Taking on the purple machine

June 17, 2008

Larry Bradshaw, a paramedic for the San Francisco Fire Department, has been a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for more than 15 years. He reports on the crisis in the SEIU in the wake of the union's convention.

THIS YEAR, I was elected by my co-workers to be a delegate to the SEIU International Convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I have been asked to share my experiences and my thoughts on that convention.

When I was checking out of my very expensive hotel in San Juan (paid for with member dues), I ran into some folks who work for the SEIU International office in Washington, D.C. We compared our experiences, and after talking with the staffers, it sounded and felt like we had attended two different conventions.

And in a sense, we did. I aligned myself with a newly emerging rank-and-file, pro-democracy group, SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today, better known by its acronym, SMART--whereas the staff worked for the big purple machine (the administration of SEIU President Andy Stern). I think that's why we experienced the convention so differently.

In the lead-up to the convention, we read in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Seattle Times and San Francisco Chronicle about secret "SEIU-employer partnerships," in which our union signs deals that let the employers decide who is to be organized by our union, and how.

Puerto Rico teachers picket the SEIU convention held in San Juan in June 2008, in protest of the U.S. union siding with the island's union-busting governor
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

Deals in which the boss gets to decide which workers at which facilities get to be "organized." Deals in which the union agrees not to organize a majority of an employer's workers, and where the union agrees to "disavow" rank and file organizers who "jump the gun" and try to organize without permission of the boss.

Deals in which the union promises not to make disparaging remarks about the employer, and to encourage its members not to engage in "adverse reporting to regulatory bodies." Deals in which the union lobbies the state legislatures for more money for the employers, with no guarantee of how much will go into the pockets of the workers. Deals so secret that the union signs confidentiality agreements requiring SEIU to "disavow" their existence.

The SMART delegates came to question, challenge and debate the direction in which Andy Stern is taking SEIU. The staff, however, was there to defend the status quo, quell dissent, rally support for the Stern machine and stifle real debate. Consequently, the convention assumed an "us versus them" atmosphere.

For most of us aligned with SMART, it was our first SEIU international convention. Consequently, "we" were rag-tag, clumsy and easily outmaneuvered. "They" were a slick, highly disciplined and well-oiled machine.

"They" spoke with authority, confidence and an air of entitlement. "We" were nervous and hesitant--and sometimes, our voices cracked when we spoke from the convention floor. But when we did get called upon by the chair, we spoke from the heart, with determination, enthusiasm and anger.

"They" prattled on endlessly about "member involvement." But in SEIU, the term "member" has been stripped of all meaning. Almost anyone in SEIU can be a member, including staff and appointed officers. But being a "staff member" is not the same as putting in 40-plus hours a week as a janitor, working the floor as a nurse, performing maintenance on equipment or taking care of someone with psychiatric or medical needs in the patient's own home. "We" continually inserted the adjective "rank and file" in front of "member."

"They" set the agenda, chose the speakers, gave the presentations and dominated much of the discussion time. Their stage managers carefully choreographed and controlled the proceedings. "We" dutifully lined up at the microphones to speak from the convention floor, often to be passed over or ignored.

"They" won every motion, resolution, constitutional amendment and procedural question. The only vote "we" came close to winning was a motion to extend one discussion by 15 minutes. The chair granted our request when it became clear that a roll call vote, moved by our side, would take longer to carry out than the 15-minute extension.

"They" resembled an army with their headsets and vests, and constantly speaking into their walkie-talkies. Indeed, there was an army of staff arrayed against us. "We" did not have a single headset, vest or walkie-talkie. But we knew how to text message, and we did so from morning to night.

"They" used block votes and ran on slates. "We" called for "one member, one vote"--the direct election of top officers by the union rank and file. "They" were well rehearsed and polished. "Our" inexperience hindered, but did not hide, the simple eloquence of our call to let the members decide.

"We" came to San Juan wanting to shake things up. On the surface, "they" appeared to prevail--they won everything. But appearances can be deceiving. Our little motley band of union reformers and rank-and-file dreamers succeeded in starting a debate inside the largest union in North America. We put forward an alternative vision of trade unionism, one for and by the rank and file.

THE LAST item of business was the election of international officers. The "Stern Team" swept the elections. But the results showed something else as well. Fifteen rank and file candidates ran on a platform of "elect at least one rank and file member to the International Executive Board."

SEIU is not used to contested elections. Instead of the usual "elected by acclamation," the "roll call committee" now had a real job--to count votes. The purple machine suddenly faltered. We waited minutes...that turned into hours and days until we got a final tally.

Previously unknown and politically unconnected, rank-and-file workers garnered between 4 percent and 16 percent of the vote! Remember, this was a vote of convention delegates, a self-selected group of "members" who tend to be pro-administration. If we had direct election of international officers, the vote tallies would be radically different. We might even have some rank-and-file workers on the International Executive Board.

Suddenly, everything seemed possible. The mood lightened. On the final day, as we waited for the election results, many delegates, who had previously ostracized and shunned us, now came up to thank us for being there, for speaking up. Many secretly confessed that they agreed with a lot of what SMART said and what we stood for.

"We" had put a dent in the big purple machine.

I have tried to resist using the David and Goliath analogy because David won in the end. We did not win, by any stretch of the imagination. But some little SMART members did have an impact on the Stern Goliath.

The mighty Davids (and Danielles) of SEIU work in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and local and state governments. They clean buildings, run mass transits systems, and much more. When they hear what some SMART workers achieved at the convention, they're going to take notice.

"We" came out of the SEIU convention emboldened, stronger, more experienced and with new connections across the country.

Look out, Purple Goliath!

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