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SEIU: Rank-and-file Members to Challenge Stern at Convention

By Joe Iosbaker

The largest union in the U.S., the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), begins its national convention the weekend of May 31, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Convention goers will have a very different experience from the well orchestrated ceremonies of past years. As delegate Sirlena Perry from SEIU Local 73 in Chicago put it, “There’s going to be big debate about how Andy has been doing things,” referring to the pro-business methods of SEIU’s president, Andy Stern.

A growing movement for reform has developed; rank-and-file delegates from various locals – and one well-known dissident local president – have come together in a reform movement. They will present a platform for change to challenge the officers in Washington D.C. that are concentrating power in their hands. Their slogan is “One member, one vote.” This means members voting for contracts, contract proposals, international officers and even agreements between the union and companies about how elections for union representation will take place.

The movement includes the SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today (SMART). SMART grew out of a network of members, staff and local officers in California. These unionists first found common cause as they resisted the forced mergers of locals over the last several years.

SMART and the reform movement got further momentum last year when Stern was exposed in the media for making secret deals with nursing home owners in California and Washington state. These deals included allowing the companies to dictate which homes could be unionized and the union having to agree not to publish criticisms of the companies – for three, or even ten, years! In exchange for some of the employees being allowed into the union and contracts at those companies which included small gains for the workers involved, the union also committed its political muscle to support legislation supported by the companies.

In the media eye has been Sal Rosselli, president of California’s United Healthcare Workers-West. This 150,000 member local is the third largest in SEIU. Rosselli refused to keep quiet about Stern’s terrible deals. Stern has responded with threats to put UHW into trusteeship and to take away 65,000 members from UHW. UHW has the most successful record of organizing new workers of any local in SEIU. Stern has been the main spokesperson in the union movement for organizing the unorganized. It is ironic that he is punishing this model local.

Partnership with Employers in Exchange for Membership in SEIU

The convention debates revolve around the different approaches to the union movement. Stern’s view is business unionism, where the company and the union make common cause. Class struggle unionism is the other approach, recognizing that the working class and the capitalist class have opposite interests. What brings workers and owners together is the profit motive of the employer, and the workers’ need for a job. The bosses want as much labor for as little money as possible. Workers, especially in the service industry, have to fight desperately to earn enough money to keep their heads above water. The real relationship of workers and bosses is one of constant conflict.

The question for workers in SEIU is what is traded off when partnership with an employer is sought in exchange for membership growth. For example, how can a union fight the way it needs to when there is an agreement to not criticize the employer?

SEIU’s convention documents admit that it’s getting harder and more expensive to organize workers and successfully represent the members. This also shows that the class struggle is getting fiercer and continues after unionization.

SEIU has been enormously successful in gaining new members, adding almost one million to the union over the last decade and a half. It is also true that joining the union has meant progress for these workers. While the gains haven’t been spectacular, it’s a general rule that first contracts for newly organized workers aren’t perfect and don’t include giant wage gains. Unionization brings advances over the course of years.

But at the same time, there is an intensified class struggle growing within work places, including public sector employers that are already organized. SEIU has a strategy with one overarching aim: gains for workers by increasing new membership. There is no strategy for the fights by a majority of the workers – the current members in the union – to defend gains made in the past.

The international officers have charged that the publicity over the controversy is hurting the union. Tom Burke, a former executive board member of Local 73, responded to this. “Secret deals – with more in them for management than for workers – lead to public debates.” Burke enthusiastically defended the debates. “This is the first real contest over ideas in the history of SEIU conventions. Let it rip.”

Will the Stern program of exchanging ‘partnership for membership’ lead to continued and real gains for workers? Or will workers make more gains by building a fighting workers movement? The test of which approach is better will be in practice over the years to come. Shirley McIntosh, a retiree from Local 73 that will be attending the San Juan convention, already has her opinion: “From my experience, we can never trust management. We just have to organize to fight.”

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