Taking our union back in Seattle

October 22, 2014

Steve Leigh reports on a fight by members of Service Employees International Union Local 6 to win free and fair elections.

THERE'S A rebellion going on in Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 6.

Some 100 union reform supporters rallied on October 18 to voice their dissatisfaction with the 12-year presidency of Sergio Salinas who they say doesn't adequately represent them and retaliates against members who oppose his leadership.

The two main issues for members of Local 6, which represents some 4,000 janitors in Washington state, are a free and fair election with all the candidates being allowed to run and the need for new leadership that will really fight for the members.

During a Local 6 union nomination meeting on October 11, candidates who weren't on Salinas' slate were locked out of the union office. The local's election committee also announced that it was barring Amelia Vassar, the opposition candidate for local president, from running for office, along with three other reform candidates--an exclusion that the reform slate is appealing to the SEIU International.

Vassar has been an organizer with Local 6 for over two years, and in that time, she has processed more than 400 grievances. Over that time, she became more and more frustrated with the lack of support from the union leadership in that capacity. The current leadership removed her from handling grievances because she was being too aggressive for the members.

Members of SEIU Local 6 rally for union democracy
Members of SEIU Local 6 rally for union democracy

After she declared she would be an opposition candidate, Salinas fired Vassar from her union staff position for "demonstrated disloyalty to the leadership of the local." Amelia is filing a complaint over this firing, noting that loyalty to the leadership is not a specified job requirement. She further responded, "My loyalty is with, and will remain with, the members of Local 6."

AT THE October 18 rally, other unions and community groups, including the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the People of Color Caucus, joined reform supporters in the Local 6 parking lot to protest. Several members spoke about the lack of help they receive from the union and why they need a change.

Nur Abdishakur, a reform candidate for secretary-treasurer, described the current conditions for janitors. "We don't take breaks or lunch. In the last 12 years, the workload has gone way up with no help from the local," said Abdishakur. "There has been sexual harassment. Sergio has had a good time on our money! Let's go change the union."

What you can do

Call the SEIU International offices at 202-730-7684 and leave a message telling them we need free and fair elections at Local 6.

Claude, from the People of Color Caucus and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, explained how this fight fit into the broader class struggle today. "Corporate America is gloating because unions are self-destructing," he said, adding, "The right to vote is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. That applies to unions as well. What's happening in Local 6 is dictatorship, nepotism and hypocrisy."

Mike Ladd, a janitor at American Building Maintenance Company in Tacoma, Wash., and reform candidate for executive board, said:

This is an affront to our rights as workers. We have been ignored and blown off. A good organizer was fired. Good shop stewards have been blacklisted. We pay our dues for liberation, not oppression. Union leaders should be here to support us, not rule over us like kings and queens. Sergio has been cutting deals with the bosses. We ask Sergio, "When is the last time you cleaned a toilet?" We need to take our union back."

Amelia Vassar explained her motivation for running for local president:

I worked at Local 6 for two and a half years in contract enforcement. I learned there are employers I'm not allowed to fight. I learned that some members are dispensable. What I learned is that we were only supposed to do the bare minimum for the members--only enough to avoid legal problems for the union.

Retaliation by union leaders is also a big problem. One member was asked to circulate a petition in support of the current secretary-treasurer. She refused. She was forced by the company to change her shift from days to graveyard. When she asked the company why, she was told by her supervisor that the union had told the company to force the shift change.

Another member was told to clean a floor without electricity. The only light she had was her cell phone. On December 20, 2013, she fell and got hurt at work. The union leaders discouraged me from going to her hearing. Another member was assaulted by her supervisor at work, and the union didn't take up her case. This is not what we have a union for.

The election will be on December 2. The members at the rally were determined to make sure that all the candidates will be on the ballot--and they're confident the reform slate can win and help revitalize the union.

Further Reading

From the archives