Fratricidal Conflicts: A Review of Steve Early's "Civil Wars in U.S. Labor"
Steve Early's new book goes into the sad, recent history of fratricide within and between unions. He particularly concentrates on the roles SEIU has played in this battle between brothers and sisters. To any reader, this book may seem to be overly anti-SEIU. The sad truth, however, is that, especially under Andy Stern, SEIU's roles have been not much short of nefarious.
Early goes into cases like the conflicts between Stern's union and the Puerto Rican teachers , CNA, UHW and UNITE HERE. He shows a pattern of abuse of power and disregard for union democracy. Reading it made me sad and wistfully nostalgic for a bygone time when labor really lived by values like solidarity and giving a voice to the downtrodden.
In June 2008, SEIU held its national convention in San Juan. While the delegates were meeting, Puerto Rico's teachers were picketing some distance away, as close as the authorities would let them, which wasn't very. With the aid of that island's governor, SEIU was forcing through the decertification of the teachers' union and its replacement by SEIU itself, as the only choice of union on their ballots. Dennis Rivera of 1199 fame played a key role in that controversy, due to his friendship with Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila.
While this was going on between the Service Employees and the teachers, the dispute between the former and its California-based mega-local, United Healthcare Workers West (UHW) was heating up. This was to come to a head in the forcible takeover of UHW headquarters, when it was placed under trusteeship in January 2009. Members' wishes were blatantly disregarded, as made clear by Early. Control from the International seemed to be the only question that Stern and his allies cared about, not control by the local members, themselves. The valiant fight for his members that Sal Rosselli carried on is highlighted.
At just about this same time, SEIU was raiding UNITE HERE, with its eyes on Amalgamated Bank. The uneasy marriage between the textile-and-garment workers' UNITE and the hotel workers' HERE had fallen apart. Bruce Raynor is depicted as really having abused his "perks" at the center of power before leaving and taking as much of UNITE HERE, and millions of dollars, with him as he could. We see John Wilhelm in a more favorable light, except for a reprehensible practice carried on in his half called "pink-slipping." This was reminiscent of the "Game" played by Cesar Chavez and his cohorts at UFW during the slide downward of that union. To me, it seems more like a Maoist "criticism/self-criticism" session. Early points out the effect internecine warfare between the two halves of UNITE HERE, with SEIU's prompting, had on ordinary staffers.
I think part of the problem with SEIU ramrodding its decisions through, regardless of member sentiment is just what Steve Early indicates. Many of the members of its International Executive Board (IEB), as well as many of the leaders appointed to the disheartening number of trusteed locals, did not start out as working members under the jurisdiction of a local. Instead, many of them came straight from college or the nonprofit world, never having had a "real" job. They disregarded members' ideas and feelings because they had little or no understanding of them, never having been rank-and-file members themselves.
The sad disregard for democracy evidenced by Andy Stern and many of his appointees could not help but remind me of my own experiences at the local level here in Boston. SEIU, Local 285, of which I had become a member when I started working for the City of Boston in early 1989, was quite democratic at that time. Celia Wcislo, its president, encouraged member involvement in all aspects of the local. Those of us from the rank-and-file who did get involved really felt empowered. As time went by, though, this was less the case. Those of us who worked at Boston City Hall began to feel that our issues were being neglected. We felt strongly enough about this after a while that some of us launched a decertification effort. While this showed promise at first, because veteran activists joined us, it ended up being squelched.
Then Susana Segat was appointed president of a new local, formed as a result of a reorganization of hospital workers into a healthcare local, government workers into a public sector local. Although it was under trusteeship, the new Local 888 of which we were a part seemed promising at first. Member involvement was encouraged. However, member involvement was allowed to go only so far, and then the iron hand of the new president intervened. Early goes into how this affected 2,000 UMass members. As he recounts it, these 888 members ended up leaving for the Mass. Teachers Association (MTA). Many others were unhappy, too, starting with the way Segat handpicked the members of a committee to draft a new constitution for the local. This new document greatly increased presidential powers and greatly curtailed the Executive Board and the chapters. If there hadn't been such apathy created among public sector workers over the years, I'm sure it would not have been ratified. As it happened, it was, and as a consequence we had an officially less democratic local.
After three years, there was finally an election of officers. Bruce Boccardy and a few others ran against Segat's chosen slate. He and the others lost, because they not only had very little time to campaign against an incumbent, they couldn't obtain the membership lists.
Bruce and a few others, including me, organized the Bring Back Our Union slate to run against Segat again three years later. Just as recounted in Steve Early's book, we won this time, by quite a margin. I did not actually run for office myself, because there already was a progressive candidate running on our slate for the Executive Board seat I was eligible for, and I did not want to split the progressive vote. There was a Segat loyalist that I really wanted out of there.
We're now about 15 months into Boccardy's term, as well as that of the new board. So far, I have been impressed by his and their commitment to allowing the members to empower themselves. The only real problem I see is in getting more members to involve themselves. Apathy remains a problem. Steve Early has the same impression, however, that I see reflected on the ground. He says "worker participation in bargaining, organizing and political action has been actively encouraged and --- Boccardy makes frequent workplace visits without a staff entourage." I can confirm those aspects of the new Local 888.
One issue Early touches on which was driven close to home for me was that of the shop-steward-and-reps system versus the Member Resource Centers (MRCs) or call centers. SEIU under Stern started to roll these out in a big way. There are hundreds of thousands of new members of the union who are home health aides and childcare workers. These members work in their own or someone else's home. They're widely scattered. They do not work together in one single place. Having a shop steward is seemingly impossible or impractical for them. So call centers perhaps make more sense for them.
However, I have been friends for over twenty years with a home health aide from the islands who represented her fellow workers on the Local 285 Executive Board for twenty-five years. She always brought some members along, and fought for and represented those workers very well. Then, when the reorganization occurred in Mass. and healthcare workers were placed in a new local, Local 2020, on its way to 1199 eventually, the home health aides were summarily dropped by the new local. My friend all of a sudden represented no one. She was incensed by this callous treatment of her members. She herself was very shabbily treated by the staff of the new local. As one result, after many years of being a militant fighter for her fellow home health aides, she now wants nothing to do with unions.
So, to me, the jury's out as to whether call centers are necessarily better for home health aides, except that in my friend's day we were talking about a comparatively small number of members, and now we're talking about hundreds of thousands. For them, perhaps call centers do make more sense.
A problem with SEIU was that they implemented call centers for many locals, not just mega ones, and for more than just home health aides or childcare workers. Local 888, with less than 10,000 members, all government workers, was one such local. The MRC was particularly unpopular at our local and was one of the factors which led to Segat's defeat.
But, beyond that, are home health aides and childcare workers the future of the union movement? It seems to me we can't just abandon government workers, janitors, cafeteria workers, hotel workers, industrial workers, etc. to their fate in a new, frightening, "right-to-work" world. If America is ever going to be re-industrialized, with green industries this time, those workers will need unions. The need for unions is proven every day in workplaces all across this country. Traditional worksites, like those just mentioned, are served much better by shop stewards in their own offices or on their own shop floors than by distant, impersonal call centers. A shop steward or union rep knows you and your situation. You're not just a voice on the other end of the line to him or her.
Those internecine wars between and within unions have begun to be settled, Early reports. In 2010 the UNITE HERE squabble came to an end. SEIU had created a front organization called Workers United in which to store UNITE HERE members whom they had pried loose as well as the $16 million Raynor had syphoned to them, along with other monies. In the cease-fire agreement, Workers United/SEIU gained their prize of Amalgamated Bank, while UNITE HERE got a twenty-eight floor office building valued at $85 miilion in New York City and another $75 million in liquid and not-as-liquid assets that was frozen during the competing lawsuits. The two labor organizations set out in print that they would not contest with one another over casinos and resorts for the next quarter century. employees of university, college and public school food services were going to have a choice between UNITE HERE and SEIU. The latter union would have exclusive claim to hospital food services.
In the meantime, those Puerto Rican teachers who figured in the first part of this review, the FMPR, campaigned for a "No" in the representation election where the only union on their ballots was SEIU. They won that "No' vote. FMPR still does not have a legal pathway to getting back their bargaining rights. Also, the ynow have not 40,000, but 11,000 dues-paying members, now that that function is voluntary. One of the teachers' leaders, Rafael Feliciano Hernandez, is quoted by the author as saying, "Workers must always be the people who have day-to-day control over their union."
That's what they're still fighting for in California, where NUHW is struggling to survive after just having lost the representation vote to SEIU's UHW wherein they were fighting over 44,000 Kaiser Permanente workers.
The confrontation came to a head between NUHW and SEIU in September 2010, in a lot of Kaiser cafeterias. Groups of rival workers would mingle briefly in order to get a slice of the SEIU-supplied pizza. Sal Rosselli was in one of them, urging people to get some of the products of their dues money. SEIU had been siding with management against their own members in too many instances. However, they had spread fear among the many who had initially supported NUHW: fear of losing their hard-fought wages and benefits, as the behemoth of a union told them they would lose coverage by their present contracts -- a blatant lie, but it did sew fear. A veteran SEIU organizer made the statement that when a representation election is pushed back more than 60 days, management wins 2/3 of the time. Well, this time "management" was SEIU. They received 18,290 votes to 11,364 for NUHW and 365 for no union at all.
Good union people fell victim to this confrontation. Mike Fadel of 1199East, now United Healthcare Workers East, was demoted, re-assigned and made to feel useless. Fadel had been a key architect of 1199's victory at the Caritas hospitals, and now he was left with no real choice but to look for work with another union, which he found. He landed on his feet. A good organizer almost always does.
Workers at Kaiser Permanente hospitals, at CNA and UNITE HERE and FMPR locales, were faced with a choice between union philosophies which rely on the members themselves and those which rely on a college-educated staff which thinks they know best. SEIU had started out very differently. They had started with the goal of empowering the workers themselves. What went wrong?
Early quotes James C. Scott's book, "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed." Early says, "It's a cautionary tale of what happens when utopian thinkers and political vanguards decide what's best for 'the masses,' with little or no in-put from the people impacted by their plans." Scott cites what happened with the Bolsheviks, in particular, especially once Stalin took over. He also refers to Julius Nyerere's Tanzania. Forced collectivization in the former case, "compulsory villagization" in the latter. Sometimes, as in the USSR, that resulted in millions of people dying. I would also cite Mao's China and both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. It's what happens when elites decide they know what's best for the "Great Unwashed": us.
Applied to SEIU and other similar cases, Early says the problem is with "the organizational machinery and how it operates --- in the name of workers but with little of their active consent." He says many SEIU staffers began with radical viewpoints formed in the 'Sixties, but nowadays they look with disdain on such views. He points out to us how sad it is when union staffers have to rely on security to protect themselves from their own members. Early says, "One can only hope that the --- courage of California health care workers --- points the way toward a better model of worker organization." He says the bill for labor's civil wars comes to more than $140 million, when counting what everybody spent on all sides. Everybody involved protested that they'd rather be spending such funds on things like organizing. Early says the SEIU model, with its "top-down and staff-heavy" style, is not the organizational model of labor's future. He says we need to be "lean and mean at the top, plus strong, broad and deep at the base." Early predicts that if the SEIU model wins out, unions will eventually disappear, for all intents and purposes.
Me? I see the problem with some 'Sixties activists to be the same as Bolsheviks or Maoists in that power went to their heads and they grew enamored of the exercise of it. Working people have got to counter this power-grasping by empowering themselves, in their own unions, by their own efforts. National Nurses United, what rose from the ashes of UNITE HERE and individual SEIU locals like 888 and 509 are instances where rank-and-file workers have empowered themselves even if, as Early reports, 509 had had to compromise to survive. Individual labor leaders like Mike Fadel at 1199, when he would not cooperate with the suppression of NUHW, have fallen victim to power politics in SEIU. Fadel has since picked up the pieces and moved on. We all need to do so.
Steve Early's book functions as a cautionary tale. Member-driven unions must be genuinely member-driven unions. The staff are there to serve us, not vice versa. I think he has written an invaluable book, if we pay attention to its lessons and protect and extend our positions as members in our unions. An Eastern philosopher once said, "The people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history." It's very true. Where would the staff of these unions be without us? But we shouldn't be at loggerheads. We should work together, for the betterment of us all.
Greg King is a shop steward with Service Employees International Union Local 888.