It appears that the SEIU declension from democratic unionism is present in many locals. I am a member of SEIU 888 in the city of Boston. Here in Massachusetts, we have seen top notch organizers forced to resign or resign due to the direction of SEIU 888. We have been burdened with appointed officers and staff representatives whose loyalty is clearly with the NUP agenda at the expense of on the ground basis issues that affect employees. This declension affected me recently in a case that I had filed against the city of Boston for violation of our CBA with regard to a lateral bypass grievance. Below is a summary of my experience with this ramification of the putative NUP remedy for the organizational and political fecklessness of unions at the national, state and municipal level. They have not convinced me or others.
The principle of union democracy can be seriously undermined by the large scale objectives of programs like the New Unity Program. Yet, union locals operating as disparate units can also be problematic. "Too much" democracy" can pave the way for inconsistent policies and competitive struggles between locals that can obfuscate the objectives of a national united struggle against management. However, SEIU appears to be poised toward the grand scheme at the expense of fundamental issues affecting its members.
I had a disheartening experience with in my Local SEIU 888 which perhaps reflects the New Unity agenda. When my Local was SEIU 285, there was a sense that the Local was there to work with us to confront management when required. In previous years, I had been successful in 2 previous promotion and lateral bypass grievances with the city of Boston. In the highly politicized atmosphere of the public sector in Boston, job opportunities are more often than not predicated on one's political connections. If one can hold a sign in the air, they might obtain a position. This is one of the primary reasons that our union was organized in 1992.
Two weeks ago, my Local refused to proceed with a third such bypass grievance that was filed on my behalf. According to my steward and other knowledgeable people in my union, this case was unquestionably formidable and should have proceeded to arbitration. Right from the initial filing of my Step 1 in Jan. 2004, it was clear that my Local did not wish to pursue this grievance.
I noticed remarks from the union representative that suggested a lack of a bold commitment to proceed forward. At the Step 3 hearing, this union representative was seriously unprepared and had to rely on information that I provided to present the case.
Two weeks ago, I was afforded the opportunity to appeal the case before an Arbitration Appeals Committee that consisted of the Boston Chapter Chairs. It turns out that this hearing was little more than a charade. The union representative argued the case for not proceeding to arbitration and my steward and I presented our case.
The Chapter Chairs who work closely with union representative in other union issues were expected to render an impartial decision. We determined immediately the lack of receptivity to our case, however compelling the evidence we presented. These folks were not about to stray from the Local's position.
I believe that the strict vertical structure that exemplifies the New Unity program affects policies that the Union must initiate in confronting management. In the fall of 2003, there was another case remarkably similiar to mine that was also prevented from proceeding forward by the Local leaders. A long time and well respected steward opined to me that Local 888 did not want to spend the necessary expenses that a possible arbitration would require.
I was appalled at hearing this, but it appears the only reasonable explanation of the Local's reluctance to proceed with these cases. Perhaps SEIU would rather spend its resources on its grandiose organizing plan. If this is the case, it is a disgrace. In the City of Boston, union member's lives depend significantly on their union's ability to prevent management from capriciously doling out positions. By not proceeding with these 2 cases, a dismal message has been sent to already disgruntled members.
Having "thousands of shop stewards" is an admirable objective. However, if the dominant attitude is that the Local operates without encouraging the stewards to lead the way in organizing and decision making, then a million stewards is useless. The operative policy ought to be that the union member is afforded the benefit of the doubt in any issue with management. Our Local 888 appears to take the opposite position-retreat and save money.
Our Local is operating without a constitution with an appointed president and staff. Last year I was requested to resurrect our departmental newsletter that had been successful in past years. After several meetings with the outside person in charge of such communications at Local 888, it was clear that our autonomy would be severely circumscribed. I submitted an introductory editorial that mentioned we would be having elections to determine our president and staff in the future. This information was censored as well as other references that could be characterized as militant. I politely refused to produce the newsletter under these conditions. We see the process that is now dominating our Local. Union democracy is marginalized and union bureaucrats contemptuously decide issues without including members. When dissent is restricted and viewed as heresy, the spirit of a union is crushed.
We have had several key individuals on the union staff resign over the direction of Local 888. The climate of a strict vertical structure presupposes that members are excluded from most union decisions. Perhaps Brother Stern may be correct that there are not as many committed people who will step in and assume the roles of steward activists. However, if the Local capitulates to the natural apathy that characterizes many work places today, then they contribute to that apathy. Union officials must encourage member involvement and empowerment at every reasonable level.
Reprinted with permission of the author.