU in a unit of nearly 2,000 workers.  By a margin of 947 to 573, USWD supporters working for the city’s largest building service contractors voted to change unions-despite SEIU’s flooding of San Francisco with out-of-town organizers, who tried unsuccessfully to thwart the move.

In Massachusetts, e-mail has become the whistle-blowing weapon of choice among other dissenters who, like Jackson, are still working within SEIU structures.  In the wake of a controversial Boston janitors’ strike settlement in late 2002, a young Harvard-educated staffer—who had just been profiled in the Boston Globe as the archetypal SEIU organizer—confided to disillusioned Justice for Janitors supporters that he shared their concerns about the rift between strikers and the union hierarchy.

“My first concern with calling the strike a victory,” said Aaron Bartley from Local 254 (now 615), “is that not a single worker I know believes it to be such.”

“Workers have two main responses upon seeing the settlement in written form. They either become deeply angry, call me or the union “vendidos” (sell outs) and say they’ll cease all union activity or, more commonly, they’ll adopt a pose of resignation…workers have universally, almost obsessively, expressed that their overriding concern in this contract is with wages…[T]he settlement does not in fact change the wage scale much. I think many workers correctly sense that the International placed so much emphasis on winning something [on full-time jobs and health benefits for some part-timers] that they were willing to totally cave on wages.”

“The real disgrace and unvarnished loss is that the contract extends for five years….barring a reopener, workers are locked into shitty wages and the fact that the union can’t mobilize in a powerful way for quite some time.”

To Bartley, a staff member of the 254 trusteeship, the main post-strike debate in Boston should be about the functioning of “the purple machine” itself— its problems with “hierarchical structure; member participation and power; leadership development; democracy, broader consciousness, etc.”

From his perspective as an immigrant worker organizer, Bartley made this final observation:

“[T]the fact that the International designed, implemented and settled this strike without really giving a fuck about what workers, or [local] staff for that matter, had to say is bad enough.  The fact that we have in our ranks 200 or so experienced union leaders and warriors from far more painful and powerful struggles in places around the world like El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic makes some of what happened here a damn shame.” [See note 7]

More recently, another well-known SEIU activist in Massachusetts actually quit his field rep job to protest Local 888’s belief “that members are incapable of intelligent decision-making and activity without almost total direction from staff.”

Local 888 is a recently restructured public sector entity and some of its 13,000 members have been under trusteeship for 3 and 1/2 years.  Their Washington-appointed “interim president” has been in no hurry to hold elections or adopt a new constitution and by-laws, preferring instead to cloak the latter process in secrecy and confusion.  (Although, at great membership expense, the local did send nearly 40 hand-picked “observers” to the recent SEIU national convention in San Francisco, an event where it had no voting delegates, who would have numbered less than 20.).

That’s why Ferd Wulkan, who helped organize 888’s big unit at U-Mass Amherst, resigned with this parting blast at trustee Susana Segat, a former SEIU political operative: “The philosophy of the local’s current leadership— especially regarding democracy and member empowerment—is so at odds with my own philosophy and long-standing practice that I believe a change in leadership is a prerequisite for the local’s potential to be realized.”

A newly-formed 888 Members’ Democracy Campaign (MDC) is now planning to run rank-and-file candidates who are committed to increasing “member involvement and control.”  MDC believes that union staff should “work for the members, not the other way around.”  It operates a website that posts warnings like the following:

“It appears that [Segat] is planning, as has happened in other SEIU locals, a hasty, superficial process to draw up a Constitution that would include election guidelines.  Then, a very quick election would follow— so quick as to insure no viable opposition to her election as president.”  [See note 8]

Philadelphia janitors were faced with a similar situation in late 2003.  Fortunately, their opposition proved viable enough to unseat a $100,000-a-year trustee, a young African-American who had been special assistant to SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger in Washington.  To secure his election as president of Local 36 in its first post-trusteeship vote last December, Wyatt Closs teamed up with members of the “old guard” in the local who had been accused of corruption and cooperation with management in the past.

Denys Everingham and Wayne MacManniman, two former stewards-turned-staffers under the trusteeship, broke ranks with Closs.  They formed a broad-based, multi-cultural “Philly Home Team” slate, which won 60 percent of the vote in the largest turn-out in the local’s history.  Among the issues in the race was how Closs had conducted recent building service contract negotiations and a ratification vote so poorly publicized that less than 150 of 2,200 eligible members ended up participating.

Says Elba Mercado, a janitor who took time off from his job to campaign for the “Home Team”:

“Contracts that are bad for the members and good for management win five stars from the International and get signed.  When we fight for changes in our union, we get harassed, transferred, called names, race- baited, and pushed aside like we have rabies.  People who do janitorial work and clean toilets often get laughed at, discriminated against, sexually harassed, and treated like an outcast at work. We don’t need to pay forty dollars a month to people in our union with $200 suits on their backs so they can treat us in the same manner.”  [See note 9]

Of course, the irony of alliances between angry workers like Mercado and dissident staffers like Everingham or Wulkan is that SEIU politics is so completely staff-dominated that only a split among local payrollers makes it possible for members to mount a successful challenge to International appointees running, in effect, as incumbents.

Union Democracy or Cartel Unionism?

From the standpoint of creating real rank-and-file power, SEIU’s top-down, technocratic, transformation-by-trusteeship strategy is deeply flawed.  Voss and Fantasia try to contrast its modus operandi with the practices of those cold war “business unionists” who weren’t shaped by “the class war of the 1930s.”  Their legacy was, of course, a “system of labor relations increasingly governed bureaucratically,” through institutions dependent on “deal making” and “organized in various subdivisions that relied on many layers of specialized staff.”

Unfortunately, that’s an apt description of what former Sixties activists—and their newer campus recruits—have wrought throughout SEIU. As projected more widely via NUP, Andy Stern’s “vision of a highly-centralized labor movement which restrains membership initiative in an authoritarian straitjacket” is, as Herman Benson points out, “already in operation” in the Carpenters union, his NUP ally. In the name of “changing to organize,” states Benson:

“[Carpenter] locals have been reduced into impotent units.  Merged into sprawling regional councils, locals….have lost all control over collective bargaining.  No member can hold any paid staff position in the council or any local without the permission of an all-powerful executive secretary treasurer.  Local delegates, who elect the EST, cannot hold a paid union job without his or her endorsement.”  [See note 10]

The danger inherent in the SEIU/NUP strategy is clear.  If successful, it may foster a smaller-scale, U.S.-version of the “cartel unionism” which has trapped so many Mexican workers in deeply compromised collective-bargaining relationships, as part of their country’s corporatist labor-management system.

In Mexico, decades of political wheeling-and-dealing by “charro” union officials—increasingly unaccountable to those they represent—has resulted in tremendous union “density” on paper but very little positive union presence on the shop floor or in workers’ lives.  The lesson of that experience is quite relevant to current debates about the organizational restructuring promoted by NUP unions, under the leadership and inspiration of SEIU.

Put simply, the lesson is that you can’t “remake,” “re-build,” or “re-organize” unions in any society, without workers and what goes on in their workplaces being central to the project—unless, of course, you’re no longer interested in having the union function as a genuine workers’ organization.

SEIU deserves credit for “pushing organizing”—harder and farther than most AFL-CIO affiliates.  But, reassuringly enough for that AFT delegate quoted in The Times seven years ago, this new member recruitment hasn’t led to any low-income worker take-over of the labor movement—or even SEIU itself.  For that to happen, “poor workers”—as Tait calls them—must first stage two, three, many rank-and-file “take-overs” of their own local unions, and then build from there.

As Tait writes in her concluding chapter, “Imagining a New Movement”:

“The idea of union democracy must be developed further than its current state of ‘democracy by consent,’ where members have a formal vote but no real control at all levels.  Union strength and internal democracy are linked, as is clear from study after study that shows rank-and-file organizers build stronger unions.”

“Top-down, staff driven unions offer little to the masses of non-unionized workers who want a voice in their workplaces and communities.  Union members need to be more than ‘mobilized’ for a street demonstration; they need to be activists integral to the movement in all its aspects.  They need ownership of their movement.”

Challenging staff domination and control within SEIU will require additional “hard work” by a great many rank-and-file “leaders and warriors—of the sort described above by Aaron Bartley in Boston.  Their current and future efforts deserve strong support from other trade unionists and friends of labor—at least those able to distinguish, like Tait and Jackson, between SEIU’s brand of “progressive” managerialism and organizational transformation that puts members in charge of their own unions.


  1. The formation of NUP and its pending challenge to the AFL-CIO has generated much news and commentary in the left, labor, and mainstream media, including: Aaron Bernstein, “Breaking Ranks with the AFL-CIO,” Business Week, Sept. 5, 2003, pp.64-67; Bernstein, “Pooling Our Resources for Growth,” Business Week Online, Sept. 5, 2003; Harold Meyerson, “Organize or Die,” American Prospect, Sept., 2003, 39-42; Joanne Wypijewski,”The New Unity Partnership-A Manifest Destiny For Labor,” CounterPunch, October 6, 2003; William Johnson and Chris Kutalik, “New Unity Partnership: Five guys In A Room Plan The Future Of U.S. Labor Movement,” Labor Notes, [date?issue?]; and William Johnson, “The New Unity Partnership,” Z Magazine, March, 2004, pp. 15-17.
    (Back to text)

  2. One significant difference between the ALA’s reform program and NUP’s is that Reuther, before leaving, challenged the AFL-CIO to create a joint defense fund for strikers.  While shifting tens of millions of dollars into organizing, SEIU has made no effort to build a national strike fund—even for its own members—that would guarantee fixed weekly benefits of any amount—much less the $200 to $300 a week that UAW or CWA strikers receive.  How NUPsters plan to rebuild union power without strengthening workers’ strike capacity has yet to be explained.
    (Back to text)

  3. See “United We Win: A Discussion of the Crisis Facing Workers and the Labor Movement,” an unpublished document circulated by SEIU, dated 1/8/03.  For a different presentation of the same argument, see Stephen Lerner, “An Immodest Proposal: A New Architecture for the House of Labor,” New Labor Forum, Vol. 12, Issue 2, Summer, 2003, pp. 9-30.
    (Back to text)

  4. For more on union recognition deal-making by NUP unions, see Steve Early (and others), “Will Endorsing Republicans Teach Turncoat Dems The Right Lesson?” Labor Notes, June, 2002, pp. 7-11.
    (Back to text)

  5. See Juan Gonzalez, “Bevona Battler vs. National’s Cleanup Crew,” New York Daily News, June 20, 2000, p.8.  For more on NUP union recruitment of former students as organizers and future labor leaders, see Steve Early, “Thoughts on the ‘Worker-Student Alliance’—Then and Now,” Labor History 44 (2003), pp. 5-13, and a follow-up exchange with Lance Compa on this subject in Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Vol. 1, No 2. (Summer, 2004), pp. 23-26.
    (Back to text)

  6. See Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man In Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor, New York: Basic Books, 1995, pp. 434, 435.
    (Back to text)

  7. For more on the 2002 strike by building cleaners in Local 615 (then 254) of SEIU, see Amy Offner, “Boston Janitors Say Strike Settlement Is No Victory,” Labor Notes #285 (December, 2003) pp. 1, 11.
    (Back to text)

  8. For more information on the Members’ Democracy Campaign see  The activities of 888 “interim president” Segat were the subject of a February 27, 2004 column in The Boston Globe, “Union’s Tactics Are A Bust,” by Steve Bailey, p. C-1
    (Back to text)

  9. For more details on the “Philly Home Team” campaign, see William Johnson, “Philadelphia Service Employees’ Local Election Becomes Battleground For Union Democracy,” Labor Notes, #299 (February, 2004), p. 5.
    (Back to text)

  10. See Herman Benson, “Sweeney Critics Would Bureaucratize To Organize,” Union Democracy Review, No. 149, December, 2003/January, 2004, pp. 1-3.
    (Back to text)

Steve Early has been a national organizer or international rep for the Communications Workers of America in the northeast for the last 24 years.  During the 1970s, he was involved in union reform activity in the United Mine Workers, Steel Workers, and Teamsters.

ATC 112, September-October 2004