'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, March 15, 2010

Escape from the Service Employees International Union 

Yesterday morning, I put my young son in the car seat, and traveled down to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco to go to the 15h Annual Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair, purportedly one of the largest, if not the largest, in the United States. Fortunately, we missed the cayenne pepper pie assault upon an anti-vegan speaker on Saturday. My son decided that he didn't like the 2:00 p.m. Cafe panel discussion on Prospects for Winning in an Age of Crisis, and he eventually hit upon the successful strategy of playfully screaming to force me to take him out of the building and out into the adjacent arboretum. Perhaps, the panelists would have benefitted from contact with him, as he seems to be quite skilled at both winning and taking advantage of crises, many of which that he creates.

You have to give the anarchists credit for their commitment to the importance of propagandizing and education through book publishing and distribution at a time when both have been overwhelmed by television and the Internet. Anarchism has always been firmly rooted in the Enlightenment, and its proponents act upon their belief that people are capable of ruling themselves without hierarchy by ceaselessly seeking to persuade them of it. Given that anarchists are smaller in number than Marxist-Leninists and liberals, and that they, unlike the others, lack access to the resources of academia, their achievements in disseminating works of radical history and theory is all the more remarkable. Having always been outside the system, so to speak, they appear to have adapted to the current neoliberal environment more easily than Marxist-Leninists who indirectly relied upon substantial state support through universities and public media to reach the public.

But I digress. My son grew tired, and I was able to attend a 4:00 p.m. Cafe panel on the organizing efforts of the National Union of Healthcare Workers ("NUHW") while he slept. Having followed this effort closely, I was interested in hearing what the people involved had to say about it. The moderator of the panel was Cal Winslow, the author of a small, but compelling, book about the struggle of California health care workers to escape the Service Employees International Union ("SEIU") through the creation of their own union, Labor's Civil War in California: The NUHW Healthcare Workers' Rebellion (you may have to scroll the down the page for the description of it). The panelists were Angela Glasper, founder NUHW, Kaiser, Antioch, Maya Morris, NUHW, St. Francis Hospital and Peter Tappeiner, volunteer organizer, NUHW.

All three of them, but especially Glasper and Morris, related their frustration and the frustration of their co-workers as it became evident that SEIU no longer represented them, and collaborated with their employers to take away hard won rights in the workplace. For example, according to Glasper, seniority is no longer respected in regard to assignments, as SEIU and Kaiser allow managers to play favorites among their employees. Kaiser is also laying off workers despite having recently made substantial profits. SEIU undermines the collective bargaining agreements of members by perpetually entering into precedential side agreements without their knowledge, or, if the the issue does become known, despite member opposition. It is not uncommon for managers to disregard the concerns of employees by responding, All I need to do is take it to SEIU. Such actions, over the course of time, water down contract protections which can then be memorialized in the next collective bargaining agreement.

As the conflict erupted, SEIU and health care employers engaged in surveillance and intimidation of workers associated with the attempt to replace SEIU with NUHW. Glasper described how she is followed around her workplace daily by numerous people, some managers, some co-workers, as they search for any reason to write her up. She has also received threatening phone calls: You're dead. Morris was denied work for 16 months. All three panelists, Tappeiner, Glasper and Morris, emphasized that California health care workers want a union that operates democratically from the bottom up instead of from the top down.

Unfortunately, the panel was not as well attended as it should have been, becauise the Book Fair scheduled it against an appearance by Ward Churchill in the adjacent auditorium. But one of the more interesting moments came when someone inquired about the potential for NUHW to lead the fight for single payer health care as well as more generally challenging the current neoliberal climate. He received a sincere, polite response, although I thought the question was unfair in its scope. After all, he seemed to implicitly suggest that it was responsibility of the workers within NUHW to lead this fight. Why?

Now, I understand the centrality of trade unionism within Marxism and anarchism, but to place such a burden upon workers stuggling to obtain their own union representation struck me as a little extreme. NUHW workers and organizers are fighting against SEIU and their employers to gain a voice in their workplace. That's a pretty tall order. Furthermore, if they succeed, they will have to build a union from the ground up by creating democratic structures that induce participation on the shop floor. They will have to negotiate new contracts, protect the rights obtained through them and defend their memberfs against grievances. Of course, many in the NUHW have a lot of experience doing this, but it still requires a great effort. The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that a movement towards the socialization of the US economy will require, as a precondition, the empowerment of workers within the workplace, and experience in making collective decisions. Assuming, of course, that external events don't force it upon us more rapidly.

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