Rising Debate Shakes America's Largest Union

Wednesday, 13 August 2008 13:57 By David Bacon and Warren Mar, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

Rising Debate Shakes America
UHW members protest SEIU decision to separate certain health care workers from UHW. (Photo: Stefano Paltera / AP)

    The Service Employees International Union is now the largest union in the U.S. labor movement. It is in many ways a success story - one of the few unions that have grown despite one of the most union-hostile administrations in recent history. But inside SEIU, a growing debate questions the price paid for that growth, and debate also is growing over how much to concede to employers in return for greater ability to organize new workers.

    This is a very important debate. The same issues exist and are hotly discussed in almost every union. Progressive organizations outside of labor, and people who want a political change in direction for the country, have a stake in the outcome of this debate as well. If unions can't organize workers much faster than they have in the past, they will become politically irrelevant. A weakened labor movement will make it more difficult for progressive candidates to win elections, to achieve new laws raising living standards and protecting civil rights, and to guarantee the jobs and income that are the bedrock of healthy communities.

    Unions are also being forced, however, into concessions on the very standards that make workers want to join them. This dilemma affects every union. For that reason, across the labor movement workers and activists are watching closely as the debate within SEIU unfolds. Increasingly, they are participating in the debate themselves. It's outcome will have an impact as great as the debates within the Democratic Party over the war.

    The Conflict Begins in California

    In mid-2007, nursing home and hospital workers held a one-day convention at the Oakland Marriott hotel. At its high point, hundreds of members of United Healthcare Workers West broke into cheers, as leaders of their union described their program to raise the wages of nursing home workers to the higher standard in hospitals.

    The low standard in nursing homes hits hardest at women of color and immigrants. Closing the standards gap would change the lives of tens of thousands of working men and women, giving nursing home members a strong reason to help bring the rest of their industry into the union.

    Less than a year later, however, UHW members were instead organizing rallies against what they saw as a threatened trusteeship of their local union. Today a much larger debate overshadows that nursing home campaign and its ambitious goals. But the idea of raising the nursing home standard, and what it might take to accomplish it, highlights many of the central questions in that larger debate.

    The transformation of the battle between UHW and healthcare corporations into a fight between the local and its international union is deeply disturbing to activists around the country. This is a critical moment for healthcare workers. For the first time in U.S. history, unions have gained the strength to organize the rest of the hospital and nursing home industries. That could create the basis for enormous change, transforming the jobs and income of dietary workers and bed changers in much the same way that the CIO and the San Francisco General Strike turned longshoremen from the day laborers of the waterfront into some of the country's highest-paid blue-collar workers.

    The stakes are very high for everyone. An organized healthcare industry in alliance with consumers could create the strength to win a single-payer health system benefiting every person in this country.

    Many feel that a labor movement divided by bitter internal warfare, therefore, is a gift to employers. Fratricidal struggle could weaken the unity and solidarity needed to achieve these critical goals. Mike Garcia, president of one of the country's largest janitors' unions, SEIU Local 1877, feels that, "there are some issues that need to be discussed and talked about, but it shouldn't happen in public because it harms workers and our strategy to organize. These issues could easily have been discussed, and were being discussed, internally."

    So is this discussion worth the risk? Is it even avoidable?

    Why the Debate Has Ramifications for Unions Beyond SEIU

    Debate in labor is difficult. As Garcia points out, organizers are trained to believe that open discussion of problems gives ammunition to employers. It's also hard for organizers to be critical if their jobs are on the line, or if speaking out leads to isolation. Members feel debate can jeopardize the wages and benefits they already have, and leaders often see it as a source of upheaval that can lead to lost elections and positions.

    The U.S. labor movement has a harder time with internal disagreement than our international counterparts. The difficulty in the U.S. has its roots in the Cold War, "which shut down debate in organized labor," according to Bill Fletcher, former education director for the AFL-CIO. "It crippled us by restricting our ability to think outside the narrow parameters of wages, hours and working conditions, and isolating those who'd fought hardest for issues like peace and civil rights." That broken tradition, and its legacy of fear, left the labor movement without much to guide a free process of internal discussion.

    But it's not the fight between one local union and its international that needs debate so much as the questions it has pushed forward. Mike Casey, president of UNITE HERE Local 2, wrote a letter in the early stages of this conflict that posed several of them:

  • Can we organize large numbers of workers without lowering long-fought-for union standards?
  • How do we marshal our resources in a way that focuses our fights without turning our back on other struggles?
  • Can we establish criteria that will help us prioritize organizing initiatives so that our resources are best put to use?
  • How do we balance the immediate needs and aspirations of our members with the imperative of directing an increasing and sustained amount of staff, money and other resources to organizing?
  • How do we involve our rank-and-file leaders and members in these and other important questions?
  •     "I believe that there must always be room within organized labor for legitimate and principled dissent," Casey said. "The public discourse initiated by UHW and Sal [Rosselli] may well be kicking up a lot of dust, but it has also provoked a closer examination of the direction of our movement." The letter from Casey represents an attempt by a union leader outside SEIU to steer the debate back to the issues, and away from a power conflict between two strong leaders. "These are not easy questions," says the organizing director of one international union. "We're just getting to some of the debates we have to have."

        The decisions made by unions often affect workers far beyond their own members. The U.S. working class made enormous gains in the 1930's and 1940's as the result of contracts negotiated in the auto, steel, longshore and electrical industries. The unions involved also benefited from the fact that workers far beyond their ranks recognized their own stake in that success, and came out to picket lines, voted for New Deal candidates, and made other sacrifices to help organize basic industry - even when they did not share in the union contracts that followed.

        Conversely, when the master agreements in meatpacking and other industries were destroyed in the early 1980's, and two-tier wage schemes were imposed, other workers soon faced the same demands. If the auto industry now abandons company-provided healthcare for retirees, and labor can't win a single-payer system, unions far removed from auto plants will face many more strikes.

        SEIU President Andy Stern, promoting the debate before the break that created the Change to Win federation in 2005, argued repeatedly that unions make choices that affect all workers. He contrasted, for instance, the fragmentation of the airline industry among many unions with the longshore industry, where "one national union deals with one set of employers, bargaining one contract."

        So it's not only fair that workers and labor activists in general discuss the questions highlighted by the internal conflict in SEIU, since they are affected by them, but their input may help find answers. "Conflict is built into everything," Fletcher says, "including unions. UHW has every right to raise and put on the table, especially in a convention year, significant differences with the union's leadership."

        To have a debate without causing damage, however, requires some ground rules. Local unions should be able to discuss questions without fearing retaliation or trusteeship. Debate should discuss ideas and politics, not personal attacks. An open flow of information about agreements with employers would not only promote a democratic process, but would reduce the fear of secret deals.

        Labor Tries to Halt the Density Decline:

        When John Sweeney was elected president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, one of the greatest criticisms of former President Lane Kirkland was the federation's failure to organize. By 1995, AFL-CIO affiliated unions represented less than 15 percent of the American workforce, a decline from 35 percent in the early 1950's. Meanwhile the SEIU, under Stern, became the largest national union with over 1.3 million members. Hundreds of young activist organizers went to work for it after training at the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute.

        But has unionizing new bargaining units successfully challenged the barriers that divide workers, or reinforced them? Before the 1960's, Jim Crow was the norm in most craft unions. In industrial unions, African-Americans often worked on the welding and paint lines in most auto plants, and rarely in tool and die rooms. In service unions, Asian, Latino and women workers were frequently relegated to stewarding, housekeeping or busing tables in hotels and restaurants - the "back of the house."

        The SEIU international union proposed to separate nursing home and other ancillary patient care workers, including home care workers, from traditional acute care hospital workers. That effort more than any other led to the fight with United Healthcare Workers West. UHW argues that the separation strengthens divisions, rather than raising the standards for workers in lower-paid job categories.

        Leon Chow, UHW's San Francisco Home Care director, says splitting nursing home and home care workers from acute care hospital workers weakens solidarity and patient care standards. "Hospitals and acute care facilities are moving more elderly and other patients to nursing homes and other off-site facilities more quickly," Chow says. "Next, they move them home, for home-based care. But it is the same patient. We think they should get the same quality care whether they are in the acute care facility, in a nursing home or at home. We want to build solidarity between all the workers who provide health care. We don't want acute care workers to say they are better than nursing home providers and at-home providers. Pulling nursing home and home care workers' wages and conditions up to the level of hospital workers will be hard, but will build worker solidarity. We don't want a shortcut that adds more members but which hurts worker solidarity."

        In the janitorial industry, Mike Garcia describes the way janitors helped security officers achieve the same goal, first by affiliating an independent union for guards in San Francisco, and negotiating a much better contract. "That helped us move to Los Angeles and leverage a newly forming union and establish standards there," he says. Organizing guards also relied on using the existing strength of organized janitors, who work for the same building owners, and sometimes even for the same contractors. "We use our membership as a fighting force to march, picket, demonstrate, and put pressure on non-union buildings. You need to establish a base in an industry so you can move out from there."

        What Price for Employer Neutrality?

        One of the sharpest controversies, however, is the desire by unions to win the neutrality of employers in the face of these efforts. By the time the Sweeney administration took over leadership of the AFL-CIO in 1995, most unions had already concluded that the NLRB election process was an obstacle to organizing and were searching for alternatives. Some experimented with recognition strikes, while others sought to create alternative institutions, like workers' rights boards and community elections. Many unions began exploring ways to put pressure on employers to remain neutral during organizing efforts, keeping them from deploying their arsenal of captive audience meetings, bribes and firings. Today, most unions seek a card check process, in which the employer agrees to recognize the union and bargain if a majority of workers sign authorization cards.

        The difficulty is getting the employer to agree. In the public sector, political action can elect officials friendly to unions, and even, in the case of home care workers, create a public employer able to guarantee wages and conditions and negotiate agreements. In the private sector, unions have used a variety of tactics to pressure employers into agreement. One strategy is "bargaining to organize," - putting a demand for employer neutrality in unorganized units on the table during contract negotiations. To get agreement, unions often have to make tradeoffs among bargaining goals.

        Part of the debate raging between UHW and the SEIU International is also about how much a union can give up in exchange for neutrality, especially with private sector employers. "You have to pull back the teeth of the employers before workers have a fair chance to organize the union," Garcia says. "Neutrality and card-check agreements are common. In exchange, the employer is going to want to understand how much it's going to cost them. That's common in our industry. It's just a fact of life."

        One organizing director cautions, however, that "while we all agree we want to organize industries and industry master agreements, we also have workers under contract who expect to see tangible results from unionization and a betterment of their lives. How far can we go in sacrificing their immediate needs and involvement to the greater end of building density?"

        UHW itself pioneered one such agreement, the Labor-Management Partnership at Kaiser Permanente hospitals. This broad agreement involves staffing levels, grievance procedures and organizing rights at unorganized facilities. Sal Rosselli, UHW president, says "we have always had relations with employers, but we have approached even cooperation from the standpoint of strength. We can't surrender traditional rights, like the right to picket, strike or bargain."

        Southern California SEIU leader Annelle Grajeda says "organizing is organizing, whether we can do it from the bottom up or with neutrality. I have seen unionizing change workers' lives, and if we can get neutrality we should take it and bargain a contract. SEIU, including UHW, has good contracts because it has industry strength."

        How Important Is Union Democracy?

        Labor standards and organizing are interdependent. Workers join unions because they believe they can improve their lives, and good contracts are a powerful argument for the benefits of getting organized. But workers do have to make sacrifices to gain organizing rights and neutrality, or other non-economic goals. In a democratic process, they often agree to do so. In 2005 and 2006, for instance, members of UNITE HERE Local 2 were locked out of San Francisco's luxury hotels for nine weeks, and then went two years without a contract, in order to win an agreement that strengthened organizing rights in non-union hotels, lined their contract negotiations up with those in other cities, and began to force hotel operators to take down discriminatory bars against hiring African-Americans. Local 2 members had to agree to give these demands as high, or even higher, priority as their own wages and benefits.

        UHW wants to use its political and bargaining strength to make a drastic improvement in nursing home wages. Its international wants to use that strength, together with discussions with national healthcare corporations, to gain organizing rights for healthcare workers outside of California. The international wants the local union to subordinate its local goals to the national one. The local accuses the international of making deals with healthcare corporations behind its back to gain organizing rights.

        How should unions resolve this problem? One organizing director says they have to begin by convincing members themselves, rather than expecting them to simply fall in line behind decisions made by international staff. "Bargaining for organizing rights depends on how well-educated our members are about the necessity of making some sacrifices in economics to gain that bargaining goal. Our union has delivered for its members, and has a certain rank-and-file tradition that's still alive. People believe they get what they have because they're in the union. But that doesn't translate automatically into a broader social vision or organizing impetus. Unless you're doing constant education and have a politically conscious leadership, you can't win their support."

        UNITE-HERE in San Francisco spent years preparing its members to support organizing in non-union hotels as a condition for getting high wages and benefits. Local 2 members turned out many times for mass demonstrations to support organizing, and won bottom-up victories against two major hotels - the Parc-55 and the SF Marriott - before striking over the organizing issues that forced the lock-out.

        How much power should members have over the bargaining that leads to those agreements? In the last two years, SEIU negotiated agreements with Sodexho, Compass and Aramark, in which the union gained employer neutrality in certain geographical areas. International union staff negotiated the accords, and many local officers and rank-and-file members say they were unaware of the details, or even the existence of the agreements.

        Garcia thought the result was worth it, and didn't sacrifice the ability of workers under contract to fight the same companies to win improvements. "While it's sometimes flawed and needs to be improved, [SEIU national strategy] has organized workers in geographic areas where they would never have had a chance to organize otherwise. Arizona, for instance, is very important to us because it's a red state where SEIU wants to build political power." Janitors struck this spring in Los Angeles and northern California to win better wages from the same group of employers. "You stretch them as far as you can, and at the same time you're aggressively and militantly organizing the workers, leading them in strikes, and building power."

        Rosselli, on the other hand, feels that democracy also matters. "Power is being much more concentrated at the top, with centralized decision making," he says. "In the California nursing home industry, SEIU started making top-down deals without local or rank-and-file participation. It's all centered around a drive for growth at all costs, without taking into account standards that need to be raised at the same time, pre-negotiating contracts with corporations to get organizing rights, while limiting the collective bargaining rights of workers who are being organized into the union."

        In building services, Garcia says the ultimate goal is the negotiation of master agreements. For current area-wide negotiations, "rank-and-file members elect the bargaining committee - members go out to buildings and get nominating petitions signed."

        To win member support for organizing demands, even at the expense of some increase in wages and benefits, workers not only need to know what's on the table, but to have control over the bargaining process. When the International Longshore and Warehouse Union was organized in the wake of the 1934 general strike, workers won a single contract with all the giant shipping companies, which covers every port on the West Coast. Local unions elect delegates to a longshore caucus, which adopts the bargaining program, elects the negotiating committee and monitors negotiations. Local unions and members get a fair degree of control, while at the same time the entire longshore division sits down with the employers and bargains one contract.

        UHW has accused its international union of dissolving one of the institutions set up for the same purpose. "In 1996, when Andy Stern was elected, we were part of that team," Rosselli says. "We amended the Constitution to obligate local unions with a culture of total autonomy, in which they often undermined each other, to coordinate with other locals instead that represented workers with common employers, to collaborate in organizing and collective bargaining. We set up a democratic process, called Unity Councils, to force that collaboration. In the last few months, the international dissolved the Unity Council at Catholic Healthcare West just as we were going into bargaining, to try to assume total control from Washington, D.C. That's the fundamental problem we're now having."

        The International has proposed National Bargaining Teams instead of Unity Councils. Unity Councils make decisions by per-capita vote, while Bargaining Teams have one vote per committee member. Unity Councils include only representatives of local unions, while Bargaining Teams also include international staff. Bargaining Team members, the chair and the lead representative are all appointed by the international president. Unity Council members are chosen by local unions, and the chair and lead representative come from the local union with the largest number of workers with the particular employer.

        Class Interests vs. Union Interests

        A third area of controversy is the growing debate in unions over broader political demands, especially in relation to healthcare and immigration reform. Some unions in the AFL-CIO and Change to Win advocate a long-term strategy to win structural reforms. They support a single-payer healthcare system that would eliminate private insurance companies, and immigration reform that would give undocumented immigrants green cards (permanent residence visas), and oppose guest worker programs and increased enforcement and deportations.

        Other international unions, including SEIU, have been willing to compromise on much more limited demands. In healthcare, the union threw its support behind a plan devised by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian NuÃ’ez that would have required all state residents to purchase private insurance, with few controls over price and coverage. In Washington, the union supported a comprehensive immigration reform package that would have provided limited legalization, along with large new guest worker programs and greatly increased enforcement.

        These have not been disagreements between UHW and the SEIU International, but between larger groups of unions on each side. But they affect the ability to organize and grow as much as internal union structure or bargaining strategy. They are arguments over political strategy, with one group advocating settling for what Congress might pass immediately, and the other arguing for a longer-range base-building effort. They are also arguments over alliances, which in turn affect organizing. Those who defend the immediate compromises also generally see employers as an essential ally in winning limited reforms. The unions who want more radical reform also propose building an alliance at the bottom between unions, communities of color, consumers and others to get it.

        Behind these arguments is an even more basic question. To what extent should unions represent their own members first and foremost, and to what extent should they speak for the entire working class? "Samuel Gompers confused the needs of labor as an institution with the needs of the working class," says one organizing director. "Cutting deals so you can grow your own institution makes politics into a kind of insider baseball."

        A new direction in labor requires linking unions with other social and economic justice movements. Winning immigrant rights, for instance, also means fighting for a real jobs program and a full-employment economy, and for affirmative action that can come to grips with the devastation in communities of color, especially African-American communities. Healthcare reform requires a basic alliance between healthcare providers and working-class consumers.

        People far beyond unions will defend labor rights if they are part of a broader civil rights agenda, and if the labor movement is willing to go to bat with community organizations for it. To resolve these questions and grow, unions need not just better strategy and organizing techniques, and a more accountable structure, but a vision that will inspire workers on a much larger level than the country has seen since the 1930's. If all growth depends on direct contact between union organizers and individual workers, in home visits and house meetings, the scale will always be too small. Something has to happen on a larger scale among workers generally. And as much as people need a raise, the promise of one is not enough.

        Without speaking directly to workers' desperation over insecure jobs, home foreclosures and falling income, unions will never convince millions to organize, risking the jobs they still have. Labor needs an outspoken policy that defends the jobs and rights of all sections of US society. Political calculations in Washington can't be the guide to what is possible. Organizing makes possible what was not possible before. Workers need a movement that fights for what they really need, not what lobbyists say legislators will accept.

        Unions of past decades won the loyalty of working people when joining one was even more dangerous and illegal than it is today. The left in labor historically has proposed an alternative social vision that inspired that loyalty - that society could be organized to ensure social and economic justice for all people. While some workers believed that change could be made within the system and others argued for replacing it, they were united by the idea that working people could gain enough political power to end poverty, unemployment, racism and discrimination.

        "Whenever we've seen a real rise in labor, there's been a left connected with it," Bill Fletcher says. "There needs to be a left, and we need to rebuild it. Workers are looking for answers, and without them we'll get further despair rather than organizing for an alternative."

    Last modified on Wednesday, 13 August 2008 16:13