SEIU conference on "lockdown"

Larry Bradshaw and Brian Cruz, delegates to the SEIU's 2008 International Convention, report on President Andy Stern's effort to intimidate the opposition.

Puerto Rico teachers picket the SEIU convention in San Juan to protest the U.S. union's siding with the island's union-busting governor (pr.indymedia.org)Puerto Rico teachers picket the SEIU convention in San Juan to protest the U.S. union's siding with the island's union-busting governor (pr.indymedia.org)

AS YOU approach the mammoth convention center in San Juan, Puerto Rico, you might not know that the United States' largest union--the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)--is meeting inside.

Yes, there is one large purple banner hanging outside. But the convention center area appears deserted. There are no streams of people wearing purple t-shirts, walking in or milling about. The entire parking lot is empty, and metal police barricades block every entrance but one.

Yet inside there are 1,700 delegates, hundreds of guests and hangers-on. And lots of paid staffers. And more paid staffers.

So why the deserted look and feel, when there are thousand of people inside? It's because the convention is on a security "lockdown."

A delegate cannot walk to the convention center, nor can they take a cab, nor drive a car there. The only way through the convention center's one open gate is via a chartered bus. No one comes or goes without a delegate ID card--a card containing both a barcode and a mug shot. This is a far cry from the open, freewheeling, carnival atmosphere of previous SEIU conventions.

Why the heightened security? Has there been a crime wave against conventioneers in San Juan? Has someone, perhaps an employer, made terrorist threat against SEIU? No! The security clampdown is primarily directed at an internal threat--dissent among the SEIU delegates.

A growing reform movement inside the union threatens to disrupt the International's carefully scripted program. In dispute at SEIU's convention are plans by President Andy Stern to centralize resources, power and decision-making in his own hands.

Also fueling the dissent are plans by the Stern administration to pursue membership growth by "enticing" employers to accept the union.

SEIU is promoting employer partnerships and neutrality agreements. In exchange for recognition of the union, SEIU agrees to lobby for more public money for employers, such as nursing homes and hospitals, and to support the employers' legislative agendas, even if it is in opposition to the interest of public services, patients or other workers.

In these agreements, the union often allows the employer to decide which facilities can be organized and when. If the workers at a "non-chosen" facility try to organize, the union must "disclaim" the organizing efforts of the workers. Furthermore, the union promises not to "defame" the employer. These deals often contain multi-year, no-strike agreements--in one case, for seven years.

Such agreements do bring in new members and increase the size of SEIU, but at what cost? SEIU leadership claims that these agreements benefit and strengthen labor, but more and more SEIU members are asking whether these schemes strengthen the employers even more.

The closer you look at these employer "partnerships" or "neutrality" agreements, the more they are found lacking. Perhaps that's why the SEIU leadership wants to avoid close scrutiny of these deals and instead focus exclusively on "growth in numbers."

Having a dissent group that keeps harping on about "members' rights" to vote on contracts, elect rank and file members to bargaining committees and have the chance to directly elect their International officers can create uncomfortable moments and interrupt a well-orchestrated, well-choreographed show. Heightened and tightened security lessens the chance that the dissenters can "infect" other delegates.

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THE LARGE numbers of armed police, private security guards and riot cops on horseback patrolling the grounds and perimeter of the convention grounds came in handy when SEIU needed to repel an external threat--Puerto Rican teachers.

The Puerto Rican teachers turned up to picket and protest SEIU's convention. The teachers union, the Federation de Maestros de Puerto Rico, waged a historic strike earlier this year to stop privatization of their schools, reduce class sizes and raise abysmally low salaries. In doing so, the teachers challenged a new law that made it illegal for public sector workers to strike. The government responded with a vengeance and decertified the teacher's union.

Instead of defending and supporting the teachers, a high-ranking SEIU official met privately with the governor. SEIU then began efforts to organize a new teacher's union since the teachers were now "unorganized."

The teachers took out a full-page newspaper ad that was addressed to SEIU delegates. But the teachers also wanted to talk directly to SEIU members and let them know how the purple machine was behaving in Puerto Rico.

Consigned to a street corner far from the Convention Center, the teachers have twice broken through police lines and marched on SEIU's convention. Despite baton blows and clubbing by the police, these bold actions by the teachers have had their desired effect as SEIU delegates came to their aid, mingled with them on the picket line, protested police brutality, asked questions, invited teachers into their hotels and took the debate inside the convention.