Labor at war with itself?

May 25, 2011

Jenna Woloshyn, a member of Teamsters Local 70 in Oakland, Calif., looks at a book chronicling labor as it confronts economic crisis and its self-inflicted wounds.

TURF WARS, power grabs, political wrangling, emotional manipulation, unnecessary trusteeships and a ridiculous experiment to replace stewards with call centers are all part of the Service Employee International Union's (SEIU) missteps in recent years. This causes labor activists to ponder the question: With union bureaucrats like these, who needs the bosses?

In 2005, Andy Stern, then president of the SEIU, led his organization, along with six other major unions, out of the AFL-CIO to form a new labor coalition, called Change to Win (CTW). The aim of CTW, it's founders said, was to organize the unorganized. Some likened CTW to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, which led to a boom of union organizing.

But the talk turned to more of an embarrassed whisper before too long. Steve Early's bookThe Civil Wars in U.S. Labor helps to explain why.

One major obstacle to organizing the unorganized is anti-union labor law. Early recounts an SEIU attempt to organize nurses at a hospital in Maine through a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) vote. He details the anti-union campaign of the hospital and shows how an NLRB vote can be undermined every step of the way by management.

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)

SEIU lost this vote. But even when unions win, employers can delay a first contract, sometimes for years, through appeals and legal objections.

These difficulties have led SEIU, and many other unions, to look for ways to avoid NLRB elections when organizing. In some cases, this means negotiating some kind of employer "neutrality" towards the union during organizing drives. But SEIU, under Stern, took the idea behind labor-management cooperation to whole new levels in its bid to show employers how unthreatening the union could be.

FOR SOME employers, SEIU agreed not only to wage and benefit concessions but to no-strike provisions for 10 years in order to have neutrality at the employers' non-union sites. And if the employer wasn't keen on a 100 percent unionized workforce, the SEIU allowed the employer to choose which site was to be organized and which was to remain untouched.

Some SEIU contracts even allowed subcontracting of a percentage of the workforce and other provisions that undermined job security. The San Francisco Weekly reported that "model contracts in California prevented SEIU members from reporting 'health care violations to state regulators, to other public officials, or to journalists except in cases where the employees are required by law to report egregious cases of neglect and abuse.'"

Such bargains caused many labor activists to attack SEIU for being a "company union." This disagreement came to a head in 2008 when an Ohio hospital chain, Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP), filed a petition for an NLRB election, an unprecedented move for an employer. The more progressive California Nurses Association (CNA), believing the SEIU-CHP partnership to be detrimental to the entire labor movement, sent its own organizers from the National Nurses Organizing Committee to stir things up.

With another--non-employer approved--union in the mix, CHP pulled its petition with the NLRB and the hospitals remain non-union. In retaliation, the SEIU launched an intimidation campaign against the CNA, including a busload of purple-clad members led to an old-guard Teamster-style attack on a 2008 Labor Notes convention that CNA officials were participating in.

If SEIU's strategy for successful unions is labor-management cooperation, then you can't have pesky rank-and-file agitation among your membership. Thus, Stern told the Wall Street Journal that he wanted to develop "a new model [of unionism] less focused on individual grievances, more focused on industry needs." This model included merging many locals together to create super locals, putting any local that resisted under trusteeship, and by replacing local stewards with call centers.

While Early always makes clear that he stands on the side of union democracy against union bureaucracy, he includes quotes from both sides and creates a full picture of the situations that he reports on.

According to an SEIU report titled Union of the Future, by then secretary-treasurer Anna Burger, the union was on track to build a "rosy future in which members would be 'so strongly supported' by call centers that stewards and field staff could then 'focus on building the union: identifying and developing leaders; organizing around workplace issues; fighting for better contracts, uniting more workers, and winning politically and in the community.'"

The reality, however, turned out to be quite the opposite. Members reported calling in to centers hundreds of miles away from their shop floor and talking with people unfamiliar with the contract. That's a major retreat from traditional workplace union representation.

To cite a personal example: when I started my job as a driver for UPS, I quickly learned the importance of having trained stewards at the workplace who know the contract and can help protect workers on the job. In my first evaluation with a supervisor, I was asked to sign a paper that went over my "strengths and areas of improvement." Before I could even move toward the pen, my steward said, "She refuses to sign."

These small and sometimes subtle protections from daily management harassment make a difference in the lives of union workers.

Enforcing a contract can't be done from call centers. It takes an understanding of the individual workplace and types of harassment that occur on a daily basis. That kind of protection can only come from the workers empowered to stand up for themselves with the backing of a union. It's no wonder why so many SEIU members felt abandoned after the implementation of call centers.

THE CIVIL Wars in U.S. Labor not only chronicles the corruption and nefarious twists and turns of politically bankrupt--and sometimes corrupt--union bureaucrats, but also the folks who fought back. Early's close association with labor activists allows the reader a unique view into the tactics used at every level to oppose the moves by the International that were not in tune with the membership.

One of the most significant acts of resistance to Stern's agenda was led by Sal Rosselli, once head of the SEIU-affiliated United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW). When Rosselli started to speak out against Stern's backroom dealing with then-California Gov. Schwarzenegger, the International moved in January 2009 to put the UHW under trusteeship. This allowed Stern to replace the elected leadership with appointees of his own.

Despite a courageous battle that included mass rallies of UHW rank and file against the trusteeship, Stern prevailed, causing Rosselli to join with other ousted UHW leaders and ex-SEIU members to form a new union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). The NUHW has since had both successes and failures in its struggles against SEIU, and is currently challenging the result of NLRB vote at Kaiser Permanente on the basis that SEIU collaborated with Kaiser to prevent a fair election.

In chronicling the SEIU vs. NUHW conflict, Early is attempting to answer the question he asks at the heart of this book: "What type of union structure keeps leaders at every level more connected to members at the base?" What union provides a better way forward for labor?

This question has implications far beyond Stern and SEIU. While Early focuses on SEIU's last decade, he also draws on historical references to past union "civil war" battles to allow the reader to understand the union bureaucracy in historical context. This points toward the conclusion that the union membership can never become complacent and simply depend on the leadership to do what's right. Even leaders with good intentions and progressive rhetoric may steer a union in the wrong direction if they're isolated from the membership.

By learning the recent history highlighted in The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, rank-and-file union activists can gain a better understanding of the fact that achieving union democracy isn't limited to voting for the best officials. It's about having an engaged membership.

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