WHEN ANDY Stern led the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and six other major unions out of the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form a new labor coalition, Change to Win (CTW), there was active discussion about organizing the unorganized. SEIU was one of the few unions growing at the time, and after decades of union decline, the formation of CTW seemed to many to offer the renewal of hope. Some likened CTW’s creation to the CIO’s birth in the 1930s, which led to a boom of union organizing.
But the talk turned to more of an embarrassed whisper before too long. Turf wars, power grabs, political wrangling, emotional manipulation, unnecessary trusteeships, and a ridiculous experiment to replace stewards with call centers are all part of SEIU’s missteps since the formation of CTW. This causes labor activists to ponder, with union bureaucrats like these, who needs the bosses? Steve Early’s new book, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, helps to explain what went wrong.
To start with, the laws are not on the unions’ side. Early recounts an SEIU attempt to organize nurses at a hospital in Maine through a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) vote. He details the anti-union campaign of the hospital, and how an NLRB vote can be undermined every step of the way by management. SEIU lost this vote, but even when unions win, employers can delay a first contract, sometimes for years, through appeals and legal objections.
These difficulties have led SEIU and many other unions to look for ways to avoid NLRB elections when organizing. This means negotiating some kind of employer “neutrality” during organizing drives. But SEIU, under Stern, took the idea behind labor-management cooperation to whole new levels in its bid to show employers how unthreatening the union could be. For some employers, SEIU agreed to wage and benefit concessions—and not to strike for ten years—in order to have neutrality at the employer’s’ non-union sites. If the employer was not keen on a 100 percent unionized workforce, the union would allow the employer to choose which site to organize and which to remain untouched.
The union also promised political alliances for employer interests including “support for state laws limiting the right of nursing home patients to sue over mistreatment.” Some contracts even allowed subcontracting a percentage of the workforce and other provisions that undermined job security. The San Francisco Weekly reported that “model contracts in California prevented SEIU members from reporting ‘health care violations to state regulators, to other public officials, or to journalists except in cases where the employees are required by law to report egregious cases of neglect and abuse.’”
Such bargains caused many labor activists to attack SEIU for being a “company union.” This disagreement came to a head in 2008 when an Ohio hospital chain, Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP), filed a petition for an NLRB election, an unprecedented move for an employer. The more progressive California Nurses Association (CNA), believing the SEIU-CHP partnership to be detrimental to the entire labor movement, sent its own organizers from the National Nurses Organizing Committee to stir things up. With another, non–employer approved union in the mix, the hospital chain pulled its petition with the NLRB, and the hospitals remained non-union. In retaliation, the SEIU launched an intimidation campaign against the CNA, including a busload of purple-clad members being led in a Teamster-style attack on a 2008 Labor Notes convention that CNA officials were participating in.
If your tactic for successful unions is labor-management cooperation, then you can’t have pesky rank-and-file agitation among your membership. In Stern’s own words to the Wall Street Journal, he wanted to develop “a new model [of unionism] less focused on individual grievances, more focused on industry needs.” This model included merging many locals together to create super locals, putting any local that resisted under trusteeship, and by replacing local stewards with call centers.
While Early always makes it clear that he stands on the side of union democracy against union bureaucracy, he includes quotes from both sides and creates a full picture of the situations that he reports on. According to a report titled Union of the Future, by then secretary-treasurer Anna Burger, they were on track to build a
rosy future in which members would be “so strongly supported” by call centers that stewards and field staff could then “focus on building the union: identifying and developing leaders; organizing around workplace issues; fighting for better contracts, uniting more workers, and winning politically and in the community.”
The reality however, turned out to be quite the opposite. Members reported calling in to centers hundreds of miles away from their shop floor and talking with people unfamiliar with their contracts. When I started my job as a driver for UPS, I quickly learned the importance of having trained stewards at the workplace who know the contract and can help protect workers on the job. In my first evaluation with a supervisor, I was asked to sign a paper that went over my “strengths and areas of improvement.” Before I could even move toward the pen, my steward said, “She refuses to sign.” These small and sometimes subtle protections from daily management harassment make a difference in the lives of union workers. Enforcing a contract can’t be done from call centers. It takes an understanding of the individual workplace and types of harassment that occur on a daily basis. That kind of protection can only come from the workers empowered to stand up for themselves with the backing of a union. It’s no wonder why so many SEIU members felt abandoned after the implementation of call centers.
The book chronicles not only the corruption and nefarious twists and turns of politically bankrupt union bureaucrats, but also the folks who fought back. Early’s close association with labor activists allows the reader a unique view into the tactics used at every level to oppose moves by the International that were not in tune with the membership. One of the most significant acts of resistance was led by Sal Rosselli, once head of the SEIU-affiliated United Healthcare Workers (UHW). When Rosselli started to speak out against Stern’s backroom dealing with then California Governor Schwarzenegger, and in favor of union democracy, the International moved in January 2009 to put the UHW under trusteeship, which would allow Stern to replace the elected leadership with appointees of his own. Despite a courageous battle that included mass rallies of the UHW rank and file against the trusteeship, Stern prevailed, causing Rosselli to create a new union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). The NUHW has since had both successes and failures in its struggles against SEIU.
The SEIU vs. NUHW conflict is about answering the question that Early asks at the heart of this book: “What type of union structure keeps leaders at every level more connected to members at the base?” What union provides a better way forward for labor? It’s a question that has implications far beyond Stern and SEIU. While Early focuses on SEIU’s last decade, he also draws on historical references to past union “civil war” battles to allow the reader to understand union bureaucracy in a historical context and conclude that the last thing union membership can do is become complacent and depend on the leadership to do what’s right. Even leaders with good intentions and progressive rhetoric may steer a union in the wrong direction if they’re isolated from the membership. Knowledge of the recent history highlighted inThe Civil War in U.S. Labor leads a rank-and-file activist to an understanding that union democracy is not limited to voting for officials, it’s about having an engaged membership. That’s the real hope for renewal of the labor movement.