Where Is the Real Debate?

Against the Current, No. 113, November/December 2004

Jim Hard

HAVING SPENT THE last two decades as a reformer in Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000 in the California State Employees Association (CSEA), I wanted to respond to a few issues raised in Steve Early’s article “Reutherism Redux: What Happens When Poor Workers Wear the Color Purple” (ATC 112, September-October 2004).

I read and reread Early’s essay looking for his proposals for how to stem the rapid decline of the U.S. union movement in virtually every industry. Though he does grudgingly grant that “At the bargaining table in any industry, its obviously better to have union density than not have it…,” he never says what he would do to build that density by organizing workers in each industry into a united, strong union.

Instead Early bitterly attacks SEIU for trying to do so in its core industries and for urging that the labor movement be restructured to build workers’ strength in other industries as well.

The key problem facing workers in America today is that union membership is down to 12.9%, and only 8% in the private sector.  The union membership that remains is in industries that are shrinking, while there are virtually no members in the rapidly growing service companies like Wal-Mart.

The union that has had Steve Early on its payroll as a staff person for the past 24 years, the Communications Workers of America, has lost about 20% of its membership over the last several years, if you don’t count mergers with AFA, IUE and a couple others.

It is increasingly difficult for workers to set and maintain high standards for pay and benefits in manufacturing, transportation, construction, telecommunications, health care or any other sector when the great majority of the workers in each industry are not in unions.

As long as about 90% of workers in America are not in the union movement, there is no way for those workers to participate, build workers’ strength and create worker democracy.  Since 1996, SEIU has helped more than 600,000 workers join the union in three core industries; health care, public employment and building service (janitors and security officers).

If Steve Early sees himself as the guardian of rank-and-file interests, I would think his primary concern would be how to replicate that success on a much bigger scale.  (For more on this subject see:  SEIU’s United We Win at http://communities.seiu.org/unitedwewin)

Instead, Early seems determined to find anything and everything possible to criticize SEIU, even when it causes him to get so tangled in contradictions it’s hard to make sense of what he’s saying.

Much of his derision is aimed at professional organizers working along side rank-and-file members to build our movement. Then it turns out that he himself is a professional organizer who has never worked a day as a rank and filer in the various unions for which he has worked. (This leaves me wondering whether Early couldn’t write a much better informed and more credible critique of the union he is more familiar with — the CWA.)

Labor Notes says of Early, “During the 1970s he was involved in union reform activity in the United Mine Workers, Steel Workers and Teamsters.” Now since he was not “involved” as a rank-and-file member reformer in three different industries and three different unions, his derision of SEIU staff seems to pose a serious dilemma for Brother Early. I assume he made a positive contribution to building the power of workers from a position other than a rank-and-file member, so why does he now argue that such a role is inherently improper?

I also found it confusing that after criticizing SEIU for hiring college graduates to fill some of its rapidly expanding need for organizers, Early then turns around and cites extensive quotes from one of them fresh out of Harvard and working on his first campaign — as the ultimate authority criticizing the strategic choices made in a janitors’ campaign in Boston.

Organizing and Democracy

As a state employee in California, I became an active steward and a founding member of the twelve-year-old Caucus for a Democratic Union in SEIU Local 1000, CSEA, a reform movement against the undemocratic, unethical, anti-union, politically backward and incompetent Association leaders and management staff.

Our reform movement was founded on the belief that the basic strength of unions is the members. I know how hard it is to build member participation, leadership and authority, and I agree that not enough is being done to improve this throughout the union movement.

But SEIU is training thousands of member activists through direct organizing experiences, in new workplaces, and in contract and electoral campaigns. There are thousands of SEIU members working full- time on the presidential campaign right now at union expense.

I would guess that SEIU has more organizers from the rank and file than the CWA or most other unions. This is a job all unions must take on, and I believe SEIU is doing more, not less, than most in this regard.

One of Early’s strangest complaints is that “Since 1996, when (Andy) Stern replaced (John) Sweeney, 40 SEIU Locals or 14% of its 275 affiliates have been put under trusteeships to implant new officers.” He admits locals have suffered from incompetent administration and some were used as personal piggy banks and employment services for some elected officials and their families.

I would add that if leaders are unwilling to carry out the democratically decided plans and priorities of the union, they deserve to be removed. I would hope that the CWA doesn’t tolerate corrupt or incompetent leadership either.

Early complains that in some of these temporarily trusteed locals, the membership elected as their new leaders people who had administered the trusteeship and showed members what a stronger local union could be. He cites as an example of this supposedly harmful phenomenon the election of Rocio Saenz as head of the Boston janitors’ local.

Saenz is an immigrant from Mexico who worked as a cleaner in Los Angeles, helped lead the successful Justice for Janitors campaign there, and then led a strike for health care benefits by the Boston area janitors. They then elected her their president, the first time that local of mostly immigrant workers, many of them women, had a leader who shares their background.

To me, that’s a great step forward for diversity and new leadership in our movement. The affirmative action that makes use of her experience and skill greatly outweighs the “issue” that Early dwells on; that she wasn’t originally from the Boston local itself.

As another example, Early criticizes Eliseo Medina, who was elected head of an SEIU local union in San Diego and is now one of SEIU’s four national executive vice presidents. As an immigrant from Mexico, Medina worked while a child alongside his parents in the fields near Delano, California. He eventually got involved in the United Farm Workers union.

Later, the CWA chose to use Medina’s union experience and leadership skills by sending him to Texas to lead state employee organizing there. Then he returned to California to work for SEIU, and is now the nation’s leading advocate for immigration reform.

Again, this seems to me to be a great step forward for meaningful diversity in our leadership ranks, and I’m not sure what sin Early sees, except perhaps that Medina didn’t stay with the CWA as Early did.

Because of my own experience fighting for members’ democratic rights and a strong union, I am thankful for union reformers whether they come from the top, bottom or middle of the union movement. Just as there is a shortage of union members and rank-and-file union leaders, there is a shortage of dedicated and effective staff leaders.

For the few unions like SEIU that are organizing in their industries as quickly as possible and on a large scale, there is an even greater shortage of professional staff. So, I deeply appreciate their contribution to building our strength.

Are all SEIU members satisfied? Of course not.  But throughout his essay, Early gives the impression that every criticism he can quote from a member of SEIU is valid and represents the way most SEIU members feel.

My experience has been that among rank-and-file union members there are usually varying opinions on almost any subject, including how best to build organizational strength and further workers’ interests. I feel confident that one could walk into any CWA workplace that Steve Early or anyone else represents and find similar criticisms among the range of opinions there. There are both good and bad ideas, strong and weak characters, and varying degrees of energy and initiative among us, both staff and members.

We have made great strides in my local and in SEIU since 1996. Operating in the real world, working as hard and as fast as we can, we in SEIU make mistakes, fail at times and certainly have room for improvement.

But the debate we should be having is how to help each other succeed together as a union movement because if we don’t, then working people in America have no future.

ATC 113, November-December 2004