When the Union Is the Boss


Editor’s Introduction

It’s no secret that there exists (1) a high turnover rate among entry-level organizers, many of whom are (2) young college graduates, rather than people recruited out of the communities that are organizing targets — the interrelated problems that Kevin Funk’s essay below illustrates.

Daisy Rooks’ qualitative study (based on interviews with organizers), “The Cowboy Mentality: Organizers and Occupational Commitment in the New Labor Movement” (Labor Studies Journal 28.3, Fall 2003), argues that organized labor is in denial about the toll that the dominant culture of organizing, which she calls “the cowboy mentality,” takes on organizers and that “the cowboy mentality” contributes to a high turnover rate and less than desirable levels of racial and gender diversity among organizers.  What is “the cowboy mentality”?  Simply put, “a set of assumptions about organizing being more than a job, being superior to other forms of work in the labor movement, and being best experienced with an intensity resembling a military boot camp” (Rooks 33).  That’s the set of assumptions that justifies extreme occupational demands such as long hours, extensive travel, unpredictability, and so on.  Rooks demonstrates that “the cowboy mentality,” while appealing to some, alienates and excludes others and that women and people of color, especially those who have responsibility for families, are “most likely alienated by the cowboy mentality” (Rooks 33).

Can organized labor afford to continue to parachute young college-educated organizers into communities for short-term intensive campaigns here and there?  Would it not simply chew up the new organizers and burn them out without building any enduring bases in working-class suburbs?  Would it not be better to hire organizers and recruit volunteer organizers out of communities to be organized, so organizers with campaign experience will remain in the communities and build on it after the end of a campaign, whether it ends in victory or defeat?  That’s one set of questions that Kevin Funk’s essay should raise.

The second set of questions, implicit in the essay, concerns why SEIU isn’t at the forefront of a single-payer health care campaign and whether SEIU’s approach to organizing care-giving workforce — setting up new government authorities that may facilitate organizing, without touching the foundations of privatized health care in the United States — isn’t at odds with the needs of the American working class as a whole. — Ed.

I.  Meeting North America’s “Fastest-Growing Union”

Late in the summer of 2005, as I geared up for my post-college graduation job search, a group of labor unions broke away from the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win Federation.  While media commentary generally portrayed the split as detrimental to working-class interests — as if commentators actually cared about such matters — I instead saw flashes of hope and a renewed commitment to reinvigorating a fading labor movement.

Wanting my place on the ground floor of this struggle, I applied for a job as a union organizer with Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a founding member of the Federation and a union with a reputation for leading the charge to organize low-wage workers.  Idealism in hand, I happily accepted an offer from District 1199 WV/KY/OH, whose expansive region covers the states of Ohio and West Virginia, as well as parts of Kentucky.

On my first day of work, a typically crisp fall day in September, I entered an SEIU District that triumphantly wore a badge of success.  Covering mostly low-wage health care workers, 1199 professes to have one of the fastest growth rates of union membership within SEIU, which itself claims the title of the country’s “fastest-growing union.”1

Fellow organizers and higher-ups within the union alike, displaying a striking unity of message that would later give me pause, frequently bandied about the idea that it was the most hardcore SEIU District; “while organizers at other locals around the country have off every weekend,” an organizer or leader would commonly say, “WE only have off every other weekend.”

And if the spirit of hard work and devotion was present in union employee attitudes, it also manifested itself in the battles that 1199 was choosing to fight.  With grand hopes of becoming a powerhouse in Ohio state politics and rapidly approaching November elections, 1199 was employing several dozen organizers statewide to work in support of mayoral candidates in Cincinnati, Toledo, and Youngstown, and was also the major player behind a ballot initiative in Springfield.

It was this ballot initiative that most dominated 1199’s agenda.  Faced with the dilemma of how to grow exponentially as a union at a time when most organizing was being done by conducting long, slow, and expensive piecemeal, hospital-by-hospital campaigns, 1199 set its sights on what it saw as the bigger picture, and one with a potential payout to be won in a few fell swoops: passing ballot initiatives to establish “Hospital Accountability Commissions” in cities throughout Ohio in order to prohibit the state’s largest health system, Catholic Healthcare Partners, from interfering in future statewide organizing efforts.

District 1199 was, indeed, talking the progressive talk — not only in its expressed desire to unionize systemically-underpaid healthcare employees throughout Ohio, but also in its aim to establish a regulatory mechanism for a hospital system that receives sizable taxpayer subsidies and nevertheless mercilessly sues countless patients who are unable to pay for overpriced services.

On the surface, then, 1199 was striking the pose of a forward-thinking, progressive-to-the-bone organization, one firmly entrenched on the front line of a battle for working-class survival against modern-day robber barons.

Yet while this initial impression retains kernels of truth, I also began to discover a different union reality from inside, one characterized by an often subtle yet convoluted net of deceit, fear-mongering, incompetence, and, in fact, union-busting.

II.  Deceiving the Public for Its Own Good

Perhaps my first encounter with 1199’s seedy underbelly occurred when former Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards was to speak in Springfield to rally “Yes” votes for the then-upcoming referendum on the SEIU-backed Hospital Accountability Commission.

Officials in 1199 hoped for (and later claimed to have attracted) a crowd of 1,000 for the event, seeing the presence of a major politician in a minor market during a non-presidential election year as a means to create a stir in the normally sleepy Rust Belt city of 65,000.

As I soon found out, however, there was a disquieting number of outsiders doing the stirring.

In the course of my duties in guiding attendees from a downtown parking lot to the nearby rally site, I watched as bus after out-of-town SEIU bus poured its riders into the lot adjacent to a Springfield library for their attendance at the rally.  The end result of this transfer was that perhaps half of the crowd consisted of either 1199 employees like me — almost all drawn from a college campus instead of the rank-n-file — or representatives from workplaces organized under 1199, who were bussed into Springfield from a meeting in nearby Columbus.  Thus, what 1199 leadership spun as a strong display of organic community support masked the fact that half of those in attendance were not even from Springfield.

To attempt to conceal this from the press — a ballsy move given the lengthy row of out-of-town busses parked conspicuously only a few blocks from the rally location — 1199 higher-ups instructed staffers and representatives to simply ignore the media or to say that we were indeed from Springfield, when in fact some had never even set foot there prior to that afternoon.

Yet this was merely one — and amongst the more benign — of the instances in which 1199, under the auspices of the Springfield Fair Care Coalition, either deceived or concealed motives from the same people whom the union was supposedly seeking to help2 — the net result of which created a significant, and fatal, backlash.

The Coalition, backed and dominated by SEIU, was selling the idea of a Hospital Accountability Commission to the people of Springfield primarily as a means to assure that Catholic Healthcare Partners, which operates both of the hospitals in Springfield, would be held responsible to community standards in light of the large tax breaks the company receives.  Feeding on popular discontent with the hospitals’ liberal policy of suing patient debtors, as well as a recent and controversial decision to merge the two hospitals into a downtown location, the Coalition sought to portray itself as an altruistic community group whose sole goal was to ensure that the hospitals did their job and served the needs of the people of Springfield, especially those of the poor and working class.

This was the message pumped into the city by advertising campaigns, billboards, mailings, and, most importantly, by 1199 organizers such as myself, who were in constant contact with any reachable resident of Springfield through repeated rounds of phone calls and house visits.

Yet in the course of spreading this message to the people of Springfield, union leadership directly ordered us to misrepresent our positions and refer to ourselves as “volunteers with the Springfield Fair Care Coalition.”  There was nothing “voluntary” about it — it was both a mandatory part of the job and a task for which SEIU was compensating us as normal.  Not “volunteering” for the Coalition would have earned me, or anyone else, a one-way ticket to the unemployment lines.

The obfuscation of SEIU’s role in the campaign, however, extended far beyond how we introduced ourselves at people’s front doors.  Rarely in any facet of this communications deluge was the union mentioned, rarer still was the ultimate goal of the entire campaign: the unionization of hospital employees.

When it did become common knowledge that this was the goal of the Coalition, many Springfield residents rightfully felt deceived.  As I heard several times during house visits, many people were not opposed to unionization per se (though some indeed were), but they were clearly incensed at being subjected to a campaign fed to them on slogans of “accountability,” while the Coalition was obscuring from them its ultimate purpose.3

On November 7, 2005, Springfield voters rejected the establishment of a Hospital Accountability Commission.4

While extrapolating specific causal factors in this defeat is indeed a Herculean task, the eventual recognition by many Springfield residents of the fact that SEIU was pursuing a hidden agenda surely played a significant role, as did the oft-expressed perception that the constancy of SEIU mailings, house visits, and phone calls bordered on harassment.

Whether this loss can be attributed to mere tactical errors or 1199’s sheer arrogance, the end result is the same: the people of Springfield are still suffering at the hands of an inhuman, corporate health care machine.  Yet either cause for this botched opportunity begs for profound soul-searching amongst 1199 decision-makers.

III.  Hierarchy Is Okay in the Name of Your Preferred Social Class

While the people of Springfield were preparing to vote on a matter whose core purpose the Springfield Fair Care Coalition was carefully shielding from the public eye, elements within 1199 were submitting its very own organizers, such as myself, to an even more sustained propaganda campaign.

Before being hired, I had wondered if 1199 staffers were organized in any form into their own union.  After all, it struck me as the height of common sense that we, who were cashing paychecks supposedly in the service of empowering workers to have a greater voice in their own places of employment, would have the very same rights for ourselves.

I was wrong.

Not only was there a complete lack of representation for 1199 employees, but even broaching the idea in public was a ground for castigation from the leadership and stern glances of disapproval from the well-oiled de facto politburo, composed of organizers who were around long enough to become veterans by proving sufficiently loyal in toeing the “company line” in instances such as these.

One organizer, a recently-hired African-American male who at a staff meeting raised questions about 1199’s lack of both a union and an outlet for diversity-related issues, was thereafter reassigned to Akron for a solo project.  A more senior organizer unsympathetically described it as a “bad sign” for the relocated organizer to be forced into working alone so soon after being hired, a “bad sign” in this case being a euphemism for “a way to shut him up.”

At the height of its display of arbitrary power, 1199 leadership called nearly all of us organizers, who were going door-to-door to speak to registered voters in Springfield, to an emergency meeting 45 minutes away at District headquarters in Columbus.  Having been given no prior indication as to the content of the meeting, the other organizers and I arrived at the meeting, only to be subjected to a nearly hour-long tongue-lashing by the union leadership for a supposed lack of discipline in the midst of a major campaign season.  Despite our 70-hour work weeks, as well as our having worked, at times. more than two weeks without a single day or weekend off, the union bosses castigated us for not being sufficiently focused on winning the upcoming round of elections.

One staffer commented in the course of the meeting that workers represented by the union were being paid poverty wages “to wipe people’s asses for a living” — the comment made to make any criticism of union policy seem like a whining of spoiled bourgeois children.  If you are unwilling to submit entirely to 1199 dogma and march in lockstep with company dictates, you are not dedicated to the working class.

At the core of those dictates was the idea that 1199 employees should not be unionized, justified by the argument that their boss is not their class enemy like in a normal place of employment, but instead is technically the workers whose wages allow the union to function.  Thus, union employees can make no claim to having distinct interests from leadership, as they are all united in a common front under the power of the workers.  Therefore, the idea of a union for union employees was, in this view, at best a distraction from the real task of organizing workers, at worst a ploy by slacking, reactionary, and uncommitted organizers to find a way to work shorter hours for higher pay.

As it played itself out in real-life scenarios, this belief turned into the basis for a comical yet tragic informal system designed to extract unrelenting loyalty from the organizers.

One organizer, upon replying with a “boo” to management’s decree that we would be losing an expected and rare weekend break, found himself pulled out of the group to be scolded by more senior organizers.

More systematically, senior organizers would broach the topic of having a union with newer employees, trying to both gain information as to the stance of the individuals in question, as well as to plant within them the idea that forming a union would be detrimental to the very same workers that the union was supposedly trying to help.  Those deemed “trouble-makers,” if not inspired to leave by the cultish tint of it all, were left to contend with a mind-numbing workweek and unsympathetic management.

It is excruciating enough, after all, to spend nearly all waking hours in a windowless basement making the same 30 second phone call over and over again to Springfield voters in the course of conducting surveys, even more so to have one’s loyalty directly questioned at every turn by management and sycophantic co-workers alike.5

It is in this way that the system perpetuates itself.  Members of the unruly mob, unwilling to tolerate witch-hunts and being treated like schoolchildren, move to greener pastures; left behind is an ever-increasing sect of idealistic youth turned into automatons.

One might find it difficult to imagine how the workers represented by SEIU benefit from this arrangement.

IV.  A Call for a Democratic Labor Movement

It is, indeed, a serious act of both hubris and hypocrisy to publicly espouse a commitment to “workers’ power” while denying it to the union’s very own employees.  A simple application of principle, after all, would hold that the employees of a union should be represented within their own union.  While its opponents in the SEIU power structure paint such an effort as a mere ploy by lazy, uncommitted employees interested in nothing more than fattening their pockets — eerily similar to how bosses whom we supposedly oppose intimidate their employees — it is instead an effort to gain desperately needed worker representation in decision-making, in matters financial and otherwise, and to ensure that workers have an avenue for the resolution of grievances.

Denying the universality of such a principle — that workers deserve representation no matter for whom they work and indeed possess the competence to manage their own affairs — not only defies any possible conception of common sense, but surely condemns the labor movement to be built on nothing but flimsy propaganda slogans to be tossed around for external purposes yet callously discarded for internal matters.

Yet the conservative nature of the labor hierarchy in general stands directly in the way of these democratic reforms.  In the course of brief attempts by me and a few other organizers to explore the possibility of an outside union organizing 1199 employees, we were turned down by even the most “progressive” outfits, generally for the mere fear of “damaging relations” with SEIU at the national level.6  Any pretense of caring about principle was thus crudely cast aside so as not to upset camaraderie within the ranks of the labor oligarchy.

It is an oligarchy which has often been guilty of undermining the vitality (and, indeed, numerical strength) of organized labor as a whole, its conservatism in tactical considerations and unrepresentative structure a clear hindrance to true union democracy and sound decision-making.7  From frequent collaboration with management at the expense of workers in the United States, to support for anti-democratic forces in Latin America and the Caribbean through the Solidarity Center, labor movement leaders have done little to justify their usurpation of power from those to whom it rightfully belongs: the workers themselves.

The formation of a true “Change to Win” would require recognition of this fact and an obligatory dismantling of the structures that allow a select few to rule from above.  Then, and only then, could a true labor movement thrive, free from reactionary, power-hungry, and anti-democratic leadership, free to be true community representatives and struggle for the rights of workers everywhere.

After all, if a Springfield hospital would function more smoothly with worker participation, then why not a labor union?

1  For just one amongst a plethora of instances where this is stated, see the following: SEIU, “A Closer Look Inside Labor’s Fastest-Growing Union.”

2  The Coalition’s official website can be viewed here: www.springfieldfaircare.org/.  Despite 1199’s dominant role in this group, neither SEIU nor District 1199 seems to be mentioned at all in the entire site.  The only hint of union involvement in the campaign is that the physical address listed at the bottom of the page, 240 Ludlow Avenue, is the headquarters of Carpenters Local 712, and indeed SEIU’s main base of operations in the Springfield area.

3  This was not technically a secret.  In fact, SEIU held a rally in April of 2005 in Cincinnati to launch a unionization campaign in Catholic Healthcare Partners’ hospitals (see Tim Bonfield, “Health-care Workers Seeking to Unionize,” Cincinnati Enquirer, 29 April 2005).  However, this was not well known in Springfield, and even less so in conjunction with the Hospital Accountability Commission.

4  The final election result was 9,179 to 7,445, in spite of SEIU’s polling that indicated that it would pass.  SEIU’s assertion that the defeat was caused by “unexpected turnout” is not exactly believable (previously available at www.seiu1199.org/action/legislative_update.cfm, since removed).

5  Worse still, perhaps, was tolerating the consultant who had been contracted to direct the phone call operations and who spent a large portion of the day, apparently oblivious to our toiling, doing Sudoku puzzles.  At one point, conjuring images of an Upton Sinclair character, he decided to lecture us on taking both fewer bathroom breaks and spending only “two to three” minutes in the bathroom when we did have to go.

6  To its credit, the only union to express willingness in this regard was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), though I had already left by the time I received this information.

7  For a critique of the SEIU hierarchy, and additional general insight into the SEIU model, see Steve Early, “What Happens When Poor Workers’ Unions Wear the Color Purple,” Labor Notes, September 2004.

Kevin Funk, a recent university graduate, worked as a field organizer in September and October of 2005 for Service Employees Union Local 1199WV/KY/OH, based out of Columbus, Ohio.