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A brief history of SEIU

SMART activist Zev Kvitkey on how and why SEIU is changing

A changing global economy
For decades, power and wealth has shifted towards corporations and the wealthy and away from working people. One-sided policies in Washington D.C. have caused the loss of manufacturing jobs, the rise of off-shoring and outsourcing, privatization, and attacks on union organizing rights. These changes have all contributed to a dangerous decline in the number of unionized workers. The declining strength of unions has in turn led to stagnant wages and benefit take-backs - in fact all of the social progress made by organized labor is threatened. This holds true across the globe, as unions struggle to defend past victories and remain vehicles for worker power. With the rising power of global corporations displacing that of unions and even nations, unions must choose to either compromise with CEOs or rebuild worker power and fight back for working families.

SEIU Leaves the AFL-CIO, Forms Change to Win
In 2005, against the backdrop of declining union strength, SEIU, under Andrew Stern's leadership, led a coalition of unions to leave the AFL and form a rival labor federation, Change to Win (CTW), promising massive union organizing and growth. However, there was hardly any member involvement in this split, and many unanswered questions. The split sparked a debate in the broader labor community, but it was largely limited to academic journals and a small group of leaders and activists. Outside of Stern's blog and a handful of poorly attended membership meetings, most members knew little of the change until it was reported in the media that SEIU and other unions walked out of the AFL-CIO Convention.

Many academics and activists applauded the effort to try a new and different approach, recognizing that unions are failing to overcome the challenges of the new corporate landscape and facing a dangerous decline in membership. What little debate took place focused on questions of structure and program, largely ignoring the role of (and impact on) union members.

But SEIU's new direction has caused many problems for us as members, and in some respects isn't new or different in comparison to other unions. Recent debates have erupted within SEIU over closed-door political deals, forced mergers and trusteeships, and undemocratic deals struck with employers. Some of the details of "template" agreements reveal a troubling willingness to give away traditional collective bargaining standards for the right to organize more workers. Our bosses have never been afraid of union officials in Washington, D.C. The only way the labor movement has ever been able to win improvements for workers is with strong member involvement. To assess whether the recent changes in SEIU have been positive or not, we need to review those changes and the corresponding results to date. It is insufficient merely to talk about how much SEIU (or CTW) has or has not grown. We must also assess what SEIU has been able to win for us, and how effectively it represents those of us who compose it.

Restructuring Within SEIU
The split from the AFL-CIO came after years of restructuring within SEIU. CTW sought to build a labor federation using a similar internal structure to the one used by SEIU.

The restructuring of SEIU began in earnest in 1996 with a new focus on growth. Local Unions were required to dedicate 20% of all dues income to organizing, and the International allocated 35% of its resources to organizing. To accomplish this, the International cut funds for other services such as research, health and safety programs, and member education.

The 2000 SEIU Convention
The approved New Strength Unity plan centralized decision-making considerably. One third of the Canadian membership left SEIU as a result of these changes, although many Canadian members later negotiated a return to our union, SEIU still lost thousands of members as a result of these changes.

The plan also created new "Unity Councils" that superseded Local autonomy in order to coordinate bargaining and organizing, and gave the President new power to intervene in Local affairs and to direct contract bargaining. Union dues were increased substantially to fund these new councils and programs. Mergers and trusteeships became commonplace in the following years, as Locals were merged and restructured to create larger ones. In "Poor Workers' Unions, Rebuilding Labor from Below", (2005) author Vanessa Tait writes that, "Since 1996, some 40 locals, or about 14% of SEIU affiliates, were forced into trusteeship with officers newly appointed by the national union, usually from outside the units they headed. Even at the peak of the court ordered clean up of the Teamsters in the early 1990s, only 10% of its locals were put under trusteeship, and this was under justice department indictment for 'racketeering'."

The 2004 SEIU Convention
This trend accelerated at the next SEIU Convention in 2004. The powers of SEIU's President and the International union were vastly expanded under the approved changes to the Constitution and Bylaws. Here are just some of the changes implemented:

At the time, we were told that these changes were necessary to restructure the union to the new global economy, in order to organize more workers and win better contracts.

It now appears these changes have turned SEIU into the country's first true corporate union, mirroring many of the worst aspects of our corporate bosses. Most SEIU Locals are now regional, state, or national "Locals" in which democratic structures and member involvement were often casualties of the mergers or restructuring that created them. Even these new Locals have limited control over their own policies, taking increasing direction from the International Union. Newly created and merged "Locals" are often headed by leaders appointed directly by Stern, typically leaders who are loyal to the President or who came from International SEIU staff positions. This has created a national bureaucracy dominated by professional staff and loyal patrons who are largely unelected by the rank-and-file membership. It would be hard to distinguish the structure of our union today from that of most large corporations, with a powerful CEO directing, a board of directors, divisions with appointed leadership, leaving little real power in the hands of the members.

A Country That Works?
In 2006, Stern wrote a book, "A Country That Works, Getting America Back on Track" which SEIU helped to pay for and promote. Even though many International officers of SEIU had no idea what was written in Stern's book prior to it's publication, the statements in the book were taken by the public to be our union's official position. Many of the statements made by Stern would have been controversial, had they been discussed in detail with members. He insists that our members need to "add value" to our employers, disregarding the fact that most workers have seen their wages stagnate and workloads increase, while our bosses reap increasing profits. He proposes that we model our union after Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) like the AARP, ignoring that NGOs are organizations funded primarily by wealthy donors, and do not have the same democratic decision-making structures as labor unions.

He praises organizing campaigns for janitors and homecare workers without any mention that many of these organizing efforts have failed to produce substantial increases in wages and benefits. A majority of the Los Angeles homecare workers still make barely over minimum wage and receive no health benefits. In Illinois, homecare workers paid union dues for years without any contract at all.

Most alarming is a revisionist history of major struggles in which the workers who fought their employers are literally erased from the story. In Stern's version, he alone intervened in conflicts with Kaiser Hospitals and Beverly Nursing Homes, bringing an end to years of strikes and bitter struggle, and accomplished new partnerships that benefited workers and employers. Victory was due to Stern's brilliance and top-down strategies developed in Washington, DC. This is an offense to those of us who fought those struggles, and who know that these partnerships and victories would have been impossible without the respect from the employers we won in hard-fought strikes and struggles over the previous years.

How Have These Changes Affected SEIU Members?
After these waves of restructuring, and the granting of broad authority to the President and his appointees, what has been the result for SEIU members? Has growth led to greater victories for us, and better contracts? Let's take a look:

Undemocratic mergers of Local Unions and appointment of Officers:

Replacing union representatives with call centers:

  • Workers "are not interested in coming to union halls," says Stern, suggesting that call centers and text messaging -- instead of shop stewards -- are part of the new communications paradigm for unions. (Crain's Insider, 5/2/2006)
  • In many Locals, ineffective call centers have impeded good representation, and raised concerns about privacy of personal information. Some call center Directors describe their work as "servicing accounts" instead of fighting for workers.
  • Members of Service Workers United (SWU), formed by SEIU and UNITE/HERE, allege that calls to their Worker Resource Center went unanswered for months, and "service representatives" were unable to provide critical information about their contract and benefits, while grievances went completely unaddressed.

Contract negotiations that exclude members, and trade organizing for fundamental union rights and the public interest:

SEIU Contract victories that leave union members in poverty:

Note A:
SMART understands that prior to collective bargaining, workers paid dues through check drafts, credit card drafts or direct payments to help fund their organization. SMART believes it is great when unorganized workers take ownership and fund their own organization, just as autoworkers, steelworkers and other industrial workers did prior to the Wagner Act. However, surely these workers deserve to earn more than $10 an hour after their extraordinary commitment to their union.

"When we think about auto, steel and rubber workers," Andy Stern says, "before the 1930s and 40s they didn't have high skilled, high wage jobs. But they got a union, and a union job turned out to be a good job, where you could raise a family and enter the middle class." SMART's point here is that unionizing into SEIU has not provided that traditional path to the middle class for Illinois homecare workers, who surely deserve it.

Note B:
SMART does not agree with AFSCME intervention in the very last stages of the campaign. AFSCME took advantage of years of hard work by these workers to win collective bargaining rights. SMART supports the decision that these workers made to join our union, SEIU.

The point SMART is raising is that SEIU's failure to deliver high wage standards to all of our members leaves us more vulnerable to raids by other unions who can point to higher wage standards in their union contracts as an incentive for workers to abandon prior organizing efforts with SEIU. We want SEIU to set high contract standards, so that we are less vulnerable to raiding and attacks by rival unions. SMART also believes that high contract standards are the best incentive for new workers to join with us in SEIU, driving the much needed growth we all work hard to achieve as member organizers.

Using mergers to attack union staff and bust their unions:

Even as aberrations, some of these actions would be unacceptable to most members. In fact, they are indicative of the direction of the International SEIU. SEIU has put growth ahead of our interests and those of future members. Short-term growth trumps contract standards, member democracy, and the public interest. SEIU is now the perfect labor-based counterpart to our corporate bosses, preferring short-term gain over long-term health, quantity over quality, and growth at any cost. SEIU is becoming akin to a Sierra Club for workers- little more than a non-accountable member association and a massive political lobbying arm. Members are on the verge of losing control at all levels over the direction of SEIU.

The power of unions has always been rooted in the power and participation of workers. Rank-and-file movements have been the power behind every major victory in labor's history, from the right to organize, to the eight-hour day and our own contract victories. Stern has gradually weakened the power of rank-and-file members in the Union, accumulating it within the very top ranks of SEIU, giving the power of members to himself and his appointed patrons and staff. In doing so, the health and welfare of our Union is at risk, as is the future of the entire labor movement, which he is urging to follow in SEIU's footsteps.

In four years, SEIU has doubled their funding for organizing and dramatically centralized control under the International union, with mixed results. The unions in Change to Win (CTW) have thus far failed to outpace their AFL-CIO counterparts in organizing. In fact, CTW membership has actually shrunk over the past three years despite the growth of SEIU. There have been numerous rifts between the unions composing CTW, particularly around the issue of healthcare. Other CTW unions opposed the healthcare reform supported by SEIU in California this year. The UFCW picketed a press conference at which Andy Stern stood embraced Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott to and supported some unexplained version healthcare reform. In a letter to other CTW unions, UFCW President Joe Hansen wrote that the unions need to "resolve issues that I see as a threat to the existence of Change to Win."

There is talk of a proposal from the SEIU International to increase the amount of money Locals must dedicate to organizing and to have these organizing resources go directly to, and be controlled by the International union in Washington D.C. For local unions that represent lower-wage workers, the share of dues money going directly to the International SEIU could reach as high as 75% of their entire local budget. These funds, at the sole direction of the International union, are increasingly going to the kind of "template" bargaining and sellout contracts that undermine our standards in order to gain new members.

SEIU is OUR Union
This is our union, and with the SEIU 2008 Convention fast approaching, it's time to take it back! Growth must be based on the power of workers, the success of our victories, and NOT at their expense!

By SMART member Zev Kvitky, SEIU Local 2007


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