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

Monday, March 01, 2010

SEIU: Cracks in the Foundation? 

Finally, some members of SEIU are rebelling against the autocratic trade unionism of Andrew Stern:

In a striking blow to SEIU’s national leadership, the reform “Change 1021” slate defeated Stern appointees and won all of the major offices and near total control of the Executive Board. It was the first election since SEIU’s International Executive Board merged ten California locals into one three years ago, creating one of the union’s largest primarily public employee locals. Longtime SEIU reformer Roxanne Sanchez won the top position of President in a landslide (3054-1458), Sin Yee Poon defeated Stern appointee Damita Davis-Howard 2141 to 1445 for the key position of Chief Elected Officer (akin to Executive Director), and controversial incumbent James Bryant was defeated by Alysabeth Alexander for Political Action Chair.

The one-sided outcome follows staggering SEIU defeats at Santa Rosa Memorial and Kaiser Sunset Hospitals, and reflects growing worker opposition to SEIU’s increasingly top-down, undemocratic approach. SEIU 1021 will now become part of the growing movement toward more democratic unionism in California, joining UNITE HERE, NUHW and other unions in promoting this trend. As Sanchez put it after the victory, “workers will now have real power in this organization that they did not have before.”

While SEIU 1021’s reform slate was expected to do well, few anticipated an electoral tidal wave that would sweep out of office the entire team SEIU President Andy Stern appointed to leadership over three years ago. Campaign reports indicated widespread member hostility toward SEIU’s leadership, with many members not voting in the election – only 5360 ballots were cast out of 42,000 eligible – because they lacked hope in the prospect for change.

Well, the times are about to be changing at SEIU 1021. The winning slate will not be content rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic; this is a veteran group that knows that SEIU 1021’s success requires bottom-up, democratic unionism, and it will not deviate from its mission to empower workers. (Disclosure: Both newly-elected President Sanchez and Political Action Chair Alexander are employees of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which I head and is the publisher of Beyond Chron.)

It is hard to overstate the importance of this. SEIU is the largest union in the US, with a top down, corporatized model of unionism that operates not only to the detriment of its members, but to the interests of workers generally. A revitalized SEIU could serve as a center of resistance to the predations of capital within the US economy, and shatter the political duopoly in Washington, D. C. But, while we are from from that today, we have some cause for optimism, an optimism that had no factual basis six months ago.

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