The SEIU as Case Study

Against the Current, No. 153, July/August 2011

David Cohen

The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor
Birth of a New Workers Movement or Death Throes of the Old?
By Steve Early
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011, 440 pages,
$17 paperback.

ABOUT 40 YEARS ago I had a job in a rubber molding factory in Easthampton, Massachusetts, where the union in the shop was the IUE (International Union of Electrical Workers). We all knew that there were negotiations going on between the Company and the Union, but we were never told what was happening.

This was at the time when there existed rank-and-file union caucuses fighting for democracy. I began to circulate a petition asking the union to let us know what was happening.

The next day a meeting was called. We gathered at City Hall and the Union Rep read a list of “non-negotiable” items that had been agreed on. He then said, “All in favor of the contract remain seated, all who want to go on strike and lose your job, go stand by the wall.” When we were all too confused to act, he announced, “the contract passes,” and he left the meeting.

About two weeks later I was elected chief steward, not because I knew what I was doing, but because the workers were mad about how the union was run. This was my introduction to the debate about union democracy. Shortly after that, I changed jobs and started working at a shop with a company union. Within two years we had organized into the UE, a union that prided itself on being democratic, and my education on the subject of union democracy continued.

This may seem like a convoluted introduction to a review of the new book by veteran union activist and author Steve Early, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor. The book covers the recent history of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its efforts to become the largest union in the United States.

Early chronicles all the twists and turns of SEIU, during which any semblance of democracy within SEIU is destroyed, and which put it into battles with other unions and internally with its own local leaders and members. Interwoven throughout all the stories is the question of whether democracy has a place in the labor movement or not, and whether we want a labor movement based upon a corporate model where the leaders lead and all others must follow orders.

Cooperation and Mega-locals

The book starts by examining an election campaign in 2000 that SEIU ran at the Maine Medical Center, involving 1250 Registered Nursess.  Despite SEIU’s appeals to the management of the Medical Center for cooperation and a friendly relationship, management decided to run a straight forward anti-union campaign. The result was that SEIU lost, despite having a majority signed up before the NLRB vote was taken.

Steve recounts the discussion that took place after the loss. Much focus was on the usual outrageous behavior by management, but there were also criticisms of the union campaign. A report written by a key union staffer pointed out that SEIU mainly relied on outside staff to the detriment of the necessary effort to build a large and effective committee of nurses. When the going got tough, they relied on bringing in more outsiders to call and canvass the nurses. He thought that was the key to the loss by SEIU.

The book then moves into a discussion of the path SEIU had already begun to take — that the way to organizing nurses and others was through cooperation with hospitals rather then by struggle of the workers. An SEIU report referred to this as the “High Road” strategy.

The book then moves ahead with meticulous detail on matters with which many readers of Against the Current will be at least partially familiar: SEIU’s creation of “mega-locals” and the replacement of elected leadership with appointed trustees, and the subsequent history. The union’s organizing strategy included the effort to negotiate agreements with various hospital and nursing home chains in order to “allow” SEIU to represent a portion of the workforce. In exchange SEIU agreed to no-strike clauses, as well as to lobbying on the legislative front to get more state money for these institutions.

Early describes in particular the battles in California to create mega-locals that led to the removal of the elected leadership of United Health Care West (UHW), and the dissidents’ formation of a new independent union based upon rank and file control, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

Other chapters chronicle the fights SEIU had with the California Nurses Association, which eventually led to a truce and partnership on some levels, with the caveat that CNA stop assisting NUHW.

The institution by SEIU of “call centers” to replace union stewards and servicing staff raises important question of why stewards are still the heart and soul of the labor movement. Another question concerns the problem of how to connect with members who work in far-flung locations.

Waste and Destruction

The massive raid by SEIU on Unite Here, a union partner in the short-lived “Change to Win” labor federation, is presented in all its gory detail. Early estimates the waste of money by the labor movement between 2008-2010 as a result of these “civil wars” to be $140 million:

“I estimate the amount to be about $140 million, which is why the Washington Post, upon his retirement, correctly highlighted Stern’s ‘mixed legacy.’ In an interview with the paper, even Andy agreed that these expenditures were ‘a tragedy.’ But then echoing George Bush, he justified the overall cost based upon the seriousness of the threat posed by SEIU dissenters. In America, Stern said, ‘there is not enough money you can spend…to protest us from terrorists. As you know sometimes you have to spend money to protect the integrity of the institution from its own version of self-righteousness and terrorism.”(289)

With the retirement of Andy Stern as president of SEIU, some people hoped that there would be a turnaround in SEIU policy, but — as this book carefully points out — those who remain in power were architects along with Andy Stern of the policies that have wreaked havoc in the labor movement for many years now.  There has been no repudiation of the anti-democratic creation of mega locals and removal of elected leadership, and SEIU’s attacks on NUHW continue.

What needs to be carefully examined is the effect on the labor movement of an ideology that promoted growth and “union density” at any cost, and clearly promoted the concept that internal union democracy was a hindrance to growth and revitalization of the labor movement.

Several years ago I heard a young SEIU staffer give a report on the campaign SEIU was planning in Massachusetts to organize home health care workers, based upon the model SEIU used in other states. He carefully explained how they were courting politicians so that the State would create an agency that would “employ” all the home health care aides. Then SEIU would petition to be the workers’ representative.

When asked what role the home health care aides themselves would play, he replied that they would be involved later, because having them involved at this stage could wreck SEIU’s plans. When I talked to him later he assured me that when the time was right the workers would be allowed to have a democratic union, but that would be in the future. This young staffer truly believed that he was progressive and doing the right thing.

Early, in his summation, points out:

“Much of the conflict described in the book, culminating most dramatically in the 2010 Kaiser decertification elections, grew out of the once-promising (and still necessary) union strategy of trying to neutralize employer interference with organizing.” (332) [In this election Kaiser workers voted to stay with SEIU rather than switching to NUHW.]

In addressing what kind of movement is needed to revitalize the labor movement he insists:

“Workers do not unite and fight for organizing rights, a first contract, a better contract, or a better functioning union and more democratic union — unless they have reason to believe in each other and the leadership that has emerged from their own ranks. Few will go that extra mile for an entity that leaves them feeling personally abused, collectively disempowered, and forced to pay the salaries of people who actively work against their interests, in concert with their employers.”

What Kind of Leadership?

The book concludes with a short section, which I feel is very important and could provide a basis for an important debate: What is a working-class theory of leadership?

Steve comments on a book by James C. Scott, called, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. It examines the Russian revolution, and events in Tanzania and concludes that “authoritarian high modernism” usually fails because it attempts to make a better world without regard for “the values, desires and objections of those subjected to it.” (335)

I would point out that some on the left, and in the labor movement, have mimicked a “bourgeois form of leadership,” and have failed to develop an alternative model of leadership. In its craziest form we have union leaders who say the labor movement must mirror the corporate structure so we can move as quickly as they do, and conclude that democracy is a hindrance to the labor movement.

Those of us who believe in a movement “from below” are not saying there should be no leadership. On the contrary, we must develop and describe new forms of leadership. Perhaps this means that leaders should view themselves as replaceable and interchangeable, with the emphasis on personality to be replaced by the ability to educate and develop an effective and inclusive strategy for accomplishing the goals of the movement.

This also means a change in how the membership should view its leaders, with a greater emphasis on membership responsibility. This is the essence of a “rank-and-file” organization — both the rank and the file are necessary and responsible for the mission of the organization.

In total, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor is an important book dealing in great detail with a highly significant slice of current and ongoing history. It provides a basis for discussion on not just what happened, but on why and how, to use these lessons to build a new future for our labor movement and therefore for our class.

July/August 2011, ATC 153