SEIU: How Democratic?


For the first time in a generation or more, SEIU is facing a substantial movement by internal dissidents seeking to push through democratic reforms.  This push has a two-fold character.

One prong is the very public resignation by Sal Roselli, the head of United Healthcare Workers — West (UHW), the third largest local in SEIU, from his position on SEIU’s national Executive Committee.  When he resigned, and since, he raised issues about the course that is being pursued by national SEIU.  With the backing of the UHW executive board, the local has created a highly visible web site, paid for an ad in the New York Times and ads on prominent blogs, and is putting the issue of democracy on the agenda for the SEIU convention.  The other prong is SMART (SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today), a rank-and-file movement with the potential to create an on-going TDU-like internal opposition in SEIU.

National SEIU leaders insist that they too “are committed to unity, strength, and respect for democracy in our union.”  A letter, signed by 70 local leaders who together represent more than 80 percent of all SEIU members, insists:

Constructive discussion about how to strengthen our union is absolutely essential.  But it also carries with it a very serious responsibility to respect decisions made by democratic majority, whether they have to do with strategy, resources, structure, or local union jurisdiction.  No local union leader, no matter what their individual objectives may be, should try to jeopardize the strategies developed and democratically approved.

“Democracy,” however, can be a slippery concept.  Employers insist that the only “democratic” way to bring in a union is through an NLRB election — one where union organizers are forbidden to set foot on the premises, employers force members to attend captive audience meetings, supervisors interrogate employees, and pro-union activists often get fired.  Union activists regard these elections as a totally undemocratic sham, and SEIU has pioneered alternatives to the NLRB election.

Union democracy can be a similarly contested concept.  It’s worth considering some of the national SEIU practices that trouble dissidents.  Central to the debate is the many ways the national SEIU leadership can intervene in the activities of an existing local, together with the creation of mega-locals.  Everyone agrees that if a local is outright corrupt, or mob dominated, the national union needs to intervene to clean up the mess and restore democracy.

However, national SEIU leaders intervene in union locals for many other reasons.  If a local is ineffective, and fails to organize new members, it might be put into trusteeship.  If nearby locals have overlapping jurisdictions, with each local containing both building service and hospital workers, new locals may be created to bring together all the hospital workers in one local and all the building service workers in another local.  In practice, however, both the criteria for such actions and the ways they should be carried out are neither clear nor straightforward.  What workers have a community of interest?  When does it make sense to move workers from one local to another?  Which locals are ineffective, and by what criteria?  To what extent do the answers to those questions depend on an assessment of the local leadership — and in making that assessment, is it possible to separate out considerations of the extent to which the local leaders support national SEIU leaders’ policies?

There are a variety of ways in which elected local leaders can be replaced by “interim” leaders appointed by the national SEIU leadership.  The most straightforward is if the local is placed into trusteeship.  According to the provisions of the Landrum-Griffin Act, when a local is placed in trusteeship there must be an election within 18 months.  However, if there is a more thoroughgoing reorganization, with substantially new locals created, then the appointed interim leader may stay in office for three years prior to holding an election.  And if the local is simply merged out of existence, it may be that no new leadership election is necessary.

Consider the difficulties faced by rank-and-file workers who want to run for office against the newly appointed interim leader.  In any election, donations may only be made by SEIU members, but they can be made by SEIU members anywhere in the country.  In most SEIU locals, appointed staff have the option of becoming SEIU members, and most do so.  This means that the rank-and-file workers are likely to be pitting their ability to raise funds within the local against a national network of staff and appointed leaders.  Staff members around the country could, at the urging of their supervisors, write checks for $100 each.

That financial inequality is magnified by SEIU’s move to huge mega-locals including workers from many different worksites.  Large locals by themselves need not be anti-democratic: the Ford River Rouge plant of the 1940s and 1950s had some of the most vibrant union democracy in the labor movement, but all 80,000 workers were at one location, making it comparatively easy to reach them.  In contrast, when SEIU created Local 888 in Massachusetts, although there were less than 13,000 members, they were in 223 different units.

The appointed leader of such a mega-local controls the extent to which people from many different work sites are brought together.  In the 888 case the appointed interim leader, Susana Segat, held no local-wide meetings for either members or leaders, and when others made efforts to bring different groups together Segat intervened to prevent this.  A rank-and-file opposition ran against Segat, but found it difficult to know to whom to connect at the many constituent units, much less to actively make those connections.

If staff were simply staff they would be forbidden to campaign for one side or the other.  But SEIU permits appointed staff to be members, so they can campaign for a candidate.  This problematic arrangement creates a potentially strong network for the appointed leader; as a newly created local, the appointed head of 888 had almost three years in office prior to the election.  In the post-election complaint filed by the rank-and-file slate, they charged that the campaign timeline allowed candidates less than 10 days to campaign for office, much of the insurgent slate literature did not arrive at members’ homes until after they had cast their ballots even though the local had provided membership lists to the American Arbitration Association weeks earlier, the union newsletter with candidate statements did not arrive until after many members had cast their ballots, and the local website did not post candidate information until nearly a week after the ballots had reached member homes.

If two locals are merged, the rules are if anything more undemocratic.  Suppose a 10,000 member local has been a thorn in the national leadership’s side.  If the national leadership proposes merging that 10,000 member local into a 50,000 member local, the vote on whether to do so pools the results from all 60,000 members.  If every member of the 10,000 person local votes against the merger, it could still go through with a large majority, and the “small” local would have been merged out of existence.  Similar rules make it possible to move one unit of a local into another local — so a rebellious local could have a large fraction of its membership moved elsewhere.  The national SEIU leadership has put in place a process that might lead to this result for the rebellious UHW local; one of UHW’s proposed convention resolutions is that mergers not take place unless approved by a majority of both the unit being moved and the unit receiving the transfer.

A reasonable response to this might be: Well, as possibilities these sound potentially troubling, but how frequently does the issue arise?  If it is rare indeed for leaders to enter office as a result of being appointed by the national leadership, all this may be a non-issue.  Unless trusteeships, mergers, and re-organization become routine events, and unless the appointed leaders end up staying in office past their interim periods, then there is no sense getting too concerned.

Recognizing that there is room to contest how to classify particular cases, the UHW website claims that a majority of the members of the national SEIU Executive Board are either staff or people who initially came to office through appointment.  Thus when 70 local leaders who together represent more than 80 percent of all SEIU members call on dissidents “to respect decisions made by democratic majority,” and ask that “no local union leader . . . jeopardize the strategies developed and democratically approved,” these calls need to be read with an understanding about the extent to which the Executive Board is itself controlled from the top.

In conclusion I want to note that democracy in unions is not the only issue, and the national SEIU leadership is absolutely right to insist on “Justice for All” in preference to “just us” unionism.  They are right that if the labor movement does not dramatically increase its membership and power it won’t be able to advance workers’ interests — a point I also made in my 2003 book, The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements, a book with high praise for many SEIU initiatives.  (And a point that UHW endorses — they proclaim themselves the fastest growing local in SEIU.)  My own union is hyper-democratic at the state-wide level, and our 105,000 members make us roughly equivalent to an SEIU mega-local — but we are complacent, ineffective, oriented to servicing and defensive battles instead of advancing our own vision or building our strength and alliances.  I agree as well that many of the SEIU appointed leaders are people of color, and a large majority of the appointees are highly capable people totally devoted to advancing the interests of workers.

But most of these leaders did not come out of the local they represent, and may never have worked a day in their life at any of the jobs that members hold.  These appointed leaders owe their loyalty to those above them, not to those who (ultimately) elect them.  Something important is lost if “the union” is smart people appointed from above.  As the great American labor leader Eugene Debs said: “Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage.  He has not come; he never will come.  I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again.  I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing you cannot do for yourselves.”  These are the issues that SEIU members will be debating at the convention and beyond.

Dan Clawson is the author of The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements.  He is professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he was president of the faculty union.

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