David Bacon Stories & Photographs


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I agree with many of the issues that David Bacon raises in his article. We need vibrant open, honest debate in the labor movement; at our work sites, in our union meetings, in articles, on the web and in the media. We need a strong left and left analysis that both critiques how the system increasingly doesn’t work for workers and offers concrete ways workers and their unions can increase their strength and beat the giant corporations that increasingly dominate the global economy. And we absolutely need to articulate a vision of a better world to be won that inspires and unites workers.

Many of us have spent most of our adult lives in a world where the labor and progressive movements have been in decline, on the defensive and losing far more then winning. After failed organizing campaigns, lost strikes or yet another attack on civil and human rights we’ve all repeated some form of the mantra, “What we really need is a movement.” This is then followed by a nostalgic discussion of the 1930’ and 1960’s and then a repetition of the adage: “That’s right, what we really need is a movement”. We never got around to a discussion what we would do if conditions changed, if some combination of anger, hope and passion were unleashed and it was possible to imagine actually being part of a movement, not in the past but now. We didn’t discuss this because until recently it didn’t seem possible.

The melt down of the economy, the resulting disenchantment with failed free market corporatist ideology, growing inequality, global warming/environmental degradation and the war in Iraq are creating conditions that are ripe for organizing and just maybe, if we don’t squander the moment, movement building. I may be too optimistic, and too hopeful, but it feels like we are on the edge of a moment of historic change. Our reaction to this moment will help shape what happens next. If we believe this is a time when we can go on the offensive to redistribute wealth and power and fundamentally transform this country, then we need to make sure we are asking the right questions, debating the most important issues, and setting our vision high enough for the times we live in. We need to put a microscope to our plans, strategy and tactics and ask ourselves if they are grounded in the past and a strategy of trying to limit loses, or do they look forward and prepare us for a future where we can win extraordinary victories. We need to ask how we support, nurture and grow a movement and avoid missing—or even worse, sabotaging-- this moment of opportunity.

It is in this context that I think “Are Growth and Organizing the Same?” loses the forest for the trees. It sets its sight too low gets mired in a “He said, She said” reporting of internal debates in SEIU that both gets the facts wrong and misses the momentous issues that are really at stake. For example, it contains a lengthy analysis of the intricacies of SEIU bargaining structures that completely ignores the decision by an overwhelming majority at the recent SEIU convention: every affected local will now have rank-and-file participation and representation on national bargaining councils that will decide bargaining goals when facing key strategic national employers and approve agreements before their submission for a membership vote. The article also repeats the myth that UHW was been threatened with trusteeship in the weeks leading up to our convention. This simply isn’t true, no matter how often repeated. Both the focus on and misinformation about “issues” like these is a distraction from the big discussion of what needs to be done and prevents us from reaching a common understanding of how and why unions have missed critical moments in history when we could have helped to build movements dedicated to radical change.

Unions made the wrong choice rejecting movements of 1960’s

When the civil rights, anti war, women’s, environmental and other movements were born, most unions (with some notable exceptions) didn’t embrace, support or in the end grow with these movements. Unions missed an incredible opportunity to support progressive change while growing in numbers and strength. If unions had truly embraced the civil rights movement, it could have been central to organizing in the South. Labor’s relationship to historically unorganized groups of workers—including women, new sectors of the economy, and young people—and consequently our ability to take on corporate power would be far greater if we hadn’t missed these movements; even worse, labor was often guilty of undermining them. Labor’s failure to embrace the movements of the 1960’s was rooted in the narrow embrace of business unionism that was established in the post-World War II era.

Unions made the wrong choice at the peak of strength in 1950’s

Most on the left would agree with an analysis that at the peak of labor’s strength, the triumph of business unionism, led to a not-so-secret deal with corporate America; unions would focus on representing and negotiating for those private sector workers already in unions (predominately though not exclusively white males) and effectively abandon the vast majority of workers who weren’t in unions. Unions grew when unionized companies expanded the workforce in already organized facilities, but using union power to organize the unorganized was off the table, literally and figuratively. Some unions were more progressive then others, some spent more on political action then others, but in the end almost every union in the United States chose to expend the vast majority of their power and resources on negotiating for what quickly became a smaller and smaller percentage of private sector workers. We all know the history: because unions didn’t organize the South, people of color, non-union facilities and the rest of a changing economy, we sowed the seeds for our own destruction. In the end we not only sold out most of the working class who weren’t in unions, but also failed to protect those who were already organized.

Will Unions Make the Right choice now or is it three strikes and labor is out?

So we squandered the moment of our greatest strength after World War II, and we missed the great movements of the 1960 and 1970’s. We now are at another decisive moment. Our decline is so steep, and the ascendancy of corporate power is so great, that if we miss this moment we may not have the luxury of looking back in ten years and acknowledging that we made the wrong choice again.

Towards the end of his article, David raises a potential conflict, “class interest vs. union interest.” Ironically, he misses that this very tension is at the heart of the current debate in SEIU. SEIU is advocating--and at its recent convention the membership approved--the “Justice for All” program, which calls for the focus and resources of the union to be dedicated to building a movement of all workers (i.e., class interest). Justice for All explicitly rejects the business union model, which focuses the union on servicing and defending remaining islands of unionization (i.e., local union interest).

Justice for All is both an ideological and practical programmatic commitment to build a movement of all workers to win broad goals to change and transform the country: healthcare for all, immigration reform, quality public services for our communities, and the organization of millions of workers in the South and other non-union regions of the country. Combined with a commitment to work to build a global labor movement and a focus on getting out of Iraq, the program adopted by SEIU delegates is one of the most progressive and ambitious of a major union in recent history. The most radical development from the SEIU convention is that delegates overwhelmingly voted to commit SEIU to changing the world not just their work sites. For example, every SEIU healthcare local union but one – United Healthcare Workers West – endorsed a program to use members’ existing strength in a national program to unite workers in Catholic and for-profit hospitals and to improve living standards and working conditions for nursing home and homecare workers – not just in places like New York and San Francisco that traditionally have had relatively strong labor movements and friendly political environments, but in more difficult regions where workers face even greater obstacles.

Neo-Business Unionism

The real debate in SEIU is about Justice for All Unionism vs. what could be called “left business unionism,” or maybe more appropriately “Neo-Business Unionism,” This is a critical debate, one worth struggling over. Neo-Business unionism has all the faults and limitations of traditional business unionism; the sole difference is that it dresses up a bankrupt argument and conservative model of unionism with left rhetoric about militant struggle, better contracts and servicing members through greater local autonomy. When you strip away the rhetoric, it is arguing for more of the 1950’s strategy of dedicating the union’s resources to existing members instead of building a broader workers movement; a prescription for the death of the labor movement.

Advocates of Neo-Business unionism attack comprehensive corporate social responsibility campaigns that seek to win employer neutrality, despite their being the most effective way to protect workers’ fundamental human right to join and form unions. The claim that they aren’t “bottom up” or that existing union members could have won more if energy and resources weren’t being focused on winning rights for non-union workers is a new version of “I’ve got mine business unionism.” The reason we need campaigns for neutrality is because workers get squashed and defeated when they take on employers from the “bottom up” in isolation, instead of as part of broader campaign. “Neutrality” campaigns fundamentally challenge the old deal with management; “Worry about the unionized workers, don’t confuse things by bringing up workers who aren’t in the union.”

It is odd, that when unions have finally developed tactics, strategies and the strength to force companies not to resist organizing, fire workers or force them into the failed NLRA process, that Neo-Business unions have joined the chorus from the business community and the Right to Work committee saying, “this isn’t the right way to organize.” The problem isn’t that we are finally using our power to win rights for non-union workers; the problem is that not enough employers have been neutralized. The problem is that that too many union leaders have fallen for the employer trap of being bought off by minor employer concessions, and in turn sold out hundreds of thousands of non-union workers who can only win a union with their help. It was hard won neutrality agreements that led to hundreds of thousands of Latino janitors winning a union, higher wages and healthcare in the Justice for Janitors campaign. Tens of thousands of African American security officers recently won a union through these kinds of agreements in the Stand for Security Campaign, again winning healthcare and significant wages increases. Union membership growth and vastly better economic terms in contracts have been the direct result of comprehensive campaigns that abandon dependence on anti-union governmental regulatory agencies like the NLRB. It is completely backward to ask what the “cost” of neutrality agreements is; the question is what the price of not winning them?

Good people can agree to disagree

Good people can agree to disagree on lots of issues. Questions about which SEIU local brings more power for Long Term Care Workers in California, the precise legislative path to universal health care, and the best system to elect international officers and executive boards all have passionate advocates who are people of good will and have different views on these issues. But in the great sweep of history, the details of how these issues get decided will only have a real impact if they distract us from building a movement or taking advantage of the incredible opportunities and work we have ahead of us. Let’s debate them, argue and write about them, but let’s keep in perspective their relative importance and make sure we reserve our energy, creativity, and passion for what really matters: building a movement that can win for all workers.

Time to roll up our sleeves and get to work

A challenge for the left is not to get trapped in debate for debate’s sake and instead to roll up our sleeves and get involved in helping to win real campaigns that are going on right now all over North America. SEIU’s two million members and local unions in the USA, Canada and Puerto Rico are actively engaged in massive campaigns to organize millions of healthcare workers, property service workers and privatized public workers. SEIU is challenging the power of giant private equity companies that are reshaping the economy. SEIU locals are running bargaining campaigns for hundreds of thousands of workers, and we are trying to elect a president and congress that supports a workers’ agenda. This work is done in collaboration with progressive activists whose focus is to win real change in our communities, our country, and the world. We may be on the cusp of history where the world pivots and almost anything is possible; it would be a tragedy if we missed this moment because folks were focused on debating the wrong issues, at the wrong time instead of digging in on what needs to be done.


Building a Workers’ Movement

David Bacon and Warren Mar’s piece captures the importance of the struggle for reform taking place within SEIU, and its ramifications for both SEIU and the broader labor movement.

We in United Healthcare Workers West (UHW) have come to recognize that the fight we are waging inside SEIU has sparked a spirited debate inside the labor movement, one that probably should have happened when the Change to Win unions broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Unfortunately, rather than seizing that moment to debate the direction of the labor movement, SEIU leaders used the launching of Change to Win as a public relations event and ended the discussion before it really got underway.

Our dispute has generated significant reaction within SEIU, other labor unions, and among non-labor progressives who rely on a vibrant labor movement as an ally for social change. The reaction suggests the need for a more systematic and healthy debate regarding what kind of labor movement we are working to build.

The most recent round of this fight was held in June at the quadrennial SEIU International Convention in Puerto Rico. In contrast to the launching of Change to Win, the SEIU Convention has created an opportunity to broaden this important debate.

So what is this fight about?

There is consensus within SEIU that the labor movement is in crisis. In broad strokes, there is also consensus that the way out of this crisis is by organizing the unorganized, building political power and holding elected officials accountable, and improving standards through coordinated regional, national and international bargaining that enhances the lives of workers, their families and those who rely on their services. These goals should be the bread and butter for all self-respecting trade unionists. Who could possibly be against them?

As it turns out, no one, at least not within SEIU. Contrary to the recent straw man created by Stern and other SEIU leaders—a fictional opposition that advocates “just us” unionism—there is no countervailing force within SEIU arguing for a different set of goals.

The dispute is about how we accomplish these goals and what kind of labor movement we are building in the process. To put it simply, will the labor movement be a movement of workers, by workers, and for workers, driven from the bottom up? Or will it be a centralized, top-down advocacy organization where workers pay membership fees in exchange for professional services?

The Ideology of Growth

The seeds of this dispute were sown when Change to Win was launched. Recognizing the fact that workers had lost significant power in the preceding decades, Change to Win was formed with the promise of reigniting the labor movement in the same way the creation of the CIO led to explosive organizing growth seventy years earlier.

For nearly sixteen months leading up to the split, leaders in SEIU publicly criticized the leadership of the AFL-CIO through websites, DVDs, power point presentations, and extensive press coverage. Yet before there was any real opportunity for debate, the Change to Win coalition was founded on the premise that we had a once-in-lifetime opportunity to revitalize the labor movement by organizing workers on a mass scale.

The key to renewed organizing, we were told, was a structural solution. Consolidating the jurisdiction for each industry in a single international union and forming multi-lateral organizing committees for industries falling outside the “natural” jurisdiction of any existing international union would provide the focus and streamline the resources necessary to rebuild the labor movement. The culture of solidarity, ideology of struggle, and critique of the capitalist economy that had been central to other waves of mass organizing in the past were at best superfluous in this managerial vision.

As we know, the rhetoric hasn’t matched the reality. In an understated yet controversial piece published in In These Times [October 24, 2007], David Moberg documented that while the AFL-CIOs unions have modestly increased in size since the breakup, the collective size of Change to Win unions has actually decreased.

Rather than the breakthrough that many of us had hoped for, the years following the creation of Change to Win have made it clear that there are no structural silver bullets to spur on a new wave of mass organizing.

Perhaps the greatest factor in explaining the success of the CIO was the fact that it created a social movement that inspired workers. In fact, one could argue that the CIO itself was a product of a broader social movement of workers who saw trade unions as the central vehicles for improving their lives.

Stern’s vision is less concerned with inspiring workers than it is with convincing employers that a union can “add value” to an employer – that the union can be a junior partner to capital and actually help business accumulate profit.

Stern’s vision was set forth in his 2006 book, A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track. In it he writes that a “class-struggle mentality was a vestige of an earlier, rough era of industrial union[ism],” and that the new labor movement should strive for “a ‘working ‘relationship’ that can add value to the business and help improve performance [that] will result in workers sharing fairly in their employers’ success.” (pp. 70-71).

Stern continues: “Disappointingly, only a few employers have shifted from their ‘unions are the problem’ mentality. Their lack of creativity and courage is an impediment to building a new model of labor-management relationships and to confronting the challenges of globalization. Asking our employers to make the choice of cooperation or confrontation is a dramatic paradigm shift. We have reinvented ourselves, but it takes two to tango.” (p.71)

While repackaged, what Stern is touting is not much different than what some conservative labor leaders promoted through the National Civic Federation in the 1910s, the Truman Administration Labor-Management Committee in the 1940s, and more recent attempts at cooperation in the auto industry in the 1980s.

Big Business has always understood it doesn’t need the labor movement, no matter how conciliatory, to help it accumulate profit, and that any entente between labor and capital is a necessary evil at best, and a temporary one at that.

This leads us to the box in which Stern has put SEIU. Taking at face value his goal of improving the lives of workers and their families, it is Stern’s analysis that this goal cannot be accomplished unless the labor movement grows in numbers, because only growth in numbers will give organized labor real power. By his analysis, however, today’s labor movement is so weakened that the only way to grow the union is by cutting deals with employers that are unfavorable to workers—that is, sacrificing rights and standards now to build power later.

Experience teaches us that without struggle, virtually no employer is willing under any circumstances to accept the union unless there is a sweetheart deal, preferably one that is kept secret from workers and the public. This is where Stern’s logic lands us. Lacking an alternative strategy to achieve the growth he promised with the launch of Change to Win, Stern would have us barter away the rights and standards that unionized workers have already won in order to create an incentive for employers to agree to neutrality.

The sweetheart deals reached between SEIU and subcontractors like Aramark, Compass and Sodexho mentioned by Bacon and Mar, and detailed more extensively in articles in the Chicago Tribune (May 18, 2008) and The Wall Street Journal (May 10, 2008) exemplify this trend. As SEIU spokesperson Andrew McDonald explained to the Chicago Tribune, “These agreements are the proven model for workers gain a voice. There is no other model.” (Emphasis added.)

In his own way, Stern is like a corporate CEO who measures progress in the quarterly statement, not in the long-term growth and viability of the company—not unlike the Enron model. The quarterly statement he most cares about is growth, even if that growth is a product of the union equivalent of questionable business practices or creative accounting. Under Stern’s vision, such questionable practices can be overlooked as long as the quarterly statements show an increase in members. This raises a number of serious concerns:

• What if growth is accomplished in a way that makes the union incapable of defending workers’ interests in the workplace?

• What if it is done in such a way that it alienates workers from their own union?

• What if the trade-off with the employer makes it impossible for the union to ever establish real worksite power?

To be clear, UHW supports neutrality and organizing rights agreement that make it possible for workers to organize without employer interference. We have negotiated such agreements with Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West, the Daughters of Charity and other healthcare providers. But we believe those agreements should not be negotiated in such a way that renders the union powerless at the worksite and perhaps as importantly without the direct involvement of workers who are affected by such agreements.

A few examples from UHW’s experience illustrate these concerns.

Tenet Healthcare

In 2006-2007, UHW, 121RN (our sister local in California), 1999 Florida and SEIU were in negotiations for a renewal contract with Tenet Healthcare, the nation’s second largest for-profit health system. The renewal followed an initial 2003 agreement in which Tenet agreed to stay neutral when workers sought to organize into the union in California and three hospitals in Florida.

While the first contracts negotiated in 2003 were respectable, they were below the standards won by UHW members employed by Tenet’s competitors in California — including Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West, the Daughters of Charity Health Sytem, HCA and a number of independent hospitals.

More than a year in advance of the bargaining, rank-and-file leaders from each SEIU-represented hospital in Florida and California organized through the Tenet Unity Council to establish bargaining goals that included winning industry-standard contracts in Florida and California and winning organizing rights for workers in the rest of the Tenet system. We believed and continue to believe that we had the opportunity to achieve all those goals in 2006.

Before bargaining commenced in September 2006, Tenet expressed concern about the financial impact of bargaining in California while at the same time indicating a willingness to extend organizing rights outside of California. Because it was struggling financially, Tenet demanded relief from union standards in California in exchange for extending organizing rights. Initially, Tenet made two demands as preconditions for extending organizing rights: that UHW and 121 RN agree not to pursue either a defined benefit pension plan or retiree healthcare coverage in this round of bargaining.

In response, we in SEIU collectively established our own preconditions: that with the exception of pension and retiree health, Tenet would have to agree to all other standards—including staffing language, a ban on subcontracting, wage scales and other significant improvements—in addition to extending organizing rights to workers outside California.

It’s worth emphasizing that the decision-makers in this important strategy included nearly one hundred UHW and 121 RN rank-and-file leaders who were elected to the bargaining team by thousands of their co-workers.

When it came time to actually negotiate the contract, this collective decision was put on the backburner as SEIU representatives with little bargaining experience focused instead on negotiating the only part of the agreement they cared about most—organizing rights outside of California. In December 2006, SEIU announced they had reached a tentative agreement with Tenet for organizing rights for 23 hospitals throughout the US. Over time, two important details emerged about those negotiations: (1) Tenet did not commit in writing to organizing rights at 23 hospitals; and (2) Tenet had extracted from SEIU additional concessions against California industry standards without the knowledge or consent of UHW/121RN members and leaders.

For example, SEIU representatives reached an understanding with Tenet that would have given up workers’ right to strike in California for ten years, would have allowed the company to subcontract up to 12% of the workforce at any time, and would have given away job security provisions already contained in the contract.

Exploiting this division, Tenet returned to the bargaining table with UHW/121 RN and insisted that we honor the understandings they reached with the International Union. Faced with mobilized and organized workers in California, Tenet backed off these concessionary demands, but then insisted that UHW/121RN members to agree to drop our demands for organizing rights at hospitals outside of California. Led to believe that the deal between Tenet and SEIU International representatives was a signed, written agreement, we rejected Tenet’s demand and walked away from the bargaining table. We held pickets and conducted other actions insisting that Tenet honor its agreement, even though the agreement didn’t actually exist.

It was not until August 2007 that a comprehensive agreement was reached to resolve the organizing rights issue, the California contract and the Florida contract. The agreement acheived far less than we believe was possible. In the end, workers in California sacrificed to win organizing rights outside of California, yet the experience created serious mistrust between our International Union, 121RN and UHW.

The California Nursing Home Alliance

The situation in the California Nursing Home Alliance is even more extreme in terms of the concessions SEIU is willing to make to reach a deal with employers.

In California, there are 1,143 nursing homes, of which 17% are represented by SEIU locals. UHW represents 148 homes, while Local 6434 represents 47 facilities.

The California Nursing Home Alliance was a coalition of for-profit nursing home operators representing 284, or 25%, of the nursing homes in California. Of those homes, 83 are organized—55 with UHW and 28 with 6434.

In 2003, when UHW represented approximately 95% of the unionized nursing home workers in California, UHW, 6434 and the International Union negotiated an agreement with the California Nursing Home Alliance.

In the controversial agreement, the unions and the industry committed to pursue a common strategy for reform of California’s nursing home reimbursement system and agreed to other policy benchmarks that ultimately allowed the union to organize 42 nursing homes in California. The rate reform we achieved has provided the nursing home industry with nearly $1 billion in additional reimbursements over four years, but has produced comparatively limited increases in the wages, benefits, and staffing for workers, and as a result, resident care has not markedly improved. In one year alone, the Alliance’s unionized homes received approximately $119 million in new Medicaid revenues, while spending only $21 million on improvements in SEIU members’ contracts, producing a $100 million windfall—and that’s just counting those homes that are organized.

In the homes where organizing occurred, workers were subsequently represented under stripped down contracts known as “Template Agreements.” These agreements severely restrict workers’ rights on the job. In fact, these template agreements are radically concessionary and in violation of basic union principles. They fail to include the right to arbitrate grievances except terminations; the right advocate in support of public policy positions without employer approval; the right to speak out freely in public about the poor quality of resident care; and the right to strike.

When the initial agreement with the Alliance was negotiated, UHW made clear—without being publicly contradicted by the other participants—that the Template Agreements would be temporary and that in the next round of bargaining, more traditional contracts would be negotiated.

In anticipation of negotiations for renewal of the Alliance, Stern asked UHW to present an analysis of the first three years of the agreement, which we produced in January 2007. (This document can be found on www.seiuvoice.org). In it, we were critical of the Alliance, specifically the Template Agreements and the reimbursement windfall that went to the nursing home companies. We were also critical because we believed the agreement should have enabled SEIU to organize more homes. We expected to correct all those deficiencies if the Alliance agreement were to be renegotiated.

UHW was critical of renewing the Alliance agreement without significant improvements and argued strenuously that any renewal must guarantee that: 1) workers have a voice and vote on the outcome; 2) the Agreement can not limit members from advocating for their patients and 3) any limitations on collective bargaining rights can only be temporary and can not be permanent.

In contrast, SEIU, supported by Tyrone Freeman, the Stern-appointed president of Local 6434, wanted to renew the Alliance agreement at virtually all costs. It became clear that the Alliance was no longer an experiment, but the reigning employer-friendly organizing model when a similar deal—one that is even more problematic to workers and consumers—was negotiated in secret by another Stern ally in Washington state in early 2006.

When Alliance negotiations resumed in California, the employers proposed a 50-year agreement, which was then “revised” to a 20-year agreement. At its core, the Alliance insisted on making the Template Agreements permanent, which both the International Union and Local 6434 indicated was an acceptable position moving forward. Needless to say, this position was unacceptable to UHW.

Despite UHW representing 80% of the Alliance workers, SEIU set up a decision-making process whereby decisions would be made with each local getting one vote and the International Union casting the tie-breaking vote.

When the formal bargaining process—with representatives from SEIU, UHW and Local 6434 present—proved unsuccessful in renewing the Alliance that SEIU and Local 6434 clearly desired, International Executive Vice-President Gerry Hudson and 1199 Ohio President (and now International Executive Vice President) Dave Regan, met with the Alliance employers alone on behalf of the International Union, despite strenuous objections from UHW nursing home leaders. This move effectively disenfranchised over 3,500 California nursing home members from participating in their own bargaining.

In the end, our opposition to the renewal of the Alliance agreement had strong support from consumer advocates and residents, thereby making it difficult for SEIU and Local 6434 to consummate the deal.

In fact, many of us suspect that the major impetus behind SEIU’s efforts to remove long-term care members from UHW, as referenced in Bacon and Mar’s piece, is to facilitate reaching agreements with nursing home employers along the Alliance model in California and nationally. Rather than proposing to unite all California healthcare workers in a single healthcare union, as SEIU has done in New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Florida, West Virginia, Kentucky, Minnesota and other states, Stern is promoting the separation of long-term care workers from acute-care hospital workers.

UHW’s Vision

Like Stern and other leaders in SEIU, we in UHW agree that workers must often look beyond their immediate interests to build real power. In many instances, workers may need to sacrifice short term gains to win long term progress. But there is a difference between strategic sacrifice and abject capitulation. Contrary to the assertion of SEIU spokesperson cited in the Chicago Tribune, there are alternatives.

Over a period of twenty years, UHW members have worked to line up contracts so that we can maximize power at the bargaining table by negotiating with different healthcare employers as an industry. In doing so, we have been able to set standards that apply across all sectors of the healthcare industry. One key standard, along with wages and benefits, job security and a voice in staffing, is the right for one’s co-workers to join the union without employer interference.

Bacon and Mar describe the 2005 battle that UNITE-HERE Local 2 had with the San Francisco hotels and how organizing union members to fight for the rights of their non-union co-workers required tremendous education over many years about how power is distributed in this society.

UHW is the fastest growing union in SEIU. Since 2000, we have organized nearly 75,000 workers into our union, doubling the size of our union in eight years. We recognize the importance of organizing the unorganized.. In fact, organizing rights were a primary issue behind a sixty-day strike against Sutter Health in San Francisco in 2005 and the product of a decade-long “bargaining to organize” strategy with the California hospital industry.

UHW members have sacrificed in California so that workers in Florida, Nevada, Tennessee, Georgia and other states with little or no unionized healthcare sector can have a union. We draw the line, however, when those sacrifices come at the expense of building long-term power and when the workers who are being asked to sacrifice are not empowered to make decisions about those sacrifices.

Our experience is that if a union has the power to win good standards at the bargaining table, it almost always has the power also to win organizing rights as one of those standards. To say categorically that the standards of current employees have to be traded off to win organizing rights for the unrepresented is a false choice.

The false choice, however, is made necessary when a union abandons a “class struggle mentality” and seeks a quick and easy way to grow.

Democracy Matters

In the long run, a sustained vision of building workers’ powers requires a union to be more democratic, not less so.

For reasons hard to understand, Stern and his allies don’t appear to have faith in workers to make informed decisions about their future and the future of the labor movement.

That explains why Stern pushed strongly in Puerto Rico for taking bargaining with national employers like Tenet and the Nursing Home Alliance out of the hands of rank-and-file led committees and putting it into the hands of national bargaining committees dominated by SEIU’s top staff and leaders, whom he personally appoints.

It also explains Stern’s strategy of forced mergers. Under Stern’s preferred model, when unions are merged in SEIU, the votes are pooled, like in the most recent experience in Illinois. Three local unions were merged to create SEIU Healthcare Illinois: Local 4, the nursing home local with 10,000 members; Local 20, the hospital workers’ union with 10,000 members; and Local 880 the homecare local with 65,000 members. Under the pooled voting system, the ballots cast by each of the three unions were placed in a single box, with the majority determining the outcome. This meant that the members of Local 880 effectively determined the outcome of the vote. Even if all of the members of Local 4 and Local 20 had voted to oppose the merger, Local 880 members on their own could have outvoted the combined members of the other two locals.

But perhaps the most unfortunate development in this struggle has been the inability of leaders within SEIU to create forums to truly debate alternative visions for rebuilding our movement.

As Bacon and Mar point out, debate within the American labor movement is difficult, and what we’re experiencing in SEIU is no exception. But it is ironic, given Stern’s efforts to publicize the differences between Change to Win and the AFL-CIO in every forum imaginable, that he and other SEIU leaders are so threatened by our public challenge to their direction.

Democracy is not just a process of formalized voting. It’s also creating the space to contest ideas in an atmosphere that encourages the free exchange of opinion. Bacon and Mar’s point about ground rules in which “Local unions should be able to discuss questions without fearing retaliation or trusteeship” is right on point.

With regard to the recently concluded SEIU convention in Puerto Rico, we are neither surprised nor disappointed by the outcome. Compared to the 1976 Teamsters Convention where the sole TDU delegate was physically assaulted for standing up, the reform movement in SEIU is off to a remarkable start. Despite the intense campaign from SEIU against our local—including multiple mailings, robo calls, live calls, push polls, and site visits to our members—we maintained the strong support of our members and gained significant rank-and-file support throughout California and beyond, which was vocal and visible despite the strenuous efforts of SEIU officials to suppress it.

To conclude, we appreciate the opportunity to participate in this discussion and thank Monthly Review readers for their interest in this important debate.


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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