comments_image Comments

Civil War in Progressive Mega Union

When the SEIU leadership decided to move against one of its largest locals, they unleashed a storm that few of the leaders apparently believed possible.

What can one make of the civil war playing itself out inside the Service Employees International Union? "Civil war" is not far from an exaggeration. When the SEIU leadership decided to move against one of its largest locals--SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West--and place it into trusteeship early this year, they unleashed a storm that few of the leaders apparently believed possible.

The widely unpopular trusteeship not only has met with internal resistance within the local, but resulted in the establishment of a split-off union--the National Union of Healthcare Workers--and fights over who will represent workplaces that SEIU-UHW had held for years. This fight has drawn in many outside friends and observers who have hitherto been loath to get involved in the internal affairs of a national/international union.

Given the stakes, it has been less and less possible to sit on the sidelines.

Trying to keep a bubble under water?

This internal conflict and the emergence of NUHW can only be understood in the context of both the evolution of SEIU since the assumption of leadership by Andrew Stern, and by the 2005 split in AFL-CIO, the labor federation.

After his election in 1996, Stern set out to transform what was already the fastest growing union in the AFL-CIO. Ostensibly he wanted it to grow faster and serve as a flagship for the rest of the union movement. His broader vision was somewhat vague, but clearly contained at the time the rough outlines of a left/progressive contour.

As it turned out, this vision evolved into something else--but in the late 1990s, it appeared that Stern wanted to turn SEIU into an organizing machine that would sweep through a large slice of the nation's swollen service sector. Many people inside and outside SEIU responded with great hope to Stern's aggressive leadership and the ambitions he put on labor's agenda.

Although the SEIU has grown by about 50 percent during the last 13 years, the evolution of the union has been misunderstood by those who have assumed that this growth was a product of progressive and democratic structural change within the organization. While important changes did take place in the governance of the SEIU, it is perhaps better to see these transformations through the prism of the union's shifting internal alliances and leadership purges. Over time, those reconfigurations paralleled the SEIU's development of a new and disturbing set of objectives that it moved to the top of labor's organizational and political agenda.

In his struggle to win the SEIU presidency and consolidate the power of his slate, Stern formed two sets of alliances and inaugurated one important purge of his opponents. First, when Stern sought the presidency he needed the support of then-SEIU President John Sweeney, if only because Stern himself was but a mere staff officer of the union.

Sweeney gave Stern a position on SEIU's International Executive Board (IEB) to insulate Stern from exile if Sweeney's own constitutionally-based successor, the late Richard Cordtz, chose to fire him in the immediate aftermath of Sweeney's victory at the AFL-CIO. Cordtz did try to purge Stern, but Stern, being on the IEB, held a secure post from which he could and did campaign to become SEIU's president.

But this challenge would have failed had Stern not succeeded in working out important alliances with key local unions in SEIU. These alliances were built on popular opposition to Cordtz and Cordtz's running mate, Gus Bevona (the autocratic leader of a large building service local in NYC). In this sense, the 1996 Stern candidacy was primarily an oppositional movement, a throw the bums out candidacy (or, perhaps, a keep the bums out of the International's leadership), rather than a programmatically progressive coalition, despite some innovative proposals from his slate.

See more stories tagged with: