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SEIU local's strike fund given away

October 19, 2007 | Page 4

IN AUGUST, the executive board of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 925, based among public workers in Washington state, voted to give away nearly half of its strike fund--a total of $142,000--to SEIU's presidential election fund, the misnamed "American Dream Fund."

Outrageously, the executive board did this without a membership vote, open discussion or even informing members after the vote.

The local has a quota, set by the SEIU international office, to meet for its contribution to the presidential fund. It tries to meet this quota by collecting voluntary contributions from members to the Committee on Political Empowerment (COPE). Though the local raised thousands of dollars this way, it wasn't enough to meet the quota.

The strike fund is held by the local, but disbursements are controlled by the SEIU national office. With a local of 11,000 members, a strike fund of even $300,000 wouldn't go very far, but at least it was a beginning.

One member of the executive board voted against the decision to give away money from the strike fund. He told other members, and they were upset about the decision, too--even though most generally support COPE and agree with the idea of giving money to Democratic and Republican candidates.

When the dissident executive board member tried to raise the issue at the previous month's union meeting, he was told not to, because "this is executive board business." In other words, paid union officials didn't even want the layer of active rank-and-file union leaders below the executive board to know about this decision, much less the rank and file of the union.

To add to this outrage, we also discovered that in 2004, the e-board gave over $50,000 from the strike fund to the SEIU presidential fund. No one outside the e-board had ever heard this before our union meeting this September.

There was enough of an uproar that the local's president agreed to come to the University of Washington (Seattle) chapter's organizing council to discuss the decision--something she never would have done without the uproar from members.

She responded to members' criticism by saying that it's important for SEIU to continue to be a "player" in politics. She also claimed that the strike fund wouldn't sustain much of a strike anyway, and instead is more of a "limited hardship fund." Lastly, she said that the strike fund is controlled by the International, and if we didn't meet our quota to the "American Dream Fund," the national office could just take money from our strike fund anyway.

Most shamefully, she and the other executive board members who made this decision claimed that the members would never vote to go on strike anyway. Actually, we had a one-day strike in 2001 that resulted in a raise for all state workers.

Opponents of giving away the strike fund made a scathing indictment of the decision on the grounds of democracy--even the e-board didn't know the issue was coming up until the meeting where it voted, and the general membership never voted at all. We reminded the room that the discussion we were having in the organizing council didn't take place because the local president wanted open communication, but because she was forced to by the uproar among the members.

Unfortunately, no clear majority won the room, and no further action was taken, so the original decision stands. This is a real tragedy. But it is also not an isolated incident. The local president said that many other locals, facing a budget squeeze, are also raiding their strike funds to give money to big business (Democratic and Republican) candidates.

This is symptomatic of the whole business-union orientation of SEIU. Its leaders want to cozy up to management and support pro-management politicians in the hopes that some crumbs will fall to the workers. If the strategy is to get along with management, then of course we don't need a strike fund!

The labor movement as a whole needs to change this strategy. It needs to see that the interests of workers are the opposite of management. We need to fight the bosses with economic action and by backing independent labor candidates in elections. Labor's support of Democrats (and even Republicans!) hasn't prevented the continual decline of real wages and successful attacks by the bosses on pensions, health and safety, and jobs.

Productivity is up, but most of the gains go to the rich, not the workers. Diverting our strike funds to fatten the already fat wallets of the rich politicians is just another example of the reverse Robin Hood trend--robbing from the poor to give to the rich.

But in spite of this defeat, the meeting did have a positive effect. More union members are outraged by the direction of the union and realize that there are many others who want to stand up for a change in policy.

This issue helped to create a stronger network of union members who want democracy and solidarity in the union. We'll keep fighting until we win.
Steve Leigh and Erik Wallenberg, SEIU Local 925 Organizing Council, Seattle

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