Stern’s dead-end model for unions

October 9, 2008

SERVICE EMPLOYEES International Union (SEIU) is in a huge crisis over the very definition of unionism.

Andy Stern's model sees the union as having many of the same interests as employers. In his view, the way to increase the power of unions is to convince employers that we can " add value." This model is pursued to one degree or another by all the leaders of the union movement--Change to Win and AFL-CIO alike.

SEIU, with its sweetheart deals in return for neutrality agreements, is one of the most extreme proponents of this view. For Stern, what matters is the union's size and dues base, not the improvement of our wages and conditions. "Justice for all" sounds nice, but it really means quantity at the expense of quality.

Stern's model flies in the face of why unions were formed in the first place. The reality is that the interests of workers and bosses are not the same. Employers want to pay workers as little as possible and get as much work out of us as possible. We, as workers, want to raise our wages and benefits. This means cutting into their profits. After all, it is our work that produces their profits.

This is true of the "non-profit" and public sector as well. Workers produce value, and employers want to keep as much of it as possible.

Andy Stern's model of unionism has negative effects on our ability to increase our wages and conditions. If we are to be able to fight the bosses effectively, we need to be prepared to go on strike. When we cut into their profits (or "non-profit" profits), then we can win concessions and stop takeaways. But again, the SEIU leadership consciously undercuts our ability to strike--because it doesn't see a fundamental conflict between workers and bosses.

This has been graphically shown in this election cycle. All across the country, SEIU leaders have diverted already minuscule strike funds into the presidential campaign. SEIU has backed one supposedly pro-labor politician after another. Here in Seattle, rank-and-file leaders of Local 925 opposed this giveaway, but it went through anyway.

Now, the chickens have come home to roost. In spite of the fact that we in Washington state have a Democratic governor, and the state Senate and House are both under Democratic control, we were facing 1.5 percent per year for a cost-of-living adjustment in our latest contract, even as inflation is running at nearly 6 percent a year! And, we were told that the budget is just too tight for these politicians to offer us any more. Our real wages would drop by 9 percent during the life of the contract, even if inflation didn't get worse.

What has been the response of the union staff and officers to this? In a welcome step, they called rallies and started e-mail campaigns, pickets and leafleting. They have worked with other unions who are also negotiating contracts. This is the most unity of any contract campaign in University of Washington history.

All these good actions and new unity, however, don't add up to a winning strategy. Members were angry and some participated in the campaign, but many were reluctant to strike because they understood that the union leadership was not committed to a strategy of striking effectively. This strategy was not given any serious consideration or promotion by the leadership.

The tragedy is that many people in the local, including officers and staff, worked hard to mobilize members for the contract campaign but with little results. The final settlement included raises of only 2.25 percent the first year and 2.25 percent for the second year of the contract--significantly less than inflation, and well below the initial union demand of 13 percent over two years.

We have seen other winning models right here in the Northwest, where 27,000 Boeing members are out on strike and Bellevue teachers just settled a strike with their demands met. Hard work is not a substitute for a winning strategy. A winning strategy would be based on an understanding of the fundamental conflict between bosses and workers. This means rejecting Andy Stern's model of unionism.
Steve Leigh and Erik Wallenberg, SEIU Local 925, Seattle

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