SEIU: Debating Labor’s Strategy


by Michael D. Yates

Over the past several years, a vigorous debate has taken place within organized labor and among its allies over how best to rebuild a dying labor movement.  Much of the is debate has centered around the actions and arguments of the leaders of the nation’s largest union, The Service Employees International Union or SEIU.  MRZine has encouraged debate and dialogue over this matter, publishing many articles by union officials, dissidents within unions, and other interested persons.  We are pleased now to publish the three essays below.  The first is by David Bacon and Warren Mar.  David is, in my opinion, the country’s foremost labor journalist.  Warren is a longtime union activist and organizer, a founder of the Asian Student Union at San Francisco State University in 1974., and currently Coordinator of Workforce Training at City College of San Francisco.  We asked two prominent union leaders to respond to the Bacon/Mar essay.  Stephen Lerner is an SEIU officer, architect of the famous Justice for Janitors Campaign in Los Angeles, and author of the seminal essay “Three Steps to Reorganizing and Rebuilding the Labor Movement.”  John Borsos is an administrative vice-president of United Healthcare Workers-West, a lead negotiator, and an ally of SEIU dissident and United Healthcare Workers-West president Sal Rosselli.

We urge MRZine readers to hit the “comments” button at the end of these essays and add your voice to the discussion.

Michael Yates

Are Growth and Organizing the Same?

In mid 2007, nursing home and hospital workers held a one-day convention at the Oakland Marriott hotel.  At its high point, hundreds of members of United Healthcare Workers West broke into cheers, as leaders of their union described their program to raise the wages of nursing home workers to the higher standard in hospitals.

The low standard in nursing homes hits hardest at women of color and immigrants.  Closing the standards gap would change the lives of tens of thousands of working men and women, giving nursing home members a strong reason to help bring the rest of their industry into the union.

Less than a year later, however, UHW members were instead organizing rallies against the threatened trusteeship of their local union.  Today a much larger debate overshadows that nursing home campaign and its ambitious goals.  But the idea of raising the nursing home standard, and what it might take to accomplish it, highlights many of the central questions in that larger debate.

The transformation of the battle between UHW and healthcare corporations into a fight between the local and its international union is deeply disturbing to activists around the country.  This is a critical moment for healthcare workers.  For the first time in U.S. history, unions have gained the strength to organize the rest of the hospital, and even the nursing home industries.  That could create the basis for enormous change, transforming the jobs and income of dietary workers and bed changers in much the same way that the CIO and the San Francisco General Strike turned longshoremen from the day laborers of the waterfront into some of the country’s highest-paid blue-collar workers.

The stakes are very high for everyone.  An organized healthcare industry in alliance with consumers could create the strength to win a single-payer health system benefiting every person in this country.

Many feel that a labor movement divided by bitter internal warfare, therefore, is a gift to employers.  Fratricidal struggle could weaken the unity and solidarity needed to achieve these critical goals.  Mike Garcia, president of one of the country’s largest janitors’ unions, SEIU Local 1877, feels that “there are some issues that need to be discussed and talked about, but it shouldn’t happen in public because it harms workers and our strategy to organize.  These issues could easily have been discussed, and were being discussed, internally.”

So is this discussion worth the risk?  Is it even avoidable?

Why the Debate Has Ramifications for Unions beyond SEIU

Debate in labor is difficult.  As Garcia points out, organizers are trained to believe that open discussion of problems gives ammunition to employers.  It’s also hard for organizers to be critical if your job is on the line, or if speaking out leads to isolation.  Members feel debate can jeopardize the wages and benefits they already have, and leaders often see it as a source of upheaval that can lead to lost elections and positions.

The U.S. labor movement has a harder time with internal disagreement than our international counterparts.  The difficulty in the U.S. has its roots in the cold war, “which shut down debate in organized labor,” according to Bill Fletcher, former education director for the AFL-CIO.  “It crippled us by restricting our ability to think outside the narrow parameters of wages, hours and working conditions, and isolating those who’d fought hardest for issues like peace and civil rights.”  That broken tradition, and its legacy of fear, left the labor movement without much to guide a free process of internal discussion.

But it’s not the fight between one local union and its international that needs debate so much as the questions it has pushed forward.  Mike Casey, president of UNITE HERE Local 2, wrote a letter in the early stages of this conflict that posed several of them:

  • Can we organize large numbers of workers without lowering long fought-for union standards?
  • How do we marshal our resources in a way that focuses our fights without turning our back on other struggles?
  • Can we establish criteria that will help us prioritize organizing initiatives so that our resources are best put to use?
  • How do we balance the immediate needs and aspirations of our members with the imperative of directing an increasing and sustained amount of staff, money and other resources to organizing?
  • How do we involve our rank and file leaders and members in these and other important questions?

“I believe that there must always be room within organized labor for legitimate and principled dissent,” Casey said.  “The public discourse initiated by UHW and Sal [Rosselli] may well be kicking up a lot of dust, but it has also provoked a closer examination of the direction of our movement.”  The letter from Casey represents an attempt by a union leader outside SEIU to steer the debate back to the issues, and away from a power conflict between two strong leaders.  “These are not easy questions,” says the organizing director of one international union.  “We’re just getting to some of the debates we have to have.”

The decisions made by unions often affect workers far beyond their own members.  The U.S. working class made enormous gains in the 1930s and 40s as the result of the contracts negotiated in the auto, steel, longshore and electrical industries.  The unions involved also benefited from the fact that workers far beyond their ranks recognized their own stake in that success, and came out to picketlines, voted for New Deal candidates, and made other sacrifices to help organize basic industry — even when they did not share in the union contracts that followed.

Conversely, when the master agreements in meatpacking and other industries were destroyed in the early 1980s, and two-tier wage schemes were imposed, other workers soon faced the same demands.  If the auto industry now abandons company-provided healthcare for retirees, and labor can’t win a single-payer system, unions far removed from auto plants will face many more strikes.

SEIU President Andy Stern, promoting the debate before the break that created the Change to Win federation in 2005, argued repeatedly that unions make choices that affect all workers.  He contrasted, for instance, the fragmentation of the airline industry among many unions with the longshore industry, where “one national union deals with one set of employers, bargaining one contract.”

So it’s not only fair that workers and labor activists in general discuss the questions highlighted by the internal conflict in SEIU, since they are affected by them, but their input may help find answers.  “Conflict is built into everything,” Fletcher says, “including unions.  UHW has every right to raise and put on the table, especially in a convention year, significant differences with the union’s leadership.”

To have a debate without causing damage, however, requires some ground rules.   Local unions should be able to discuss questions without fearing retaliation or trusteeship.  Debate should discuss ideas and politics, not personal attacks.  An open flow of information about agreements with employers would not only promote a democratic process, but would reduce the fear of secret deals.

Labor Tries to Halt the Density Decline

When John Sweeney was elected President of the AFL-CIO in 1995, one of the greatest criticisms of former President Lane Kirkland was the federation’s failure to organize.  By 1995 AFL-CIO affiliated unions represented less than 15% of the American workforce, a decline from 35% in the early 1950s.  Meanwhile the SEIU, under Stern, became the largest national union with over 1.3 million members.  Hundreds of young activist organizers went to work for it after training at the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute.

But has unionizing new bargaining units successfully challenged the barriers that divide workers, or reinforced them?   Before the 1960s, Jim Crow was the norm in most craft unions.  In industrial unions, African Americans often worked on the welding and paint lines in most auto plants, and rarely in tool and die rooms.  In service unions, Asian, Latino and women workers were frequently relegated to stewarding, housekeeping or bussing tables in hotels and restaurants — the “back of the house.”

The SEIU international union proposed to separate nursing home and other ancillary patient care workers, including home care workers, from traditional acute care hospital workers.  That effort more than any other led to the fight with United Healthcare Workers West.  UHW argues that the separation strengthens divisions, rather than raising the standards for workers in lower-paid job categories.

Leon Chow, UHW’s San Francisco Home Care director, says splitting nursing home and home care workers from acute care hospital workers weakens solidarity and patient care standards.  “Hospitals and acute care facilities are moving more elderly and other patients to nursing homes and other off-site facilities more quickly,” Chow says.  “Next, they move them home, for home based care.  But it is the same patient.  We think they should get the same quality care whether they are in the acute care facility, in a nursing home, or at home.  We want to build solidarity between all the workers who provide health care.  We don’t want acute care workers to say they are better than nursing home providers and at home providers.  Pulling nursing home and home care workers’ wages and conditions up to the level of hospital workers will be hard, but will build worker solidarity.  We don ‘t want a short cut that adds more members but which hurts worker solidarity.”

In the janitorial industry, Mike Garcia describes the way janitors helped security officers achieve the same goal, first by affiliating an independent union for guards in San Francisco, and negotiating a much better contract. “That helped us move to Los Angeles and leverage a newly-forming union and establish standards there,” he says.  Organizing guards also relied on using the existing strength of organized janitors, who work for the same building owners, and sometimes even for the same contractors.  “We use our membership as a fighting force to march, picket, demonstrate, and put pressure on non-union buildings.  You need to establish a base in an industry so you can move out from there.”

What Price for Employer Neutrality?

One of the sharpest controversies, however, is the desire by unions to win the neutrality of employers in the face of these efforts.  By the time the Sweeney administration took over leadership of the AFL-CIO in 1995, most unions had already concluded that the NLRB election process was an obstacle to organizing and were searching for alternatives.  Some experimented with recognition strikes, while others sought to create alternative institutions, like workers’ rights boards and community elections.  Many unions began exploring ways to put pressure on employers to remain neutral during organizing efforts, keeping them from deploying their arsenal of captive audience meetings, bribes, and firings.  Today, most unions seek a card check process, in which the employer agrees to recognize the union and bargain if a majority of workers sign authorization cards.

The difficulty is getting the employer to agree.  In the public sector, political action can elect officials friendly to unions and even, in the case of home care workers, create a public employer able to guarantee wages and conditions and negotiate agreements.  In the private sector unions have used a variety of tactics to pressure employers into agreement.  One strategy is “bargaining to organize” — putting a demand for employer neutrality in unorganized units on the table during contract negotiations.  To get agreement, unions often have to make tradeoffs among bargaining goals.

Part of the debate raging between UHW and the SEIU International is also about how much a union can give up in exchange for neutrality, especially with private sector employers. “You have to pull back the teeth of the employers before workers have a fair chance to organize the union,” Garcia says.  “Neutrality and card-check agreements are common.  In exchange the employer is going to want to understand how much it’s going to cost them.  That’s common in our industry.  It’s just a fact of life.”

One organizing director cautions, however, that “while we all agree we want to organize industries and industry master agreements, we also have workers under contract who expect to see tangible results from unionization and a betterment of their lives.  How far can we go in sacrificing their immediate needs and involvement to the greater end of building density?”

UHW itself pioneered one such agreement, the Labor-Management Partnership at Kaiser Permanente hospitals.  This broad agreement involves staffing levels, grievance procedures, and organizing rights at unorganized facilities.  Sal Rosselli, UHW president, says, “We have always had relations with employers, but we have approached even cooperation from the stand-point of strength.  We can’t surrender traditional rights, like the right to picket, strike, or bargain.”

Southern California SEIU leader Annelle Grajeda says, “Organizing is organizing whether we can do it from the bottom up or with neutrality.  I have seen unionizing change workers’ lives and if we can get neutrality we should take it and bargain a contract.  SEIU, including UHW, has good contracts because it has industry strength.”

How Important Is Union Democracy?

Labor standards and organizing are interdependent.  Workers join unions because they believe they can improve their lives, and good contracts are a powerful argument for the benefits of getting organized.  But workers do have to make sacrifices to gain organizing rights and neutrality, or other non-economic goals.  In a democratic process, they often agree to do so.  In 2005 and 2006, for instance, members of UNITE HERE Local 2 were locked out of San Francisco’s luxury hotels for nine weeks, and then went two years without a contract, in order to win an agreement that strengthened organizing rights in non-union hotels, lined their contract negotiations up with those in other cities, and began to force hotel operators to take down discriminatory bars against hiring African-Americans.  Local 2 members had to agree to give these demands as high, or even higher, priority than their own wages and benefits.

UHW wants to use its political and bargaining strength to make a drastic improvement in nursing home wages.  Its international wants to use that strength, together with discussions with national healthcare corporations, to gain organizing rights for healthcare workers outside of California.   The international wants the local union to subordinate its local goals to the national one.  The local accuses the international of making deals with healthcare corporations behind its back to gain organizing rights.

How should unions resolve this problem?  One organizing director says they have to begin by convincing members themselves, rather than expecting them to simply fall in line behind decisions made by international staff.  “Bargaining for organizing rights depends on how well educated our members are about the necessity of making some sacrifices in economics to gain that bargaining goal.  Our union has delivered for its members and has a certain rank-and-file tradition that’s still alive.  People believe they get what they have because they’re in the union.  But that doesn’t translate automatically into a broader social vision or organizing impetus.  Unless you’re doing constant education and have a politically conscious leadership, you can’t win their support.”

UNITE-HERE in San Francisco spent years preparing its members to support organizing in non-union hotels as a condition for getting high wages and benefits.  Local 2 members turned out many times for mass demonstrations to support organizing, and won bottom-up victories against two major hotels — the Parc-55 and the SF Marriott — before striking over the organizing issues that forced the lock-out.

How much power should members have over the bargaining that leads to those agreements?  In the last two years SEIU negotiated agreements with Sodexho, Compass, and Aramark, in which the union gained employer neutrality in certain geographical areas.  International union staff negotiated the accords, and many local officers and rank-and-file members say they were unaware of the details, or even the existence of the agreements.

Garcia thought the result was worth it, and didn’t sacrifice the ability of workers under contract to fight the same companies to win improvements. “While it’s sometimes flawed and needs to be improved, [SEIU national strategy] has organized workers in geographic areas where they would never have had a chance to organize otherwise.  Arizona, for instance, is very important to us because it’s a red state where SEIU wants to build political power.”  Janitors struck this spring in Los Angeles and northern California to win better wages from the same group of employers.  “You stretch them as far as you can, and at the same time you’re aggressively and militantly organizing the workers, leading them in strikes, and building power.”

Rosselli on the other hand feels that democracy also matters.  “Power is being much more concentrated at the top, with centralized decision making,” he says.  “In the California nursing home industry, SEIU started making top down deals without local or rank-and-file participation.  It’s all centered around a drive for growth at all costs, without taking into account standards that need to be raised at the same time, pre-negotiating contracts with corporations to get organizing rights, while limiting the collective bargaining rights of workers who are being organized into the union.”

In building services, Garcia says the ultimate goal is the negotiation of master agreements.  For current area-wide negotiations, “rank-and-file members elect the bargaining committee — members go out to buildings and get nominating petitions signed.”

To win member support for organizing demands, even at the expense of some increase in wages and benefits, workers not only need to know what’s on the table, but to have control over the bargaining process.  When the International Longshore and Warehouse Union was organized in the wake of the 1934 General Strike, workers won a single contract with all the giant shipping companies, which covers every port on the west coast.  Local unions elect delegates to a longshore caucus, which adopts the bargaining program, elects the negotiating committee, and monitors negotiations.  Local unions and members get a fair degree of control, while at the same time the entire longshore division sits down with the employers and bargains one contract.

UHW has accused its international union of dissolving one of the institutions set up for the same purpose.  “In 1996 when Andy Stern was elected we were part of that team,” Rosselli says.  “We amended the Constitution to obligate local unions with a culture of total autonomy, in which they often undermined each other, to coordinate with other locals instead that represented workers with common employers, to collaborate in organizing and collective bargaining.  We set up a democratic process, called Unity Councils, to force that collaboration.  In the last few months the international dissolved the Unity Council at Catholic Healthcare West just as we were going into bargaining, to try to assume total control from Washington DC.  That’s the fundamental problem we’re now having.”

The International has proposed National Bargaining Teams instead of Unity Councils.  Unity Councils make decisions by per capita vote, while Bargaining Teams have one vote per committee member.  Unity Councils include only representatives of local unions, while Bargaining Teams also include international staff.  Bargaining Team members, the chair, and the lead representative are all appointed by the international president.  Unity Council members are chosen by local unions, and the chair and lead representative come from the local union with the largest number of workers with the particular employer.

Class Interests vs. Union Interests

A third area of controversy is the growing debate in unions over broader political demands, especially in relation to healthcare and immigration reform.  Some unions in the AFL-CIO and Change to Win  advocate a long-term strategy to win structural reforms.  They support a single-payer healthcare system that would eliminate private insurance companies, and immigration reform that would give undocumented immigrants green cards (permanent residence visas), and oppose guest worker programs and increased enforcement and deportations.

Other international unions, including SEIU, have been willing to compromise and make much more limited demands.  In healthcare, the union threw its support behind a plan devised by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez that would have required all state residents to purchase private insurance, with few controls over price and coverage.  In Washington, the union supported a comprehensive immigration reform package that would have provided limited legalization, along with large new guest worker programs and greatly increased enforcement.

These have not been disagreements between UHW and the SEIU International, but between larger groups of unions on each side.  But they affect the ability to organize and grow as much as internal union structure or bargaining strategy.  They are arguments over political strategy, with one group advocating settling for what Congress might pass immediately, and the other arguing for a longer-range base-building effort.  They are also arguments over alliances, which in turn affect organizing.  Those who defend the immediate compromises also generally see employers as an essential ally in winning limited reforms.  The unions who want more radical reform also propose building an alliance at the bottom between unions, communities of color, consumers, and others to get it.

Behind these arguments is an even more basic question.  To what extent should unions represent their own members first and foremost, and to what extent should they speak for the entire working class?   “Samuel Gompers confused the needs of labor as an institution with the needs of the working class,” says one organizing director.  “Cutting deals so you can grow your own institution makes politics into a kind of insider baseball.”

A new direction in labor requires linking unions with other social and economic justice movements.  Winning immigrant rights, for instance, also means fighting for a real jobs program and a full employment economy, and for affirmative action that can come to grips with the devastation in communities of color, especially African American communities.  Health care reform requires a basic alliance between health care providers and working class consumers.

People far beyond unions will defend labor rights if they are part of a broader civil rights agenda, and if the labor movement is willing to go to bat with community organizations for it.  To resolve these questions and grow, unions need not just better strategy and organizing techniques, and a more accountable structure, but a vision that will inspire workers on a much larger level than the country has seen since the 1930s.  If all growth depends on direct contact between union organizers and individual workers, in-home visits and house meetings, the scale will always be too small.  Something has to happen on a larger scale among workers generally.  And as much as people need a raise, the promise of one is not enough.

Without speaking directly to workers’ desperation over insecure jobs, home foreclosures and falling income, unions will never convince millions to organize, and risk the jobs they still have.  Labor needs an outspoken policy that defends the jobs and rights of all sections of US society.  Political calculations in Washington can’t be the guide to what is possible.  Organizing makes possible what was not possible before.  Workers need a movement that fights for what they really need, not what lobbyists say legislators will accept.

Unions of past decades won the loyalty of working people when joining one was even more dangerous and illegal than it is today.  The left in labor historically has proposed an alternative social vision that inspired that loyalty — that society could be organized to ensure social and economic justice for all people.  While some workers believed that change could be made within the system, and others argued for replacing it, they were united by the idea that working people could gain enough political power to end poverty, unemployment, racism, and discrimination.

“Whenever we’ve seen a real rise in labor, there’s been a left connected with it,” Fletcher says.  “There needs to be a left, and we need to rebuild it.  Workers are looking for answers, and without them we’ll get further despair rather than organizing for an alternative.”

Justice for All Unionism vs. Neo-Business Unionism

I agree with many of the issues that David Bacon and Warren Mar raise in their article.  We need vibrant, open, honest debate in the labor movement — at our work sites, in our union meetings, in articles, on the web, and in the media.  We need a strong left and left analysis that both critique how the system increasingly doesn’t work for workers and offer concrete ways workers and their unions can increase their strength and beat the giant corporations that increasingly dominate the global economy.  And we absolutely need to articulate a vision of a better world to be won that inspires and unites workers.

Many of us have spent most of our adult lives in a world where the labor and progressive movements have been in decline, on the defensive, and losing far more then winning.  After failed organizing campaigns, lost strikes or yet another attack on civil and human rights we’ve all repeated some form of the mantra, “What we really need is a movement.”  This is then followed by a nostalgic discussion of the 1930s and 1960s and then a repetition of the adage: “That’s right, what we really need is a movement.”  We never got around to a discussion of what we would do if conditions changed, if some combination of anger, hope, and passion were unleashed and it was possible to imagine actually being part of a movement, not in the past but now.  We didn’t discuss this because until recently it didn’t seem possible.

The meltdown of the economy, the resulting disenchantment with failed free market corporatist ideology, growing inequality, global warming/environmental degradation, and the war in Iraq are creating conditions that are ripe for organizing and just maybe, if we don’t squander the moment, movement building.  I may be too optimistic, and too hopeful, but it feels like we are on the edge of a moment of historic change.  Our reaction to this moment will help shape what happens next.  If we believe this is a time when we can go on the offensive to redistribute wealth and power and fundamentally transform this country, then we need to make sure we are asking the right questions, debating the most important issues, and setting our vision high enough for the times we live in.  We need to put a microscope to our plans, strategy, and tactics and ask ourselves if they are grounded in the past and a strategy of trying to limit losses, or if they look forward and prepare us for a future where we can win extraordinary victories.  We need to ask how we support, nurture, and grow a movement and avoid missing — or even worse, sabotaging —  this moment of opportunity.

It is in this context that I think “Are Growth and Organizing the Same?” loses the forest for the trees.  It sets its sight too low and gets mired in a “He said, She said” reporting of internal debates in SEIU that both gets the facts wrong and misses the momentous issues that are really at stake.  For example, it contains a lengthy analysis of the intricacies of SEIU bargaining structures that completely ignores the decision by an overwhelming majority at the recent SEIU convention: every affected local will now have rank-and-file participation and representation on national bargaining councils that will decide bargaining goals when facing key strategic national employers and approve agreements before their submission for a membership vote.  The article also repeats the myth that UHW was been threatened with trusteeship in the weeks leading up to our convention.  This simply isn’t true, no matter how often repeated.  Both the focus on and misinformation about “issues” like these are a distraction from the big discussion of what needs to be done and prevent us from reaching a common understanding of how and why unions have missed critical moments in history when we could have helped to build movements dedicated to radical change.

Unions Made the Wrong Choice Rejecting Movements of the 1960s

When the civil rights, anti-war, women’s, environmental, and other movements were born, most unions (with some notable exceptions) didn’t embrace, support, or in the end grow with these movements.  Unions missed an incredible opportunity to support progressive change while growing in numbers and strength.  If unions had truly embraced the civil rights movement, this could have been central to organizing in the South.  Labor’s relationship to historically unorganized groups of workers — including women, new sectors of the economy, and young people — and consequently our ability to take on corporate power would be far greater if we hadn’t missed these movements; even worse, labor was often guilty of undermining them.  Labor’s failure to embrace the movements of the 1960s was rooted in the narrow embrace of business unionism that was established in the post-World War II era.

Unions Made the Wrong Choice at the Peak of Strength in the 1950s

Most on the left would agree with an analysis that at the peak of labor’s strength, the triumph of business unionism, led to a not-so-secret deal with corporate America: unions would focus on representing and negotiating for those private sector workers already in unions (predominately though not exclusively white males) and effectively abandon the vast majority of workers who weren’t in unions.  Unions grew when unionized companies expanded the workforce in already organized facilities, but using union power to organize the unorganized was off the table, literally and figuratively.  Some unions were more progressive then others, some spent more on political action then others, but in the end almost every union in the United States chose to expend the vast majority of their power and resources on negotiating for what quickly became a smaller and smaller percentage of private sector workers.  We all know the history: because unions didn’t organize the South, people of color, non-union facilities, and the rest of a changing economy, we sowed the seeds for our own destruction.  In the end we not only sold out most of the working class who weren’t in unions, but also failed to protect those who were already organized.

Will Unions Make the Right Choice Now or Is It Three Strikes and Labor Is Out?

So we squandered the moment of our greatest strength after World War II, and we missed the great movements of the 1960s and 1970s.  We now are at another decisive moment.  Our decline is so steep, and the ascendancy of corporate power is so great, that if we miss this moment we may not have the luxury of looking back in ten years and acknowledging that we made the wrong choice again.

Towards the end of their article, David and Warren raise a potential conflict: “class interests vs. union interests.”  Ironically, they miss that this very tension is at the heart of the current debate in SEIU.  SEIU is advocating — and at its recent convention the membership approved — the “Justice for All” program, which calls for the focus and resources of the union to be dedicated to building a movement of all workers (i.e., class interests).  Justice for All explicitly rejects the business union model, which focuses the union on servicing and defending remaining islands of unionization (i.e., local union interests).

Justice for All is both an ideological and practical programmatic commitment to build a movement of all workers to win broad goals to change and transform the country: healthcare for all, immigration reform, quality public services for our communities, and the organization of millions of workers in the South and other non-union regions of the country.  Combined with a commitment to work to build a global labor movement and a focus on getting out of Iraq, the program adopted by SEIU delegates is one of the most progressive and ambitious of a major union in recent history.  The most radical development from the SEIU convention is that delegates overwhelmingly voted to commit SEIU to changing the world, not just their work sites.  For example, every SEIU healthcare local union but one — United Healthcare Workers West —  endorsed a program to use members’ existing strength in a national program to unite workers in Catholic and for-profit hospitals and to improve living standards and working conditions for nursing home and homecare workers — not just in places like New York and San Francisco that traditionally have had relatively strong labor movements and friendly political environments, but in more difficult regions where workers face even greater obstacles.

Neo-Business Unionism

The real debate in SEIU is about Justice for All Unionism vs. what could be called “Left Business Unionism,” or maybe more appropriately “Neo-Business Unionism.”  This is a critical debate, one worth struggling over.  Neo-business unionism has all the faults and limitations of traditional business unionism; the sole difference is that it dresses up a bankrupt argument and conservative model of unionism with left rhetoric about militant struggle, better contracts, and servicing members through greater local autonomy.  When you strip away the rhetoric, it is arguing for more of the 1950s strategy of dedicating the union’s resources to existing members instead of building a broader workers movement: a prescription for the death of the labor movement.

Advocates of neo-business unionism attack comprehensive corporate social responsibility campaigns that seek to win employer neutrality, despite their being the most effective way to protect workers’ fundamental human right to join and form unions.  The claim that they aren’t “bottom up” or that existing union members could have won more if energy and resources weren’t being focused on winning rights for non-union workers is a new version of “I’ve-got-mine” business unionism.  The reason we need campaigns for neutrality is because workers get squashed and defeated when they take on employers from the “bottom up” in isolation, instead of as part of broader campaign.  “Neutrality” campaigns fundamentally challenge the old deal with management: “Worry about the unionized workers, don’t confuse things by bringing up workers who aren’t in the union.”

It is odd, that when unions have finally developed tactics, strategies, and the strength to force companies not to resist organizing, fire workers, or force them into the failed NLRA process, that neo-business unions have joined the chorus from the business community and the Right to Work committee saying, “This isn’t the  right way to organize.”  The problem isn’t that we are finally using our power to win rights for non-union workers; the problem is that not enough employers have been neutralized.  The problem is that that too many union leaders have fallen for the employer trap of being bought off by minor employer concessions and in turn sold out hundreds of thousands of non-union workers who can only win a union with their help.  It was hard-won neutrality agreements that led to hundreds of thousands of Latino janitors winning a union, higher wages, and healthcare in the Justice for Janitors campaign.  Tens of thousands of African American security officers recently won a union through these kinds of agreements in the Stand for Security campaign, again winning healthcare and significant wages increases.  Union membership growth and vastly better economic terms in contracts have been the direct result of comprehensive campaigns that abandon dependence on anti-union governmental regulatory agencies like the NLRB.  It is completely backward to ask what the “cost” of neutrality agreements is; the question is, what is the price of not winning them?

Good People Can Agree to Disagree

Good people can agree to disagree on lots of issues.  Questions about which SEIU local brings more power for long term care workers in California, the precise legislative path to universal health care, and the best system to elect international officers and executive boards all have passionate advocates who are people of good will and have different views on these issues.  But in the great sweep of history, the details of how these issues get decided will have a real impact only if they distract us from building a movement or taking advantage of the incredible opportunities and work we have ahead of us.  Let’s debate them, argue and write about them, but let’s keep in perspective their relative importance and make sure we reserve our energy, creativity, and passion for what really matters: building a movement that can win for all workers.

Time to Roll Up Our Sleeves and Get to Work

A challenge for the left is not to get trapped in debate for debate’s sake and instead to roll up our sleeves and get involved in helping to win real campaigns that are going on right now all over North America.   SEIU’s two million members and local unions in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico are actively engaged in massive campaigns to organize millions of healthcare workers, property service workers, and privatized public workers.  SEIU is challenging the power of giant private equity companies that are reshaping the economy.  SEIU locals are running bargaining campaigns for hundreds of thousands of workers, and we are trying to elect a president and congress that supports a workers’ agenda.  This work is done in collaboration with progressive activists whose focus is to win real change in our communities, our country, and the world.  We may be on the cusp of history where the world pivots and almost anything is possible; it would be a tragedy if we missed this moment because folks were focused on debating the wrong issues, at the wrong time, instead of digging in on what needs to be done.

Building a Workers’ Movement

David Bacon and Warren Mar’s piece captures the importance of the struggle for reform taking place within SEIU and its ramifications for both SEIU and the broader labor movement.

We in United Healthcare Workers West (UHW) have come to recognize that the fight we are waging inside SEIU has sparked a spirited debate inside the labor movement, one that probably should have happened when the Change to Win unions broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005.  Unfortunately, rather than seizing that moment to debate the direction of the labor movement, SEIU leaders used the launching of Change to Win as a public relations event and ended the discussion before it really got underway.

Our dispute has generated significant reaction within SEIU, other labor unions, and among non-labor progressives who rely on a vibrant labor movement as an ally for social change.  The reaction suggests the need for a more systematic and healthy debate regarding what kind of labor movement we are working to build.

The most recent round of this fight was held in June at the quadrennial SEIU International Convention in Puerto Rico.  In contrast to the launching of Change to Win, the SEIU Convention has created an opportunity to broaden this important debate.

So What Is This Fight about?

There is consensus within SEIU that the labor movement is in crisis.  In broad strokes, there is also consensus that the way out of this crisis is by organizing the unorganized, building political power, and holding elected officials accountable, and improving standards through coordinated regional, national, and international bargaining that enhances the lives of workers, their families, and those who rely on their services.  These goals should be the bread and butter for all self-respecting trade unionists.  Who could possibly be against them?

As it turns out, no one, at least not within SEIU.  Contrary to the recent straw man created by Andy Stern and other SEIU leaders — a fictional opposition that advocates “just us” unionism — there is no countervailing force within SEIU arguing for a different set of goals.

The dispute is about how we accomplish these goals and what kind of labor movement we are building in the process.  To put it simply, will the labor movement be a movement of workers, by workers, and for workers, driven from the bottom up?  Or will it be a centralized, top-down advocacy organization where workers pay membership fees in exchange for professional services?

The Ideology of Growth

The seeds of this dispute were sown when Change to Win was launched.  Recognizing the fact that workers had lost significant power in the preceding decades, Change to Win was formed with the promise of reigniting the labor movement in the same way the creation of the CIO led to explosive organizing growth seventy years earlier.

For nearly sixteen months leading up to the split, leaders in SEIU publicly criticized the leadership of the AFL-CIO through websites, DVDs, PowerPoint presentations, and extensive press coverage.  Yet before there was any real opportunity for debate, the Change to Win coalition was founded on the premise that we had a once-in-lifetime opportunity to revitalize the labor movement by organizing workers on a mass scale.

The key to renewed organizing, we were told, was a structural solution.  Consolidating the jurisdiction for each industry in a single international union and forming multi-lateral organizing committees for industries falling outside the “natural” jurisdiction of any existing international union would provide the focus and streamline the resources necessary to rebuild the labor movement.  The culture of solidarity, ideology of struggle, and critique of the capitalist economy that had been central to other waves of mass organizing in the past were at best superfluous in this managerial vision.

As we know, the rhetoric hasn’t matched the reality.  In an understated yet controversial piece published in In These Times (October 24, 2007), David Moberg documented that while the AFL-CIOs unions have modestly increased in size since the breakup, the collective size of Change to Win unions has actually decreased.

Rather than the breakthrough that many of us had hoped for, the years following the creation of Change to Win have made it clear that there are no structural silver bullets to spur on a new wave of mass organizing.

Perhaps the greatest factor in explaining the success of the CIO was the fact that it created a social movement that inspired workers.  In fact, one could argue that the CIO itself was a product of a broader social movement of workers who saw trade unions as the central vehicles for improving their lives.

Stern’s vision is less concerned with inspiring workers than it is with convincing employers that a union can “add value” to an employer — that the union can be a junior partner to capital and actually help business accumulate profit.

Stern’s vision was set forth in his 2006 book, A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track.  In it he writes that a “class-struggle mentality was a vestige of an earlier, rough era of industrial union[ism],” and that the new labor movement should strive for “a ‘working ‘relationship’ that can add value to the business and help improve performance [that] will result in workers sharing fairly in their employers’ success” (pp. 70-71).

Stern continues: “Disappointingly, only a few employers have shifted from their ‘unions are the problem’ mentality.  Their lack of creativity and courage is an impediment to building a new model of labor-management relationships and to confronting the challenges of globalization.  Asking our employers to make the choice of cooperation or confrontation is a dramatic paradigm shift.  We have reinvented ourselves, but it takes two to tango” (p.71).

While repackaged, what Stern is touting is not much different than what some conservative labor leaders promoted through the National Civic Federation in the 1910s, the Truman Administration Labor-Management Committee in the 1940s, and more recent attempts at cooperation in the auto industry in the 1980s.

Big Business has always understood it doesn’t need the labor movement, no matter how conciliatory, to help it accumulate profit, and that any entente between labor and capital is a necessary evil at best, and a temporary one at that.


This leads us to the box in which Stern has put SEIU.  Taking at face value his goal of improving the lives of workers and their families, it is Stern’s analysis that this goal cannot be accomplished unless the labor movement grows in numbers, because only growth in numbers will give organized labor real power.  By his analysis, however, today’s labor movement is so weakened that the only way to grow the union is by cutting deals with employers that are unfavorable to workers — that is, sacrificing rights and standards now to build power later.

Experience teaches us that without struggle, virtually no employer is willing under any circumstances to accept the union unless there is a sweetheart deal, preferably one that is kept secret from workers and the public.  This is where Stern’s logic lands us.  Lacking an alternative strategy to achieve the growth he promised with the launch of Change to Win, Stern would have us barter away the rights and standards that unionized workers have already won in order to create an incentive for employers to agree to neutrality.

The sweetheart deals reached between SEIU and subcontractors like Aramark, Compass, and Sodexho mentioned by Bacon and Mar, and detailed more extensively in articles in the Chicago Tribune (May 18, 2008) and The Wall Street Journal (May 10, 2008) exemplify this trend.  As SEIU spokesperson Andrew McDonald explained to the Chicago Tribune, “These agreements are the proven model for workers gain a voice.  There is no other model” (emphasis added).

In his own way, Stern is like a corporate CEO who measures progress in the quarterly statement, not in the long-term growth and viability of the company — not unlike the Enron model.  The quarterly statement he most cares about is growth, even if that growth is a product of the union equivalent of questionable business practices or creative accounting.  Under Stern’s vision, such questionable practices can be overlooked as long as the quarterly statements show an increase in members.  This raises a number of serious concerns:

  • What if growth is accomplished in a way that makes the union incapable of defending workers’ interests in the workplace?
  • What if it is done in such a way that it alienates workers from their own union?
  • What if the trade-off with the employer makes it impossible for the union to ever establish real worksite power?

To be clear, UHW supports neutrality and organizing rights agreement that make it possible for workers to organize without employer interference.  We have negotiated such agreements with Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West, the Daughters of Charity, and other healthcare providers.  But we believe those agreements should not be negotiated in such a way that renders the union powerless at the worksite and perhaps as importantly without the direct involvement of workers who are affected by such agreements.

A few examples from UHW’s experience illustrate these concerns.

Tenet Healthcare

In 2006-2007, UHW, 121RN (our sister local in California), 1999 Florida, and SEIU were in negotiations for a renewal contract with Tenet Healthcare, the nation’s second largest for-profit health system.  The renewal followed an initial 2003 agreement in which Tenet agreed to stay neutral when workers sought to organize into the union in California and three hospitals in Florida.

While the first contracts negotiated in 2003 were respectable, they were below the standards won by UHW members employed by Tenet’s competitors in California — including Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West, the Daughters of Charity Health Sytem, HCA, and a number of independent hospitals.

More than a year in advance of the bargaining, rank-and-file leaders from each SEIU-represented hospital in Florida and California organized through the Tenet Unity Council to establish bargaining goals that included winning industry-standard contracts in Florida and California and winning organizing rights for workers in the rest of the Tenet system.  We believed and continue to believe that we had the opportunity to achieve all those goals in 2006.

Before bargaining commenced in September 2006, Tenet expressed concern about the financial impact of bargaining in California while at the same time indicating a willingness to extend organizing rights outside California.  Because it was struggling financially, Tenet demanded relief from union standards in California in exchange for extending organizing rights.  Initially, Tenet made two demands as preconditions for extending organizing rights: that UHW and 121 RN agree not to pursue either a defined benefit pension plan or retiree healthcare coverage in this round of bargaining.

In response, we in SEIU collectively established our own preconditions: that with the exception of pension and retiree health, Tenet would have to agree to all other standards — including staffing language, a ban on subcontracting, wage scales, and other significant improvements — in addition to extending organizing rights to workers outside California.

It’s worth emphasizing that the decision-makers in this important strategy included nearly one hundred UHW and 121 RN rank-and-file leaders who were elected to the bargaining team by thousands of their co-workers.

When it came time to actually negotiate the contract, this collective decision was put on the backburner as SEIU representatives with little bargaining experience focused instead on negotiating the only part of the agreement they cared about most — organizing rights outside California.  In December 2006, SEIU announced they had reached a tentative agreement with Tenet for organizing rights for 23 hospitals throughout the US.  Over time, two important details emerged about those negotiations: (1) Tenet did not commit in writing to organizing rights at 23 hospitals; and (2) Tenet had extracted from SEIU additional concessions against California industry standards without the knowledge or consent of UHW/121RN members and leaders.

For example, SEIU representatives reached an understanding with Tenet that would have given up workers’ right to strike in California for ten years, would have allowed the company to subcontract up to 12% of the workforce at any time, and would have given away job security provisions already contained in the contract.

Exploiting this division, Tenet returned to the bargaining table with UHW/121 RN and insisted that we honor the understandings they reached with the International Union.  Faced with mobilized and organized workers in California, Tenet backed off these concessionary demands, but then insisted that UHW/121RN members agree to drop our demands for organizing rights at hospitals outside California.  Led to believe that the deal between Tenet and SEIU International representatives was a signed, written agreement, we rejected Tenet’s demand and walked away from the bargaining table.  We held pickets and conducted other actions insisting that Tenet honor its agreement, even though the agreement didn’t actually exist.

It was not until August 2007 that a comprehensive agreement was reached to resolve the organizing rights issue, the California contract, and the Florida contract.  The agreement achieved far less than we believe was possible.  In the end, workers in California sacrificed to win organizing rights outside of California, yet the experience created serious mistrust between our International Union, 121RN and UHW.

The California Nursing Home Alliance

The situation in the California Nursing Home Alliance is even more extreme in terms of the concessions SEIU is willing to make to reach a deal with employers.

In California, there are 1,143 nursing homes, of which 17% are represented by SEIU locals.  UHW represents 148 homes, while Local 6434 represents 47 facilities.

The California Nursing Home Alliance was a coalition of for-profit nursing home operators representing 284, or 25%, of the nursing homes in California.  Of those homes, 83 are organized — 55 with UHW and 28 with 6434.

In 2003, when UHW represented approximately 95% of the unionized nursing home workers in California, UHW, 6434, and the International Union negotiated an agreement with the California Nursing Home Alliance.

In the controversial agreement, the unions and the industry committed to pursue a common strategy for reform of California’s nursing home reimbursement system and agreed to other policy benchmarks that ultimately allowed the union to organize 42 nursing homes in California.  The rate reform we achieved has provided the nursing home industry with nearly $1 billion in additional reimbursements over four years, but has produced comparatively limited increases in the wages, benefits, and staffing for workers, and as a result, resident care has not markedly improved.  In one year alone, the Alliance’s unionized homes received approximately $119 million in new Medicaid revenues, while spending only $21 million on improvements in SEIU members’ contracts, producing a $100 million windfall — and that’s just counting those homes that are organized.

In the homes where organizing occurred, workers were subsequently represented under stripped down contracts known as “Template Agreements.”  These agreements severely restrict workers’ rights on the job.  In fact, these template agreements are radically concessionary and in violation of basic union principles.  They fail to include the right to arbitrate grievances except terminations; the right to advocate in support of public policy positions without employer approval; the right to speak out freely in public about the poor quality of resident care; and the right to strike.

When the initial agreement with the Alliance was negotiated, UHW made clear — without being publicly contradicted by the other participants — that the Template Agreements would be temporary and that in the next round of bargaining, more traditional contracts would be negotiated.

In anticipation of negotiations for renewal of the Alliance, Stern asked UHW to present an analysis of the first three years of the agreement, which we produced in January 2007.  (This document can be found on  In it, we were critical of the Alliance, specifically the Template Agreements and the reimbursement windfall that went to the nursing home companies.  We were also critical because we believed the agreement should have enabled SEIU to organize more homes.  We expected to correct all those deficiencies if the Alliance agreement were to be renegotiated.

UHW was critical of renewing the Alliance agreement without significant improvements and argued strenuously that any renewal must guarantee that: 1) workers have a voice and vote on the outcome; 2) the Agreement cannot limit members from advocating for their patients and 3) any limitations on collective bargaining rights can only be temporary and cannot be permanent.

In contrast, SEIU wanted to renew the Alliance agreement at virtually all costs.  It became clear that the Alliance was no longer an experiment but the reigning employer-friendly organizing model when a similar deal — one that is even more problematic to workers and consumers — was negotiated in secret by a Stern ally in Washington state in early 2006.

When Alliance negotiations resumed in California, the employers proposed a 50-year agreement, which was then “revised” to a 20-year agreement.  At its core, the Alliance insisted on making the Template Agreements permanent, which both the International Union and Local 6434 indicated was an acceptable position moving forward.  Needless to say, this position was unacceptable to UHW.

Despite UHW representing 80% of the Alliance workers, SEIU set up a decision-making process whereby decisions would be made with each local getting one vote and the International Union casting the tie-breaking vote.

When the formal bargaining process — with representatives from SEIU, UHW, and Local 6434 present — proved unsuccessful in renewing the Alliance that SEIU and Local 6434 clearly desired, International Executive officers met with the Alliance employers alone on behalf of the International Union, despite strenuous objections from UHW nursing home leaders.  This move effectively disenfranchised over 3,500 California nursing home members from participating in their own bargaining.

In the end, our opposition to the renewal of the Alliance agreement had strong support from consumer advocates and residents, thereby making it difficult for SEIU and Local 6434 to consummate the deal.

In fact, many of us suspect that the major impetus behind SEIU’s efforts to remove long-term care members from UHW, as referenced in Bacon and Mar’s piece, is to facilitate reaching agreements with nursing home employers along the Alliance model in California and nationally.  Rather than proposing to unite all California healthcare workers in a single healthcare union, as SEIU has done in New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Florida, West Virginia, Kentucky, Minnesota, and other states, Stern is promoting the separation of long-term care workers from acute-care hospital workers.

UHW’s Vision

Like Stern and other leaders in SEIU, we in UHW agree that workers must often look beyond their immediate interests to build real power.  In many instances, workers may need to sacrifice short-term gains to win long-term progress.  But there is a difference between strategic sacrifice and abject capitulation.  Contrary to the assertion of SEIU spokesperson cited in the Chicago Tribune, there are alternatives.

Over a period of twenty years, UHW members have worked to line up contracts so that we can maximize power at the bargaining table by negotiating with different healthcare employers as an industry.  In doing so, we have been able to set standards that apply across all sectors of the healthcare industry.  One key standard, along with wages and benefits, job security, and a voice in staffing, is the right for one’s co-workers to join the union without employer interference.

Bacon and Mar describe the 2005 battle that UNITE-HERE Local 2 had with the San Francisco hotels and how organizing union members to fight for the rights of their non-union co-workers required tremendous education over many years about how power is distributed in this society.

UHW is the fastest growing union in SEIU.  Since 2000, we have organized nearly 75,000 workers into our union, doubling the size of our union in eight years.  We recognize the importance of organizing the unorganized.  In fact, organizing rights were a primary issue behind a sixty-day strike against Sutter Health in San Francisco in 2005  and the product of a decade-long “bargaining to organize” strategy with the California hospital industry.

UHW members have sacrificed in California so that workers in Florida, Nevada, Tennessee, Georgia, and other states with little or no unionized healthcare sector can have a union.  We draw the line, however, when those sacrifices come at the expense of building long-term power and when the workers who are being asked to sacrifice are not empowered to make decisions about those sacrifices.

Our experience is that if a union has the power to win good standards at the bargaining table, it almost always has the power also to win organizing rights as one of those standards.  To say categorically that the standards of current employees have to be traded off to win organizing rights for the unrepresented is a false choice.

The false choice, however, is made necessary when a union abandons a “class struggle mentality” and seeks a quick and easy way to grow.

Democracy Matters

In the long run, a sustained vision of building workers’ powers requires a union to be more democratic, not less so.

For reasons hard to understand, Stern and his allies don’t appear to have faith in workers to make informed decisions about their future and the future of the labor movement.

That explains why Stern pushed strongly in Puerto Rico for taking bargaining with national employers like Tenet and the Nursing Home Alliance out of the hands of rank-and-file led committees and putting it into the hands of national bargaining committees dominated by SEIU’s top staff and leaders, whom he personally appoints.

It also explains Stern’s strategy of forced mergers.  Under Stern’s preferred model, when unions are merged in SEIU, the votes are pooled, like in the most recent experience in Illinois.  Three local unions were merged to create SEIU Healthcare Illinois: Local 4, the nursing home local with 10,000 members; Local 20, the hospital workers’ union with 10,000 members; and Local 880 the homecare local with 65,000 members.  Under the pooled voting system, the ballots cast by each of the three unions were placed in a single box, with the majority determining the outcome.  This meant that the members of Local 880 effectively determined the outcome of the vote.  Even if all of the members of Local 4 and Local 20 had voted to oppose the merger, Local 880 members on their own could have outvoted the combined members of the other two locals.

But perhaps the most unfortunate development in this struggle has been the inability of leaders within SEIU to create forums to truly debate alternative visions for rebuilding our movement.

As Bacon and Mar point out, debate within the American labor movement is difficult, and what we’re experiencing in SEIU is no exception.  But it is ironic, given Stern’s efforts to publicize the differences between Change to Win and the AFL-CIO in every forum imaginable, that he and other SEIU leaders are so threatened by our public challenge to their direction.

Democracy is not just a process of formalized voting.  It’s also creating the space to contest ideas in an atmosphere that encourages the free exchange of opinion.  Bacon and Mar’s point about ground rules in which “Local unions should be able to discuss questions without fearing retaliation or trusteeship” is right on point.

With regard to the recently concluded SEIU convention in Puerto Rico, we are neither surprised nor disappointed by the outcome.  Compared to the 1976 Teamsters Convention where the sole TDU delegate was physically assaulted for standing up, the reform movement in SEIU is off to a remarkable start.  Despite the intense campaign from SEIU against our local — including multiple mailings, robo calls, live calls, push polls, and site visits to our members — we maintained the strong support of our members and gained significant rank-and-file support throughout California and beyond, which was vocal and visible despite the strenuous efforts of SEIU officials to suppress it.

To conclude, we appreciate the opportunity to participate in this discussion and thank Monthly Review readers for their interest in this important debate.

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