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

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

SEIU and the Prospects for a Progressive Movement in the US 

At at time in which the financial sector of the US is receiving trillions of dollars in federal assistance, much of it deficit financed, and millions of Americans are on track to get foreclosed out of their homes, you'd think that the Service Employees International Union, commonly known as SEIU, would have something better to do:

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) wants its members to believe that their union is just like the alluring but ultimately nightmarish hostelry immortalized by The Eagles. It’s a place of permanent imprisonment only "programmed to receive" workers and their dues money, not let either go elsewhere when the rhetoric of “progressive unionism” wears thin and the rank-and-file becomes restive. According to proprietor Andy Stern, once you’ve checked into SEIU, you can never leave.

Tens of thousands of Stern’s disgruntled “guests,” who work in west coast health care facilities, are about to disprove this claim. Their bags are packed and they’re headed out the door of Stern’s “Hotel California,” as soon as federal (or local) labor law permits. After a bruising internal battle—in which an estimated ten million dollars of their own money was used by Stern to undermine and attack them—rank-and-filers in Oakland-based United Healthcare Workers (UHW) have formed a new union of their own. Launched on January 28, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) is seeking to retain bargaining rights long held by UHW, until Stern placed it under trusteeship the day before.

Workers made a collective decision to flee SEIU after the long-threatened take-over of its third-largest affiliate. As previously reported in CounterPunch, Stern began brandishing this club last March. When UHW had the audacity to question SEIU’s management-friendly approach to health care organizing, bargaining, and politics, the SEIU president launched a multi-faceted counter-insurgency campaign. Now, several hundred out-of-state SEIU staffers have been dispatched to California as a full-time occupation force. At huge expense to the union treasury, their mission is to replace 100 elected UHW leaders, purge UHW’s own 500-member staff, seize the local’s offices and assets, and inform employers that they should no longer deal with UHW representatives about any labor-management issues. According to Stern, this highly disruptive intervention in a well-functioning local is necessary “to restore democratic procedures” and “protect the members’ interest.” After “UHW has been stabilized”—which could take 18 months to three years, based on past SEIU practice—“elections for new officers will be held.”

Sal Roselli, the President of United Healthcare Workers-West, recently explained the dispute from his perspective:

A couple of years ago, Andy Stern decided that he wanted to control the relationship between our nursing home employers, be able to establish top-down sweetheart deals that sacrificed workers’ rights and the ability of workers to advocate for their patients. Our members stood in the way of that, decided that we weren’t going to stand for it, resisted it, and ever since then, he’s been trying to force these workers out of our union.

During 2008, in multiple different ways, our members have demonstrated in a very democratic way that they want to stay united with the hospital workers in our union. Third-party-supervised democratic secret ballot votes, over 95 percent of our members voting to stay united with hospital workers in our union, are being dismissed.

Last month, Andy Stern conducted a bogus vote, where 309,000 SEIU healthcare workers in California received a ballot with two choices: one, to force the long-term care members out of our union, where he would appoint the leaders of this new union, or two, dissolve our union altogether, merge all healthcare workers in California into one union, and he would appoint the leaders of this new union. Our leadership decided to boycott this vote, because they were both false choices. Out of 309,000 ballots mailed out, only 24,000 folks voted, and that was with huge resources to get people to vote. So only eight percent of the folks voted. Andy Stern declares that’s union democracy, the workers have spoken, they want a separate union of long-term care workers in California. And that’s the issue before his executive board today, to take that vote to create a new union and force these long-term care members out of our union.

And ironically, while this is all happening, our union has been settling contracts with these national for-profit nursing home employers that have realized the dreams of our nursing home workers for over the last fifteen years, including acute hospital standards that we’ve been fighting for: third-party resolution of staffing disputes; stronger language for workers, healthcare workers, to advocate for their patients than exist anywhere else in the country; and good wages and benefits to stabilize the work force in nursing homes. Simultaneously, Andy Stern’s trustee in southern California is settling with these same employers, compromising collective bargaining rights for the workers, compromising the workers’ ability to advocate for their patients.

In a similar episode, SEIU was defeated in its attempt to push Puerto Rico teachers into a management friendly union closely connnected to Puerto Rican Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila. SEIU is centered around a model of business unionism, a model whereby favorable relationships with employers so as to increase membership are valued more than the interests of the members themselves. Last April, SEIU members shouted down speakers and attacked some participants at a Labor Notes conference in Dearborn, Michigan, because Rose Ann DeMoro, the Executive Director of the California Nurses Association, was scheduled to speak. In some instances, CNA and SEIU compete for members, and CNA is generally known for a more politically assertive, more independent approach.

Meanwhile, SEIU, along with the AFL-CIO, is backing a health care plan that may bury the prospects of implementing a single payer system in the US. For those of you who are interested, there are numerous sources of additional information associated with these internal labor disputes available over the Internet. My purpose here is to highlight the enormous challenge we face in bringing about progressive change in this country. If SEIU, the self-described largest and fastest growing union in North America, is primarily interested in consolidating power through deals with management that disempower its members, and is willing to expend significant resources to defeat those within the union who object, then how can we expect to create a movement that will transform our society for the better?

It will certainly be very difficult. Historically, labor unions have played an essential role in support of civil rights and labor rights, and have, in some instances, participated in antiwar movements as well. Because of their financial and organizational resources and their increasingly diverse membership, they can elevate the visibility of any issue with which they associated themselves. They are, quite literally, with the possible exceptions of ACORN and immigrants rights groups, the only organizations in the US with the capability of organizing a significant part of the middle and lower classes around an agenda of progressive social and economic change.

During the fall presidential campaign, my liberal Democratic friends insisted that the election of Obama would ignite a new progressivism. I saw no prospects then, as I see no prospects now, for such a development. As James Petras wrote recently about South America in relation to the political consequences of the global recession: . . . . we are in an unstable period where both capitalism and socialism are weak. The question becomes which side will be able to intervene, reorganize and recompose its forces to take advantage of the other. As long as unions like SEIU insist upon focusing their efforts upon internal factional disputes, the answer to this question, at least in regard to the US, is not a promising one.

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