Why the SEIU's Andy Stern is Full of Shit
Let's begin by asking a fair question. If SEIU President Andy Stern is such a shit hot labor leader, why the hell are so many SEIU members trying to get as far away from him and the SEIU as they can?
For the past few years, Stern has been setting himself up as the great messiah of the American labor movement, coming to save mainstream labor from eternal damnation by advocating bigger unionism as a solution to the failure of big unionism. The only problem is that the leaders of the mostly dead movement just won't let the messiah come but that hasn't stopped him from proselytizing about his vision of unionism - an most undemocratic vision, where armies of workers are led by strong leaders to... wherever the hell the leaders want to go.
While pitching his vision with the zeal of a missionary, Stern presents the SEIU as a progressive, reform-oriented union and himself as a tech-savvy new age guy. He's even keeping a blog called fightforthefuture, where he shares his thoughts with whoever's interested in them, frequently criticizing other union leaders while studiously refraining from looking in the mirror himself.
Dogs With A Bone
Stern's ideas about the "retooling" of labour have found favour with the leaders of the democracy-challenged Carpenters, Laborers, Needletrades and Hotel Employees' unions. The capos of those despotic outfits have even formed their own club, the New Unity Partnership (NUP) to advocate their vision of a bigger, stronger, more despotic labour movement run by - them.
So far, Stern's efforts at bringing the AFL-CIO into his posse have fallen flat and he's been getting really pissed off about that - to the point where he recently threatened to pull out of the AFL-CIO.
But while Stern huffs and puffs and threatens to blow the American House 'o Labor down, SEIU members are trying to escape from his house.
Big dog union leaders like Fido McCarron, Rover O'Sullivan and the recently conjoined Spot Wilhelm and Spike Raynor, who have been following Andy's scent like a bunch of hound dogs smelling a sexy bitch might bark at the audacious disloyalty of those ungrateful SEIU members, but we expect as much from guys who get headaches thinking outside of their boxes.
These dogs are panting at the prospect of being the generals in Andy's army where they'll lead legions of machine heads who will lead the great army of labour to wherever-the-hell. Just like they do today - only bigger! But that's the future that his bigness wants to create. Let's talk about the present.
Why are members running away from Andy Stern's great big utopian SEIU?
The SEIU is undemocratic. Some SEIU members want real democracy in their union - the kind that's of, for and by the rank and file. They're just not sold on the idea that handing their voices and their brains over to some self appointed guru who wants to run his union like a business is going to serve their interests. There's just something about being "ruled" by some big dick and having to pay for the privilege that grates on people. Consequently a lot of SEIU members have been trying to flee to the neighbors to escape what passes for representation in the SEIU.
In 2002 hundreds of San Francisco janitors rallied at two separate meetings to discuss the possible decertification from SEIU Local 1877. On August 5, 2004 over 2,000 janitors voted on whether they wanted to leave the SEIU and join the United Service Workers For Democracy Local 87. The decertification attempt was a major embarrassment to President Stern as he advocated reform of the AFL-CIO.
Fearing a loss in this important election, Stern rushed to San Francisco to personally lobby janitors to vote to stay in the SEIU. He and his supporters warned the janitors that if they voted to decertify SEIU Local 1877 no other AFL-CIO unions would support them and that they could lose their pension and healthcare benefits.
Behind the move to decertify was a lengthy battle between the SEIU International and the membership of the San Francisco janitor's local which had been the focus of a legendary organizing drive in the 1990's.
After inducting thousands of them into its progressive fold, the SEIU pushed the elected local president out, placed the local in trusteeship and forced a merger with statewide SEIU Local 1877 onto the rank and filers.
"The trusteeship and merger take away our precious democratic rights and threaten our jobs and wages. Even though members overwhelmingly reject their actions, SEIU is forging ahead with its plan," said Richard Leung, who was ousted as president of Local 87 in the SEIU takeover. "All they care is to raise and collect our union dues while they are busy making backroom deals with employers. As long as we remain in SEIU, we are forced to accept their sellout plan."
There was strong internal opposition from the workers themselves. Many wanted a split from SEIU altogether. Richard Leung, Local 87 President ousted by the trusteeship, led the charge against the merger with "bigger is better" local 1877.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a complaint against the SEIU for threatening San Francisco janitors with the loss of their benefits. The threats, made in handbills and at meetings, were aimed to discourage janitors from signing petitions to decertify SEIU and forming their own independent union. The NLRB complaint alleged that SEIU is "restraining and coercing employees in the exercise of rights guaranteed in Section 7 of the (National Labor Relations) Act in violation of Section 8(b)(1)(A) of the Act."
In a further action, the NLRB issued another complaint against San Francisco's largest janitorial contractor, Able Building Maintenance, for "rendering assistance and support" to the SEIU "by directing its employees to meet, during work time, with representatives of SEIU International" in its campaign against USWD. The Board found that Able Building Maintenance "has been rendering unlawful assistance and support to a labor organization in violation of Section 8(a)(1) and (2) of the Act."
That's Andy Stern's union. This was SEIU Local 87: Local 87 Gets its Broom Dusted.
In the fall of 2004 SEIU was to feel the effects of a major defeat. Service Employees International Union Local 1877 was decertified for the vast majority of San Francisco janitors and a new, independent union, United Service Workers for Democracy Local 87, was certified in its place.
San Francisco janitors working for the largest contractors in the city voted based upon petitions they presented to the NLRB requesting an election. The final tally was:
- 1,698 eligible voters (including part-time and temporary employees)
- 18 void ballots
- 121 challenged ballots
- 573 votes for SEIU Local 1877
- 947 votes for USWD Local 87
This was a major defeat for the SEIU. Why did the janitors run away?
According to a report from The Socialist Worker:
For their part, the janitors' defection was prompted in part by recent concessionary contracts and by the heavy-handed intervention of the international union. In the last two years, the SEIU has removed the elected leadership of the janitors' local, fired the staff, placed the local in trusteeship and forced the local into a merger into the statewide janitors' Local 1877--all over the objections of the membership of Local 87 and without a vote by the rank and file.
Some of the janitors would continue to be represented by SEIU Local 1877 because their units didn't ask the NLRB for a vote, or the petitions did not have enough signatures to meet NLRB requirements.
The strong-arm tactics that the SEIU used against Local 87 weren't unusual. The SEIU pulled the same stunt at San Francisco Local 14, seizing control of the local and forcing a merger with Local 1877 even though the members voted against it. After the merger, SEIU 1877 signed a sweetheart contract allowing their employer to replace workers making $17 an hour and full benefits with workers making $9 an hour and no benefits.
In March 2004 91 percent of full-time employees in 21 counties signed a petition to de-certify Local 250 in favor of the new National Emergency Medical Services Association.
In July 2004, about two dozen emergency medical workers protested against SEIU Local 250, for interfering with their right to choose another union.
"They've used delaying tactics for at least five months," said Torren Colcord, a paramedic in San Joaquin County and president of the National Emergency Medical Services Association, the new group seeking to represent the workers.
The SEIU fought back filing unfair labor charges and a lawsuit.
In September 2004, the SEIU local narrowly averted decertification by nearly 2,400 employees of American Medical Response (AMR), a large national ambulance conglomerate. The escape attempt pitted Local 250 against a newly formed National Emergency Medical Services Association (NEMSA).
The NLRB election resulted in a draw, with the 660 workers voting for the International Association of EMT's & Paramedics and 604 voting to go with the upstart NEMSA. Unknown to many members, Local 250 signed a "service agreement" with the IAEP in August 2004 which enabled it to keep the members in its pocket.
In Canada, who can forget the famous SEIU-CAW matter where, in 2000, some 30,000 SIEU members attempted to flee Andy's union to join the Canadian Auto Workers. Well over half of them made it over the fence by the time the "matter" was settled (secretly, with an exchange of dollars). What prompted them to flee? Huge unresponsive locals, crappy representation, employer-friendly deals and the promise of a dues hike and more bigness (the merger of the existing big locals into a great big regional undemocratic lump) on the horizon. An SEIU spokesthing called the CAW's decision to accept the fleeing members, "like stealing your brother's children".
Larger Pens and Taller Fences
So with members running away and paternalistic officials building better fences, Stern pontificates about the need to build an army of labor and retool the U.S. labor movement based on the premise that bigger is better. His own army will hit 1.8 million by the end of 2004. With all that bigness, he sees larger unions as the as the answer to battling big corporations.
Of course, Stern hasn't explained what the SEIU's current bigness has accomplished for those 1.8 million members or why so many of them seem so damned intent on escaping from his union. Nor has he had much to say about suggestions that a lot of the SEIU's current bloat has come from easy-to-organize public-sector workers in home health aid and child care and not among the hard ass private-sector employers.
From what we can tell, the answers to those questions lie in more bigness - the new big national labor movement advocated by the New Unity Partnership - where existing union members would be herded into 15 big centralized unions run by big strong men each of whom has a big designated turf (jurisdiction) to conquer.
The NUP plan calls for lots of centralization, lots of streamlining, lots of appointments from above--and it consciously advocates less union democracy. Stern recently wrote, "The purpose of union structures is for workers to be able to unite, fight and win together, not make it easier or harder (to) elect or reelect the leaders." Socialist Worker
Andy Stern's labor movement will be just like the SEIU, only bigger, stronger and less democratic!
The abject failure of the current crop of biggie unions to stop the rout of our community by corporate interests and their dogs isn't a factor worth considering. Neither is the suggestion that when workers elect their leaders, it's more likely that those leaders will represent the workers' interests - thus making them stronger. That's one of those abstractions that Andy Stern doesn't have time for. Notwithstanding the mountain of evidence that big unions are undemocratic unions and undemocratic unions are ineffective, corrupt and run by idiots, Stern craps on the idea of union democracy. Here he is crapping on democracy from his fight for my future - oops, that's fight for your future blog:
Workers want their lives to be changed. They want strength and a voice, not some purist, intellectual, historical, mythical democracy. Workers can win when they are united, and leaders who stand in the way of change screaming "democracy" are failing to understand how workers exercise the limited power they have in a country where only 8.2% of the private sector are in unions. They just don't get it!
Stern recently made a commitment of $1 million to fund "a network of workers and communities" to confront the dreaded Wal-Mart (which, according to House o' Labor rules is the ineffective, corrupt United Food and Commercial Workers Union's turf). Is Stern looking to buy a bunch of lost souls - on the cheap? (A million bucks is chump change for a man of his bigness.) What's Stern really after?
Is his bigness trying to poach on the UFCW's turf or is Stern just sniffing around Coco Hansen's butt?
It's a Dog's Life
"I was disappointed,'' Stern said after a recent AFL-CIO gabfest, "that we missed another opportunity to have an honest and frank discussion of how unions need to change in order to make sure that we can impact workers.''
It's just as well. If the last several decades of labor history tell us anything, it's that big undemocratic unions impact workers and keep impacting them, over and over again, with crappy contracts, backroom deals, lousy representation and layers of loyal machine heads who love the leader and dread the world outside the union office walls.
Fortunately, Andy Stern's big NUP is never going to get off the ground. He's pissed off too many other big dicks of labor to ever get the kind of support he needs to make it happen. At best he and his posse will break off and form their own pile of dead wood which will spend most of its time pissing on the AFL-CIO's pile of dead wood. While their respective leaders are busy arguing about whose is bigger, the community of workers can move on.