Dial 1-800-Unionism Is Not the Answer

When the history of public sector de-unionization in the Midwest is written, its sad chroniclers will begin their story in Indiana.  That’s where Governor Mitch Daniels paved the way, six years ago, for more recent attacks on workers’ rights in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan.

Daniels, a right-wing Republican, was elected in 2004.  He got plenty of help from the Republican Governors Association, which that year received $500,000 from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as part of then-president Andy Stern’s misbegotten but Obama-like embrace of bi-partisanship.  (In his 2006 book, A Country That Works, Stern boasted about being the RGA’s “largest contributor.”)

Daniels gave SEIU its reward, in early 2005.  He began cutting jobs and, via executive order, revoked bargaining rights granted by his Democratic predecessor, Evan Bayh.  In the period since then, the number of state employees has dropped from 35,000 to 28,700.  In 2005, 16,408 of them were paying union dues; today, only 1,490 still belong.

For state workers in Indiana, the end of collective bargaining led to a pay freeze in 2009 and 2010, introduction of a new merit pay system, loss of seniority rights, and health care cost shifting.  Several workers interviewed by the Times in February reported paying $5,200 a year for their insurance premiums — $3,400 more than when Daniels took over.

According to the Times‘ Steven Greenhouse, the resulting drop in union membership was due “to workers deciding it was no longer worth paying dues to newly-toothless unions.”  Jim Mills, a welfare worker in New Castle, Indiana offered a different explanation of why his union branch shrunk from 260 to 12 members.  According to Mills, workers were scared of management retaliation for union activity in workplaces no longer covered by union contracts.

GOP governors elected last Fall — like Walker in Wisconsin, Kasich in Ohio, and Snyder in Michigan — have seen their own preferred labor future in Indiana — and, for them, it works.  For unions like SEIU, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the two national teacher organizations, NEA and AFT, unionized firefighters and police, the Mitch Daniels scenario is a disaster in the making.

If current legal challenges fail in Wisconsin or Ohio’s new law banning collective bargaining is not repealed by referendum this fall, hundreds of thousands of public employees will be working under the same open shop conditions as their counterparts in Indiana.  And if a gubernatorial veto of state “right-to-work” legislation is overridden by Republicans in New Hampshire, automatic deduction of dues or fees for union representation in the public and private sector will cease there as well (even though unions will still be legally obligated to represent members and non-members alike).

Within organized labor, there’s some internal discussion about how to survive in this challenging new environment.  Unions long dependent on a guaranteed stream of dues income — which financed lawyers, lobbyists, full-time negotiators, and field staff, not to mention political action funds — now find themselves contemplating a much bigger workplace world in which union membership is voluntary.  Any combination of rank-and-file fear, anger, or dissatisfaction over past representation (including recent concession bargaining) could send dues receipts plummeting to Indiana levels.

Public sector unionists with long experience in open shop states like Tennessee, Mississippi, or Texas argue that all is not lost.  They’ve been hand-collecting dues or signing up co-workers on bank drafts for years.  As Tom Smith, a member of Communications Workers of America Local 3865 in Tennessee, told Labor Notes in April, “in the right to work South, where public employees have never had the right to bargain collectively, we struggle with self-sustainability every day. . . .  [W]hile having dues check-off helps, not having it isn’t fatal.”

William Rogers, who works for the CWA-backed Texas State Employees Union (TSEU), reports on his blog (Left Labor Reporter) that 12,000-member TSEU “has managed to win some victories even though it has very few legal rights.”  Says TSEU lead organizer Jim Branson: “Even though we don’t have any collective bargaining agreement, the union can represent workers in grievance hearings, which means that individual workers don’t have to be on their own when faced with some kind of adverse personnel action. . . .  We have a voice on the job because we are an active and growing movement that puts a lot of emphasis on organizing and bringing new members into the union.”

While other unions think about embracing TSEU’s approach as one survival strategy in the Midwest, the labor organization that helped elect Mitch Daniels is, per usual, headed in a different direction.  Instead of re-building workplace structures, based on strong steward networks, SEIU has decided that “labor law now effectively precludes workplace representation,” according to Harold Meyerson, a longtime Andy Stern fan.

In the Washington Post last month, Meyerson hailed a frantic new wave of SEIU staff door-knocking in minority neighborhoods as part of a 17-city “Fight for a Fair Economy” (FFE) campaign.  “They are going outside the workplace.  They have no place else to turn,” Meyerson reported.  “The goal isn’t to enroll the people behind those doors in a conventional union but, rather a mass organization of the unemployed and the underpaid that can turn out votes in 2012. . . .”

SEIU’s wrong turn — away from the workplace — was actually launched three years ago this weekend.  Over the objection of some delegates, SEIU persuaded its 2008 national convention in Puerto Rico to greatly expand call center servicing of its members.  Now teaching at Georgetown and serving on the board of SIGA Technologies, a drug company, Stern insisted that union resources be diverted from traditional forms of shop-floor representation and into what SEIU calls “member engagement” — staff-directed political action and organizing activity like FFE.  Stern criticized union contract enforcement as being out of touch with “the 21st century world.”  What labor needs, he said, is  “a new model . . . less focused on individual grievances, more focused on industry needs.”

More than 800,000 workers are now covered by SEIU’s network of Member Resource Centers (MRCs), and many are not happy campers (or satisfied customers).  Instead of turning to a co-worker, trained to serve as a shop steward in their own workplace, or an experienced full-time union rep, janitors in Boston found themselves talking to newly hired call center staffers in Redford, Michigan, outside Detroit.  “They didn’t know how to interpret contracts, grievances weren’t getting filed on time, or they were filed when they shouldn’t have been,” an official of SEIU Local 615 told Labor Notes.  “The bottom line is members were getting bad advice.”

Another local union rep, who insisted on anonymity, accused Michigan call center employees of providing east coast SEIU members with inaccurate information about their entitlement to contract benefits and coverage under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  Problems like these discouraged many SEIU affiliates from ever utilizing the Redford “mega-center,” forcing the national union to close it after spending $14 million and failing to create the 225 jobs that the state of Michigan expected when SEIU was granted a $2 million tax credit to open the place.

In an internal memo last fall, SEIU’s own “Member Strength Review Committee,” headed by secretary-treasurer Eliseo Medina, found that the Michigan call center experiment “has been all consuming at the expense of a well-developed and executed member engagement program.”  Even where they function better, MRCs operating within one local or regionally haven’t achieved cost savings that would allow money now “spent on representation and administrative tasks” to finance “member engagement programs” instead.  According to Medina’s memo:

None of the locals spoken to or surveyed [by his committee] said that creating the MRC in their local has freed up more resources.  Several locals with longer experience report spending more — not less — on operating their MRC.  Similarly, locals in California who are participating in a collective MRC (the Pasadena Member Action Center) don’t report savings.

The captive SEIU members who paid for this scheme may soon have new ways of expressing rank-and-file dissatisfaction with their union’s cavalier treatment of its “customers.”  In the open shop America that’s looming ahead, unions will not survive without membership consent, active participation, and voluntary financial buy-in.  Within SEIU, call center servicing has already produced a political backlash, costing several incumbent SEIU board members their jobs, when they had to stand for election locally.

Public employees in a number of unions will be heading for the exits, just as they did in Indiana, if public sector unions don’t have an internal organizing game plan that utilizes worker-to-worker relationships, rank-and-file leadership development, and collective action on the job.  None of which happens over the phone.

Steve Early is a labor journalist, lawyer, and former national union representative for the Communications Workers of America, based in Boston.  For more on SEIU’s call center servicing experiment, see Early’s latest book, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, available from Haymarket books at www.civilwarsinlabor.org.  He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.  A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes on 6 June 2011.

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