Civil War in Progressive Mega Union
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.
Nevertheless, Stern reached out to long-standing critics of John Sweeney, including Sal Rosselli, president of northern California's big Local 250 (and later UHW) and Dennis Rivera, leader of the then independent 1199 National Healthcare Workers Union in New York. Rivera would, shortly after Stern's internal victory, lead 1199 New York into SEIU.
Once in office, Stern reorganized the union in dramatic and traumatic fashion. Departments were closed, others were reorganized, and with Steve Lerner and other veterans acting as a kind of brain trust, Stern emphasized massive and rapid growth, either through mergers, organizing blitzes, or corporatist-style accommodations with key service-sector employers. The "Justice for Janitors" campaign experience had taught Stern and Lerner that unionism would remain but a weak and barely tolerated presence unless organized labor achieved sufficient "density" within an entire labor market or occupational niche.
In Los Angeles, the SEIU could not push wages upward when it controlled but 20 percent of the janitorial labor market, but once that figure moved past the halfway mark, employer opposition to unionism declined. This was an important insight--and a potentially winning strategy--but the quest for "density" could become an organizational fetish, eclipsing and then eviscerating the militancy, participation and democracy that were also essential to union success.
Consolidating power, stifling debate
But all this was in the future. In the struggle to eliminate old enemies, the Stern leadership took on the more corrupt and backward local union leaders. In almost magical fashion, one leader after another fell. In many if not most cases, the weapon of the trusteeship was utilized in order to eliminate this strata, composed in most cases of leaders from Sweeney's generation.
They were replaced with Stern allies, usually younger and progressive. The culture of SEIU, however, permits trustees--the individuals running the local unions during the period in which the SEIU leadership controls the local--to run for office at the time that the trusteeship ends. Thus, many of these trustees had the power of incumbency and the ability to gain and hold office. This became a powerful inducement to align with the leadership of the International even if, and sometimes directly because, one lacked an internal base in that local union.
As this process unfolded, it should be added, attention was turned toward the reorganizing of local unions. The principal vision was that of large local unions allegedly designed to match the power of regional, national and international employers. But the process of local union reorganization eliminated many longer-term local union leaders, particularly those of color. And large, state-wide locals made it very difficult for oppositional candidates to successfully challenge those in control of the mega local's affairs.
As one might expect, these large locals had few tools to elicit informed participation by non-activist members. In furthering consolidation, a process of elimination of potential opponents took place. They were quietly driven from their posts and replaced with individuals whose allegiances were directly to Stern and his soon to be Secretary-Treasurer, Anna Burger.
Such consolidation made the SEIU an increasingly inhospitable venue for dialogue, debate, and dissent. American trade unions have never figured out how to operate with a functioning, internal two party system, so Stern stands in the same tradition as that of John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, and even Caesar Chavez. But the more sophisticated union leaders have provided a space for disagreement, even if their latitude is carefully constrained. Stern and his leadership team did not do this, and in the new century they made it increasingly difficult for dissent to operationalize itself, either at the SEIU convention or on the international executive board. Thus when local SEIU unionists disagreed, they did not challenge the leadership but merely ignored it insofar as that was possible.
Paralleling this process of internal consolidation, SEIU leaders grew increasingly frustrated with the pace of change at the AFL-CIO. Despite the bold rhetoric that accompanied John Sweeney's accession to the presidency of the federation, the new leadership there had been unable to convince many old-line unions to ramp up their organizational effort and expenditures. Thus the AFL-CIO was losing millions of members in the wake of the dot.com bust and the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing in the early Bush era.
By 2003, Stern and other impatient union leaders had begun to openly criticize the AFL-CIO in a series of articles and interviews regarding the future of organized labor. This built into a near crescendo in 2004 when, at the SEIU Convention that June, Stern announced in front of former SEIU President John Sweeney that if the AFL-CIO did not change, SEIU would leave the AFL-CIO.
Although something of a cease fire took place during the rest of the 2004 electoral season, the die had been cast. In the summer of 2005, Stern led the SEIU and five other unions out of the AFL-CIO and into a new federation, "Change to Win."
The split in the AFL-CIO is directly relevant to the later civil war in SEIU, precisely because many of the issues that needed to be debated at the time were suppressed and replaced with sound bites. This is especially true about matters such as core jurisdiction (over what sectors a particular union should have responsibility for organizing and representing) and the relationship of bargaining to organizing (and vice versa).
Yet in the absence of debate, the confrontation leading to the AFL-CIO split became more about posturing than substance. Indeed, the split in the AFL-CIO actually hid the fissures that existed both among the Change To Win unions and within them. Subsequent to the split, these internal conflicts began to emerge and today C-T-W finds itself fragmented and adrift.
The end of the beginning
The circumstances leading to the SEIU civil war leaked to the surface in 2007. By then it was clear that the alleged promise of the Change To Win federation had gone unfulfilled. It was also becoming clearer that there were differences within the ranks regarding how the union movement should grow.
The unofficial release of documents from SEIU-UHW in 2007 signaled the opening of what could have been a constructive and insightful debate. As reported by the San Francisco Weekly, the documents constituted a criticism of SEIU's leadership for its approach toward collective bargaining. Originating from within UHW, but shared in other parts of SEIU, the critique focused on the "density" issue, charging that SEIU was sacrificing collective bargaining standards, as well as local union autonomy and democracy, all in the name of membership growth.
SEIU responded with a manifesto, "'Just Us' or 'Justice for All'?" in which the SEIU asserted that "History demonstrates that 'I Got Mine' – 'Just Us' unionism has hurt all workers, including existing members." SEIU charged that even militant locals like the UHW were doing a disservice to the union movement by concentrating on improving their own contacts, even as the majority of workers in the rest of the healthcare industry remained unorganized and poorly paid. The SEIU thought that it might be necessary for existing locals to moderate their wage and benefit demands as part of a "bargaining to organize" strategy, in which companies ceased their opposition to unionization in return for uniform standards throughout the firm or even outright concessions at the bargaining table. (This was a tactic that SEIU imposed on UHW when the International persuaded the big California local to reach a template agreement in the nursing home industry in 2004).
Certainly one could find examples, in history and in the contemporary union movement, of militant but insular unions who protected their own membership but ignored the larger working-class interest. But the UHW was hardly such a trade union. Within the SEIU, UHW had one of the most active, if not the most active, organizing postures in hospitals, nursing homes and among home healthcare workers. UHW leaders thought there was no contradiction between militancy at the bargaining table and an effective effort to extend the benefits of unionism to others in the health care industry. High standards in the core UHW jurisdictions, such as Kaiser Permanente, set a standard for unionism everywhere and made it more attractive to potential union recruits in non-union facilities.
Equally important, the UHW saw itself as a union whose jurisdiction took in all healthcare workers, from doctors and skilled technicians to the more than 60,000 home healthcare workers who had been organized in the last decade. In contrast to the SEIU, which wanted to put all nursing home and home healthcare workers into mega locals that would have the "density" to bargain for all such workers, UHW thought that the home health care workers would be best served if they were part of a larger amalgamation of hospital and nursing home workers.
The SEIU determination to sever 60,000 home healthcare workers from the UHW jurisdiction was therefore not just a turf fight over members and their dues. It reflected key strategic issues of which "density" captures just a part. The SEIU drive to put all these home healthcare workers into one big California local--so as to more effectively lobby for higher levels of support in Sacramento--consigned these tens of thousands of largely immigrant women to the status of welfare recipients. The SEIU drive for "density" was proving the handmaiden of an increasingly austere welfare politics. Indeed, the union's big home healthcare locals in Southern California have failed, for nearly a decade, to materially raise the wages and benefit levels of the hundred thousand plus workers they represent.
As this conflict unfolded in 2007 and 2008, it became intertwined with issues of local union autonomy, the UHW critique of SEIU's overall trajectory, and the personalities and ambitions of the leading antagonists, notably the UHW's Sal Rosselli and the SEIU's Andrew Stern. Had the SEIU leadership taken the high ground, this debate could have been quite instructive for the rest of the movement.
There were a number of issues at stake, including: What sacrifices should newly organized workers be asked to make--in the realm of collective bargaining--in order to be unionized? Specifically, should the standards of a collective bargaining agreement be significantly lowered in order to gain the right to collective bargaining, with the hope that over time standards will be raised? What is the relationship between high standards in collective bargaining and the ability of unions to organize and recruit workers? How should decisions be made in a national/international union when it comes to standards?
The high ground, however, was not taken. Instead, a campaign of vilification began almost immediately, focused on attacking the person and character of UHW President Sal Rosselli. The intensity of the struggle quickly led to an effort to isolate and demonize UHW's leadership. The release by the SEIU leadership of a peculiar letter (written by a defecting UHW leader, and former SEIU International staff person) critical of Rosselli and UHW leadership further distracted from any real discussion of the issues that UHW tried to surface. This was accompanied by a proposal from the SEIU leadership to seize a significant portion of the UHW membership--long-term care workers (nursing home and homecare workers)--and place them into a state-wide long-term care workers local union.
The factors that led to the actual trusteeship are both complicated and to a great extent mystifying. By early 2008, it was clear to most outsiders that preparations for a trusteeship of UHW were underway, in large part because of UHW's vehement opposition to giving up their long-term care members without an honest, democratic voting process. SEIU openly denied that there was any plan for a trusteeship, even after accusing the UHW leadership of moving union money around inappropriately.
After the release of a letter by dozens of academics calling upon SEIU's leadership to engage in principled struggle with UHW and to not repress them via a trusteeship, an orchestrated effort was undertaken to have key SEIU personnel--local leaders and staff--contact signatories of the letter to not only assure them that there was no trusteeship in the works, but that it had been insulting to suggest that Stern had anything other than an honest and restrained attitude toward UHW. (Lichtenstein signed the letter and then received an SEIU phone call.)
Legitimizing the trusteeship
Shortly thereafter, events changed rapidly. First, an internal email was released that demonstrated that the SEIU leadership had misled outsiders. The email confirmed that discussions were underway to trustee or "implode" the local. Secondly, stories came out in the media concerning the leadership of SEIU Local 6434, the California state-wide long-term care workers local into which the SEIU leadership proposed placing UHW members. Tyrone Freeman, head of the local, had for years been a very close ally and protégé of Stern. The allegations against the leadership of the local for corruption became so intense that SEIU trusteed the local, thereby removing Freeman.
SEIU leadership then moved into blitzkrieg mode and announced hearings against the UHW leadership, a precipitous action quite at variance with earlier assurances that SEIU leadership had no intention to trustee the United Healthcare West local.
SEIU chose former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall as the hearing officer for a set of lengthy hearings in the late summer and early fall of 2008. These focused on allegations of financial improprieties on the part of UHW leadership involving the establishment of a multi-million dollar fund that the local seemed ready to use to fight the looming SEIU trusteeship. The hearings had the feel of a big time lawsuit with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to pay dueling teams of outside legal counsel and expert witnesses.
When Marshall finally delivered his 105-page report in early January 2009, he agreed that many of the charges put forward by the SEIU leadership against the UHW officers were valid, i.e., that the big California local did attempt to move several million dollars to a non-profit educational fund that was in reality a resource designed to fight the SEIU should a trusteeship be imposed. Marshall also ruled that the trusteeship threat was not a "retaliation" against UHW's decision to speak out against what many of its members considered undemocratic SEIU policies.
But Marshall made none of this the basis for a trusteeship, arguing instead that the "the underlying issue is a conflict over jurisdiction" involving the home healthcare workers. In effect, Marshall sided with UHW when it argued that the charges and countercharges involving financial malpractice were really "symptoms of the fundamental relationship between the International and the UHW." Marshall called for a peaceful resolution of this conflict, based on a view shared by many unionists that "the main beneficiaries of this conflict are anti-union employers and politicians."
But Marshall's report was not that of a disinterested judge. The former labor secretary sided with UHW in recommending that the SEIU International board not establish a trusteeship on the basis of the specific issues (largely those involving finances) pressed by the SEIU during the lengthy hearings. But in what many observers saw as a tacked-on, last minute concession to Andrew Stern, Marshall amended his report (the typeface is actually different) to call for trusteeship if the UHW refused to abide by the SEIU's decision to force UHW to relinquish jurisdiction over 65,000 long-term care workers and put them in a single state-wide unit.
UHW made an 11th hour compromise offer to the effect that should the long-term care workers vote to leave UHW, the California local would abide by their wishes. But the senior leadership at SEIU was not looking for a way out of the crisis. They ignored the offer and imposed a trusteeship at midnight on January 27, not a minute later than legally possible.
First moments of a new day?
In the history of the U.S. labor movement, as well as that of the SEIU, imposition of trusteeships normally encounter some discontent, but resistance is uneven and generally short-lived. A 1959 law, Landrum-Griffin, enacted when Teamster corruption was in the headlines, is designed to give national union officers overwhelming power to reorganize a local, install new officers, and run its affairs. Even when a trusteeship has been imposed in an autocratic fashion, most union reformers believe the wise course of action is to "take" it, organize an opposition, and then fight to win a new election in a few years.
The leadership of UHW, however, backed by a broad stratum of key activists, has chosen a more radical, confrontational, and democratic path. In a series of meetings in the spring of 2009, the old UHW transformed itself into an entirely new trade union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers. It would challenge SEIU for the allegiance of tens of thousands of hospital, nursing home, and healthcare workers in its old jurisdiction and quite possibly in new ones as well. This was and remains a bold effort, in which virtually all legal, organizational and economic resources are monopolized by the SEIU.
But the NUHW has a powerful resource of its own: the determined support of thousands of workers in some of the best organized and most militant workplaces in the entire healthcare sector. Unlike so many SEIU locals, the old UHW was led by a stratum of activists that reached deep into the ranks of the workforce. Doctors, nurses, technicians, and healthcare aids at Kaiser Permanente have long been in the vanguard of unionism, in the Bay Area and throughout the hospital sector. (Indeed, when SEIU put the old Kaiser local, Local 250, into trusteeship in the 1980s, workers there defeated the leadership put forward by the national SEIU and elected Rosselli as local union president once the trusteeship was lifted.)
It is unclear that SEIU's top leadership truly anticipated the extent and scope of the resistance that emerged in UHW following the trusteeship. They probably did not imagine that this resistance would take the form of the establishment of an independent union that positioned itself as the legitimate successor to UHW. In either case, shortly after the beginning of the trusteeship, the NUHW went about building a resistance movement to the trusteeship. The core founding principles included both the notion of (1) one union for one industry (in this case, a healthcare union for all healthcare workers), and (2) an institutionalized set of participatory, democratic governance practices which devolved power from the staff to the working members.
What has been particularly striking about the NUHW effort is the manner in which its influence has spread within the former UHW jurisdiction. Within weeks, over 50,000 members signed decertification petitions indicating their desire to leave the trusteed UHW and enter into the new NUHW. And in the first major contest between SEIU and the NUHW, which revolved around homecare workers in Fresno, Calif., SEIU won what can only be described as a pyrrhic victory.
In that case, SEIU reportedly spent about $10 million dollars, including the deployment of nearly one thousand staff people, and then won the decertification election by a margin of less than two hundred votes. The NUHW has challenged the result, citing numerous irregularities. Irrespective of the final outcome, the fact remains that in a region and among workers that had not been a strategic base for NUHW, they nevertheless forced SEIU to spend an immense sum of money, and nearly won! Union activists expended all this time and money on a civil war that never should have happened in the first place, rather than on actions desperately needed to generate new growth or advance the political mobilizations necessary to fulfill the promise of the Obama victory just months before.
The underdog's reclamation
Assessing what to make of NUHW and its potential is, at this time, a matter for speculation. Despite having pitifully few resources, the new union is capable of winning. In the NUHW's key jurisdictions, particularly Kaiser Permanente, it is quite conceivable that they will overwhelm the SEIU's imported and maladroit leadership.
This is true for at least three reasons. One, the former UHW has a very capable steward's system and member involvement at Kaiser. Two, the trusteeship is an affront to thousands of staunch unionists and their allies in California where NUHW has won the backing of some prominent liberal politicians and many key unions, including San Francisco's big hotel local.
Three, many among the SEIU staff, imported to California or back in the East and Midwest, are demoralized and do not see NUHW as a true enemy. Thus, if the NUHW can win just a few NLRB certification elections and restart the dues flow, then it will have sufficient resources to hire key staff, "organize" among a wider group of workers, and prevail in California over the still alien group of leaders imported into the state by SEIU. Recent NUHW victories at Los Alamitos Medical Center in Southern California and at an assisted living facility in the Portola Valley indicate that this strategy may be working. There is no reason, short of resources, that NUHW cannot prevail, irrespective of whether they choose to return to a reformed SEIU.
The larger significance of NUHW, however, can be found in possibilities. At this moment, it would be accurate to describe the NUHW effort as a process of reclamation. In other words, the establishment of NUHW is a form of resistance to an unjustified trusteeship. There is an attempt by the sacked leadership of UHW to rebuild the union and to reclaim what was 'occupied' by the International. This point cannot be overemphasized: It illustrates why the fight between NUHW and SEIU is not a question of an old-fashioned "raid" but instead a process which seeks to reestablish an ongoing, democratic, and highly successful trade union whose health and outlook is essential to any revitalization of trade unionism, on both a state and national basis.
In the most common circumstances of raiding, an existing union will target the workers represented by another union and seek to steal them away. (In South Africa, this is called "poaching," probably a more accurate term.) In the AFL-CIO this is supposedly restricted by Article 20 of the AFL-CIO Constitution. For those unions not in the AFL-CIO, however, there are no such restrictions. Thus, it is not uncommon for certain unions to grow precisely by raiding bargaining units of already represented workers.
NUHW bears no resemblance to the traditional raider. In fact, one could argue that their activities do not represent a 'raid' at all, but instead are more akin to an insurrection. Specifically, the activities of NUHW are aimed at regaining representation over units of the old UHW that are controlled by the trustees. There is no indication that NUHW has its eyes on any other part of SEIU. What it may be considering, however, is a broader, national effort to develop and implement the idea that the former UHW leadership had embraced some time ago when it sought the construction of a truly national union of healthcare workers across all the usual employer and occupational boundaries.
But the first question is whether the reclamation effort will succeed and the trusteeship be defeated. The next question is whether reclamation can evolve into union transformation.
And what of SEIU?
The NUHW insurgency has created a crisis within SEIU. While the leaderships of most SEIU locals have failed to stand against the trusteeship--and in some cases actively collaborated with it--there are varying opinions at the staff and local level. A number of resignations from the International staff, the SEIU's California State Council, and some locals have taken place, revealing clear disaffection with current policies. In other cases, staff people who were deployed merely went through the motions rather than throw themselves into an active and energetic re-organizing effort.
Even if it does defeat NUHW, it is unlikely that SEIU will regain the stature that it once had or resolve the internal conflicts that have risen in recent years. The problem for the SEIU, as well as for many of the other unions in the service sector, is that they are essentially staff-drive entities, legal/administrative constructs that are organizational hybrids. They stand halfway between fundraising and propaganda vehicles like MoveOn.org and the self-organized auto workers who once made institutions like UAW Local 600, representing tens of thousands at Ford's River Rouge complex, a watchword for working-class militancy and union democracy.
This tension is apparent in all the service sector unions, where an influx of college-educated activists has revitalized organizing, research, and political mobilization, but where the conditions for genuine internal democracy, i.e., locals that really are local, an elected leadership with actual bargaining power, and the development of an organizing cadre that is responsive to the membership rather than a distant organizing director, remains elusive.
Although some SEIU locals have had histories of varying degrees of internal democracy and transformational politics, the SEIU has looked askance at such localist examples of democratic participation--not because the leadership of SEIU is hostile to mobilization or democracy in any formal ideological sense, but because it has had other agendas that all too often seemed to conflict with a decentralized and democratic structure. Efforts to democratize and transform the union controlled and led by rank and file members have been largely absent. This absence represents a major obstacle for a full renovation of SEIU.
All this has engendered something of a leadership cult within SEIU, a tendency present even prior to Stern's assumption of leadership in 1996. Thus, whether it is Stern, Burger, or a local union president, it is the progressive leader that puts forward a militant and imaginative program and calls for the members to embrace it. Such a scenario guarantees a degree of hero/heroine-worship as well as a tendency to suppress dissent in the name of union solidarity. If truth rests with only one person, how can dissenters be anything other than traitors?
An alternative scenario is that NUHW becomes a catalyst for more widespread change within SEIU. There are reasons to believe that this is quite possible. The actual cost of the SEIU civil war may, at some point, quite literally break the bank and force a realignment of priorities. Local union leaders who have otherwise been unswerving in their loyalty to SEIU leadership may have to examine the checkbook and reconsider their position.
Less cynically, the issues that are at stake in the NUHW insurgency may indeed spread. While the SEIU leadership seems to be going out of their way to continue to demonize NUHW, it is far from clear that this assault is having much impact. What does seem to be the case is that many local leaders and staff activists are keeping their heads down and trying desperately to stay uninvolved in the civil war.
Yet the ideas contained in the NUHW insurgency are contagious. It is not just a question of union democracy, but of how labor is to organize itself in order to confront and defeat major employers and push social policy in a more progressive direction. In this conflict, a structure of democratic participation is not just a moral imperative, but an organizational weapon that sustains struggle and insures that the union remains part of a larger movement for social justice.
NUHW, therefore, offers a challenge not only to SEIU but to the basic question of what constitutes a union in the 21st-century, when the power of employers is aimed at eliminating any sense of worker control and empowerment. One hopes that humility and class consciousness will lead SEIU leaders to understand that their trusteeship of UHW, their current war against NUHW and the bargains they seek to strike with some corporate entities do little but diminish the concept of unionism in the eyes of workers and their allies at a time when we desperately need a social justice movement and social justice unionism.