Which Way Forward for SEIU?

Mark Vorpahl

As it approaches its National Convention in June of 2008, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is the largest union in the U.S., with a reported membership of 1.9 million. It largely organizes home care, health care, home child care, and janitorial workers. While most unions’ growth has stagnated or declined over the last few years, SEIU has reported organizing 900,000 new members into its ranks since 1996, making it quite possibly the fastest growing union in the world

A long-simmering debate has broken into the open with the resignation of Sal Rosselli from SEIU’s Executive Board, President of United Healthcare Workers (UHW) – West, which is SEIU’s single biggest local in California, with 150,000 members. In an interview on Democracy Now, Rosselli said of the differences between himself and SEIU International President Andy Stern: “…the easiest way I can describe it is a bottom-up versus top-down, empowering workers to be in control of their lives, in control of their relationship with their employer versus centralizing control and power among a few in Washington D.C. to control the resources and decision-making authority relationship with these employers.” In the same interview, Rosselli commented on Stern’s approach,:“There’s a – we’re going in the direction of growth at all cost. We’ve lost the needed balance to raise standards of workers with the growth.

Speaking in support of Andy Stern’s leadership on the same program, Dave Regan, President of SEIU District 1199, countered: “…I think honestly that what’s is going on in Sal’s decision to publicly attack the integrity of our union hasn’t a thing to do with democracy and rank-and-file participation. It really is about an agenda, where, truth be told, Sal’s agenda, that because he has not gotten his way in California and in other places, he’s now willing to really just illegitimately attack the rest of us.” Most of Regan’s line throughout the interview was more of the same, accusing Roselli’s criticism’s as an act of disloyalty, claiming they were the product of Rosselli’s own personal agenda, and dismissing the substance of what Rosselli had to say

The stakes in this struggle are potentially very high. For one thing, every SEIU local union is constitutionally required to spend 20 percent of its budget on new organizing. Some International officers want some of that money to be controlled nationally. However, more important, are the questions this debate raises over how SEIU, and the unions in general, are to move forward

Accusations have been flying between the opposing SEIU camps with an alleged “skunk team” being set up by Stern’s staff to discredit Rosselli and his supporters. Beneath the obscuring accusations and organizational maneuvers each camp are at times making against one another, there do in fact appear to be genuine and fundamental differences developing other than a battle for power without any substantial political content. Rosselli accuses President Stern of pursuing growth at any cost, including sacrificing rank and file democracy and better contract conditions when these demands get in the way of the International’s desire to get a contract signed and done with. Rosselli has cited several examples of how the International’s staff made weak deals that favored management behind the backs of local elected bargaining teams, as well as consolidating locals in a manner that denied the smaller locals any serious voice in the process. President Stern’s camp accuses Rosselli’s supporters of being preoccupied with local considerations at the expense of following through with a national strategy for building SEIU, and of being out of touch with what is needed to strengthen unions today.

Both camps have come up with their own platforms to be voted on at the SEIU 2008 National Convention. Rosselli’s is entitled “Our Platform for Change” (OPFC). President Stern’s is named, “Justice for All – Pass It On” (JFA). Both platforms speak to the need to organize the unorganized and developing a national campaign to do so. They also put forward ways to increase membership participation in union activity and the need for SEIU to actively address broader social issues such as health care, immigration reform, and social justice in general.

However, there are also telling areas of divergence. Unlike the JFA platform, the OPFC demands one member, one vote for all contract proposals; for the election of all bargaining committee representatives; and perhaps most importantly, for the election of all International union officers. If SEIU is going to build from its success, members need to understand that the union is their own, through the most consistent democratic practices possible. The OPFC’s proposal is a step in the right direction. We submit that it could go even further in returning to the traditions when the unions were growing in the 1930s by calling for the right of the membership to recall its leadership when necessary and insisting that union officers make no more then the average skilled worker plus vetted expenses. The membership should also be able to democratically determine SEIU’s national political policies.

The OPFC document also opposes election agreements that divide the workforce and empower the employers to limit full collective bargaining rights. It aims to “establish employer relations from a position of strength.” This is clearly in response to what Rosselli’s supporters see as President Stern’s willingness to sacrifice solid benefits for a given workforce for the sake of making a deal with management.If a union is not able to win solid gains for its membership in the form of higher wages, better benefits, and stronger work rules, its membership will have little motivation in trying to strengthen and expand the union

Without the ability to strike, there would be no unions. Strikes are our strongest weapon when demanding what is rightfully ours. While the JFA platform neglects to say anything about the use of strikes, the OPFC calls to “develop a real national strike fund with significant benefits.” Such a policy empowers SEIU’s fighting ability which is the best way of encouraging more workers to join

Significantly, in contrast to the current practice of President Andy Stern, who was at the helm when SEIU left the AFL-CIO, the OPFC calls to “build unity, rather than divide the labor movement, including the possibility of a new, unified labor organization that includes SEIU, AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and other non-affiliated unions.” The split between the AFL-CIO and CTW was largely the result of conflicts at the top without any democratic input from the rank and file. The OPFC approach could represent a real step forward to correct this undemocratic split and strengthen the labor movement as a whole

While both the OPFC and JFA platforms put forward broader political demands that affect workers, neither do so in a way that threatens to break the Democratic Party’s stranglehold on organized labor. In fact, the JFA calls to “put even more emphasis on holding public officials accountable to the promises they made when running for office.” In practice this would translate into further millions of dollars in union dues and untold hours of volunteer and staff time going into trying to reform the Democratic Party. It would be easier to turn lead into gold than to expect this capitalist institution to respect the rights and needs of workers. If SEIU wants a real say at the political table we would do better to run our own candidates and work with other unions to found a labor party in opposition to the Democrats and Republicans.

Insofar as the OPFC current puts forward demands for greater and more consistent union democracy within SEIU, stronger contracts, a bigger national strike fund, and stronger unity between all the unions, it represents a progressive current that could attract the most militant SEIU members. As things stand now, the OPFC current is a minority facing an uphill battle. However, it is in the interests of all SEIU members that there be a chance for a full democratic discussion on all the issues at hand at SEIU’s 2008 June Convention. If SEIU is to march forward as a unified, growing force in the workers’ movement, its membership must be fully informed and actively involved in deciding the future direction of this important union.

Tags: ,

Mark Vorpahl is a unionist and anti-war activist and writer for Workers Action. He may be reached at portland@workerscompass.org