Where does Andy Stern want to take labor?

June 2, 2008

Lee Sustar looks at the background to the controversy at the SEIU convention taking place in Puerto Rico this week.

TURNS OUT that the man hailed as the savior of the U.S. labor movement for the 21st century is an old-school labor bureaucrat after all.

As the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) convention began May 31 in Puerto Rico, union President Andrew Stern faced opposition for his methods, including making secret deals with employers that curtail union rights, forcing mergers of union locals to create huge and unaccountable bureaucratic entities, and intimidating critics inside and outside the union--even resorting to physical force to do so.

All this may come as a shock to liberals who greeted Stern and SEIU's success in organizing new members--the union now claims 1.9 million members--as a sign of labor's renewal after decades of decline. Stern's leadership of the Change to Win coalition, a 2005 breakaway from the AFL-CIO, was often seen as the kind of bold move necessary to turn the movement around.

Three years later, there's mounting evidence of sweetheart deals with employers and heavy handed treatment of critics, including threats to take over opposition union locals and a physical assault by SEIU members on the recent Labor Notes conference that was to have featured a speaker from the California Nurses Association, which competes with SEIU in organizing RNs.

SEIU President Andy Stern speaks at a Change to Win press conference
SEIU President Andy Stern speaks at a Change to Win press conference (SW)

THIS ISN'T the story of a high-minded liberal leader succumbing to the temptations of power. Rather, it is the logical outcome of Stern's pursuit of partnership with employers and his efforts to build a hyper-centralized union machine to maximize the union's organizational and political clout.

It was only a matter of time before the contradictions of Stern's approach burst out into the open--even beyond the control of SEIU's smooth PR professionals, who have proven adept at arranging puff pieces on Stern in mainstream media outlets like the New York Times Magazine and Forbes.

In reality, Stern's vision of a "new" trade unionism has its roots in the so-called welfare capitalism of the 1920s, when unions adapted to employers' anti-union drive by trying to prove their worth as collaborators in the pursuit of profit.

In that era, more sophisticated employers decided to follow up the aggressive anti-union "open shop" drive of the early 1920s with "employee representation programs" that they hoped would pre-empt genuine unions by giving workers the illusion of a voice at work.

R.W. Dunne, a militant in the Communist-initiated Trade Union Educational League, explained why bosses initiated such plans. "With all this elaborate machinery, what can the [employee] association do? It can go through the motions of collective bargaining, the company knowing, of course, that the association has neither economic nor political power, and no desire to do anything but conform to the mother company's wishes," Dunne wrote in the 1927 book The Americanization of Labor.

In the face of this pressure, the old American Federation of Labor "shifted from militancy to respectability," wrote historian Irving Bernstein in his landmark book The Lean Years. "With business supreme, the AFL sought to sell itself as a necessary auxiliary of business."

That description fits the SEIU of 2008 as well. As the Wall Street Journal reported May 10, SEIU made a secret agreement--along with UNITE HERE--to organize workers at employers Sodexho and the Compass Group, two multinational corporations that are leading providers of laundry, housekeeping and food services.

"The agreements, which expire at the end of 2008, stipulate the number of employees that the unions can try to organize: 11,000 Sodexho workers and 20,000 Compass workers," the Journal reported. In exchange, the union gave up the right to strike. According to a confidential summary of the agreement obtained by the Journal, "local unions are not free to engage in organizing activities at any Compass or Sodexho locations unless the sites have been designated."

The secret deal between the unions and employers confirmed what SEIU dissidents have been arguing for years: that Stern's efforts to "organize" members through agreements with employers are unavoidably detrimental to the interests of the rank and file. Essentially, the SEIU spares management the time and expense of combating a union drive in exchange for assurances that the union will contain worker militancy.

IT WAS these methods that sparked the battle inside SEIU that will be fought out this week at the convention.

The merged California-based affiliate, the 140,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), challenged a deal between the SEIU and California nursing homes in which employers recognized the unions in exchange for severe restrictions on union rights. The terms included a gag order on union members speaking out about patients' conditions, minimal pay increases and contractual limitations on union activities that one UHW staffer described as "the world's longest management rights contract."

The nursing home deal sparked a rebellion and petition campaign in UHW that forced the cancellation of the partnership arrangement. In the aftermath, UHW President Sal Rosselli resigned last year from the SEIU executive board, claiming that the international union was negotiating with UHW employers over his head.

Meanwhile, a group of SEIU rank-and-file members launched SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today (SMART) to both challenge Stern's partnership strategy and use the SEIU convention to push for greater democracy in the union, including the right of members to directly elect the union's top officers. In this effort, SMART is collaborating with a Rosselli-aligned group, SEIU Voice.

Stern, for his part, is headed in the opposite direction. SEIU leaders are proposing convention resolutions in which grievances with employers would be handled by centralized union call centers rather than shop stewards or union representatives. The result would be to greatly weaken, if not eliminate, union strength on the shop floor, the basis of union power.

To Stern, though, that's a non-issue. "We have a 1930s teletype model of representation in the 21st century world," Stern said. "You can Google almost anything. But then you call your local union office, and you have to push 1 or 2, and then you can't find someone who speaks the language you speak."

This quote is revealing. In any workplace, a union's effectiveness isn't measured only by its ability to deliver decent wages and benefits, but by its ability to stand up for workers who face arbitrary and unfair pressure from management.

Contacting an anonymous SEIU rep in a call center far away is no substitute for a shop steward who can go toe-to-toe with an abusive supervisor, or who can turn a handful of individual grievances into a coordinated shop-floor campaign to force management to back down.

Of course, if the union's central concern is collaboration and partnership--as is the case with Stern--the call center is an excellent way to smooth out the rough-and-tumble of collective bargaining.

The essence of Stern's argument is this: If union bodies are bigger and more centralized, they'll be able to pressure employers more effectively while freeing resources for new organizing. To that end, Stern is pushing convention resolutions that would give constitutional blessing to his modus operandi--for example, creating national strategy councils to further consolidate control of organizing and bargaining.

Tellingly, though, Stern also seeks new powers to discipline rebel leaders like Rosselli and divide or merge union locals if they oppose the international's policies.

In Stern's view, workers' power is something to be held in trust by officials far removed from the shop floor--by people who believe that they know what's best for the workers, rather than the workers themselves. Anyone with the temerity to get in the way will be dealt with--severely.

The dissidents in SEIU Voice and SMART are under no illusion they will win the reform proposals that they're seeking. But in standing up to Stern, they've already shattered the image of the SEIU monolith and exposed Stern for the authoritarian bureaucrat he is.

In so doing, they've initiated a genuine debate on the way forward for labor--not only in the SEIU, but for the entire labor movement.

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