The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Union Apparatuses:
Disorganizing the Unorganized

Jul 28, 2009

Over the past few years, several unions have been marked by turmoil, reorganizations and splits.

Much of this turmoil has involved the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the coalition to which it is connected, Change to Win (CtW). SEIU President Andy Stern placed the 140,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West in trusteeship after the local president, Sal Rosselli, had openly opposed Stern. Rosselli and those around him then formed a new union and began to challenge SEIU representation at work sites throughout the state of California. Another of the CtW unions, UNITE-HERE, the product of a tentative merger, began to divide back into its two original parts, provoking big fights over members and money. The smaller part of the UNITE-HERE apparatus jumped into the arms of Andy Stern's SEIU, which led to more fights.

Do these disputes reflect real differences? Are there people posing a different policy for the unions? Or do these disputes simply come out of rivalries between different apparatuses?

And what does it all mean for the working class?

Business Agreements

These fights are taking place inside a shrinking labor movement. Four years ago, when Stern's SEIU split out of the AFL-CIO with six other unions to form Change to Win (CtW), they all agreed that the labor movement was becoming "dangerously close to being too small to matter," as a top SEIU official said. The CtW unions pledged to devote themselves to organize and grow faster than at any time since the 1930s.

Some top CtW leaders, such as Stern and John Wilhelm of UNITE-HERE, had gained attention with successful organizing campaigns, including the Justice for Janitors campaign and one at Las Vegas hotels and casinos. Both campaigns were said to represent new ways to organize.

What happened in both campaigns? In Los Angeles, the janitors had won union recognition through years of hard fought battles. But the contract that the top SEIU officials came back with had only very tiny pay increases and benefits. In the following local election, the janitors helped vote out most of the top officials. The SEIU International responded by putting the local into trusteeship, thus reinforcing the sweetheart contract they had signed. In Las Vegas, in exchange for being given access to workers in the unorganized hotels, Wilhelm promised to allow casino and hotel owners to reduce 134 job classifications down to 30, which effectively imposed a wage cut on most workers. Wilhelm also promised to provide the casino owners with political assistance in killing pending Internal Revenue Service rules to withhold 30% of the casino winnings of non-citizens, a tax break for a lot of wealthy high rollers.

These deals became the template for the SEIU's supposed rapid increase in membership.

Many of the SEIU's apparent successes were the result of deals cut with companies promising not to unionize most of a company's workers. In 2003, the SEIU promised an alliance of nursing home operators in northern California not to try to sign up workers at 145 of 187 nursing homes, in return for tacit recognition at 42 other nursing homes.

The SEIU made similar deals with nursing home operators in the states of Washington, Florida and Texas; with Tenet, the second largest hospital chain in the country; and with Compass and Sodexho, immensely large companies that provide food, laundry and housekeeping services.

In 2005 at Tenet, the SEIU agreed not to attempt to sign up workers at 32 out of 40 hospitals in California, in return for being given an open door to 22% of its workforce. At Compass Group and Sodexho, the SEIU and UNITE-HERE promised not to sign up 285,000 workers out of 300,000, or 95% of their workforce in North America. In return the unions were allowed to sign up 15,000 workers.

Under these agreements, the companies were given the right to designate which locations, and how many workers the unions could sign up. The union apparatus also pledged to act as a cop for the boss against any worker in the union who did try to spread the union further, prohibiting them from picketing or making any derogatory remarks about their employer.

The union apparatus agreed with the company to keep the terms of these agreements secret. A summary document put together by the unions at Compass and Sodexho explained that critical to the success of the partnership is,"that we honor the confidentiality and not publicly disclose the existence of these agreements." That included not disclosing them to the workers they were about to organize and those they weren't.

The SEIU made similar types of agreements with state and local politicians. The SEIU set out to gain a big increase in membership among home health care workers. In exchange for getting union dues from hundreds of thousands of workers automatically deducted from paychecks in a dues check-off arrangement, the SEIU gave up the right to strike and promised to use its resources to help get certain politicians re-elected. It was a political deal that most of these workers, who work in individual homes, never even knew about. In Los Angeles, for example, when the SEIU gained 74,000 more adherents, SEIU organizers admitted they were able to contact only 33,000 of them, that is, less than half. Many workers found out they were in a union only when their employers began to take union dues out of their pay checks.

Organizing campaigns? No, they were simply business deals cut between employers and union officials. In exchange for dues money, the union structures helped to disorganize the unorganized.

Partnership Against the Workers

In all these deals, once the workers were admitted into the SEIU, they were presented with pre-packaged contracts cut in the original deals, keeping wages and benefits low. In the case of the nursing home operators, for example, wages, benefits and staff-per-patient ratios were set so as not to put the employer at an "economic disadvantage," compared to all those nursing homes without unions.

The SEIU officials made every effort to help out their "partners." Often, they promised to do whatever they could to help them out with the Democratic Party and regulators, just as HERE did in Las Vegas for the hotel and casino owners. SEIU lobbyists helped in the push to make California the first state in the country to guarantee nursing home profits: Medi-Cal (Medicaid in California) was to be used to reimburse nursing homes on a cost-plus basis, just like military contractors. This subsidy was said to be worth two billion dollars over four years – a windfall. As operating profit margins of nursing homes skyrocketed by 747%, the SEIU also did its best to frustrate efforts by nursing home patient advocates to pass legislation that would have tied increases in state nursing home subsidies to improvements in the quality of care. The SEIU also discouraged workers from reporting health care violations or cases of neglect and abuse to state regulators, to other public officials or to journalists.

Sometimes, the SEIU worked to help employers cover up bad publicity from scandals. About six years ago, Tenet was facing multiple investigations. The federal government was looking into charges that at least one doctor at a Tenet hospital had been systematically performing unnecessary open heart surgeries in order to collect the insurance money. Tenet was also under investigation for bilking Medicare for millions of dollars for services that Tenet never provided, and for generally overcharging for services that it did provide. After Tenet signed up with the SEIU, the labor bureaucrats tried to counter the bad publicity.

To justify these kinds of agreements, last year Stern told the Wall Street Journal, "...we"re trying to find different relationships with employers that guarantee workers."

What Stern was "guaranteeing" was more dues money. What he was building was not a "union," but a business association.

Nonetheless, the SEIU was getting a lot of mileage out of the claim that it had been growing by leaps and bounds, from one million to 1.9 million members in the last decade. The 900,000 new SEIU dues payers do not represent 900,000 new workers who have organized themselves in a union. In the first place, about 200,000 aren't members at all, but have chosen not to join the union and are just paying legally required agency fees. Another group of the so-called new members were the 200,000 shifted into the SEIU through a 1998 merger with the old 1199 hospital union based in New York, which was one of many mergers with smaller unions that took place during this period. Shuffling workers from one union to another does not constitute a gain for the labor movement. Finally, nearly 500,000 new members are the home care, home childcare and similar quasi-public workers, who have union dues automatically deducted from their pay checks because of a deal cut between union officials and politicians.

That adds up to more than the 900,000 increase the SEIU claims. The ones that are organized are not new, and the new ones were not organized. But the union apparatus was collecting much more union dues.

An Increasingly Top-Heavy Apparatus

The SEIU has pushed the merger of local unions into bigger locals, under the guise that the bigger the local, the more muscle and resources it has to deal with big private and public employers.

Its locals have grown to monstrous proportions and even its way of naming them shows it. Instead of using numbers to designate a local, the SEIU often resorts to titles, like a division of a business. United Healthcare Workers-East has 300,000 members and extends from Buffalo to Boston and all the way down to Baltimore. The second biggest local, Local 6434, has 190,000 long term health care workers in the entire state of California. The third biggest local, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW-W), has 140,000 members in the entire state of California.

In and of itself, such enormous and geographically widespread locals mean that members in one location can't meet with fellow members clear across a state or a geographic region. There is no union life. Workers have no means to meet together, decide what to do, select their leaders and organize actions. Nor do the workers have intermediate elected representatives who meet with others in bodies involved in the ongoing activities around the workplaces and then report back to the members. The representatives closest to the workers are the stewards. But there are no elected representatives who connect the members to the rest of the local.

Instead, what links the local together is an enormous paid staff made up of people who are less and less drawn from the working class members, but instead from the petty bourgeoisie, the more privileged layers of society. Many come directly from elite university campuses, where anti-sweatshop coalitions are funded and used by the union apparatuses to select and recruit future staff among student activists.

After merging locals into an enormous new local, the International appointed the top officials, who very often had no connection to the membership. A former staffer from Georgia was moved to California and made president of the giant Local 6434 of long-term health care workers in that state. His chief of staff in California was moved to Michigan and made the head of the 50,000-member local of health care workers in that state. A former university instructor with no union experience was put in charge of Minneapolis Local 26 for janitors, guards and window cleaners. A lawyer and ex-lobbyist was appointed to head a local of New England-based public workers that is now being expanded as far as Georgia. Eventually they all had to face election – but in this from-the-top-down situation where opposition had little chance.

"These are folks who did not earn their status, they were handed it and that leads to a dependence on who handed it to you," a former SEIU official told labor journalist Steve Early.

Even the apparatus itself is blocked from taking any independent positions.

From top to bottom, this enormous apparatus is made up of people who are far removed from the membership.

The only exception is the position of steward... which the SEIU is now beginning to downgrade, by introducing call centers to deal with grievances, thus removing the steward's main daily link with the ranks. However bureaucratic the grievance procedure may be, it has often been used by stewards or rank-and-filers to organize on the shop floor to take collective action. In an outsourced call center, the people answering the call have no relation to the people in the workplace. The problems are dealt with on a technical or legal level.

Local Rebellion

About three years ago, Sal Rosselli, a member of the International executive board, president of the gigantic UHW-W and chairman of the SEIU California State Council, began to privately voice his opposition to some of Stern's policies. He focused especially on how the International was systematically and deliberately excluding and going behind the backs of his local and the state council in its dealings with corporate and government officials.

In June 2007, Rosselli took his opposition public when the San Francisco Weekly published a letter sent to SEIU members the previous month by Rosselli and 14 other UHW-W officials. The letter addressed the infamous 2003 nursing home agreement, which was up for renewal: "Some in the national SEIU are negotiating an agreement with nursing home employers – in California and nationally – and have repeatedly excluded UHW nursing home members and elected representatives from the process. These agreements could restrict our nursing home members' voices on the job and be implemented without affected members having the right to vote."

Stern retaliated by pushing Rosselli out of his position as head of the state union council in December 2007. In February 2008, Rosselli resigned from the SEIU Executive Board. In his letter of resignation, Rosselli stated that his differences with Stern were not new: "Over the past two years, a stark difference has evolved between SEIU's projected image and its real world practices." Rosselli then enumerated what he opposed: eliminating local bargaining councils on many important contracts, meeting behind the UHW-W leaders' back with employers, barring UHW-W leaders from negotiations, trying to split out long-term health care workers from the rest of the UHW-W, trying to foment mass resignations inside the UHW-W organizing staff, holding secret meetings with California Governor Schwarzenegger and other elected officials over health care reform without consulting SEIU local leaders. The letter also said that International's interference was making it more difficult to organize new members and win better contracts for them.

In June 2008, at the first SEIU national convention in four years, Rosselli tried to make a case for greater local autonomy and independence from the national SEIU. This provided an opening for officials from other locals who felt that Stern and the national apparatus rode roughshod over them. Some of them coalesced into an informal grouping called SMART (SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today). The SEIU convention, tightly controlled, rejected Rosselli's proposal overwhelmingly. Six months later, on January 27, 2009, Stern placed the UHW-W in trusteeship and removed Rosselli and the other local officials from their offices.

Rosselli responded by announcing that he and other former UHW officials were forming a new union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). They began to circulate petitions to replace the SEIU. By the time of the NUHW's founding convention in San Francisco three months later, Rosselli reported that the insurgent union had collected 96,000 signatures to replace the SEIU with NUHW at 360 facilities. The SEIU challenged these petitions with the NLRB, which in most cases ruled against the NUHW, claiming that representation elections at work sites where there is an existing contract can take place only during a narrow window of time preceding a contract expiration, the "open period" that the NLRB had set in order to "stabilize" company-union contract relations. The bureaucratic government apparatus that had functioned as a barrier against workers forming unions was being used by the SEIU leadership to keep the upstart union from challenging its monopoly hold.

Limits of the Opposition

At first glance, Rosselli would appear to be an unlikely oppositionist to Stern's leadership of the SEIU. During his climb up the SEIU apparatus, Rosselli defended the same policies he now decries. It was Rosselli's local that signed the infamous 2003 nursing home alliance, an agreement which he defended when it was exposed. "Traditionally, there has been an adversarial relationship between SEIU and general health care providers. We"ve been changing those relationships to accomplish common goals ...," said Rosselli in 2004.

Over the last year or two, it seems that Rosselli has tried somewhat to modify the agreements with the nursing home operators and Tenet to open up a few more possibilities to extend union membership to more workers. But Rosselli has never openly criticized these earlier agreements.

Certainly, Rosselli, as opposed to a lot of other top SEIU officials, had been a longtime member, occupying different posts in his local – which is what helped give him the base that allowed him to oppose Stern and the International. But when Rosselli accuses the SEIU International of functioning in an undemocratic fashion in which ordinary workers don't have a voice, he is on shakier ground. Just as at other monster locals, a few local officials and their staff ran the affairs when Rosselli was in charge. Everything was run from the top by a few officials and their hand-picked staff of 400 people.

In the next period, as the NLRB rules permit "open periods' for decertification and voting for another union, it is possible that there will be protracted fights between Rosselli and Stern over who will represent tens of thousands of workers at many different workplaces up and down the state of California, including at some very big employers, like Kaiser Permanente and Catholic Healthcare West.

But some kind of agreement between Rosselli and Stern is not ruled out.

After all, Stern was able this May to reach an agreement with Rose Ann DeMoro of the California Nurses Association (CNA), despite the fact that Stern and DeMoro had been fighting for a much longer period of time, more than 15 years of overt conflicts. The CNA had exposed and denounced SEIU sell-outs. In some instances, such as at Kaiser hospitals in 1997, SEIU leaders, including Rosselli, instructed its members to cross CNA picket lines.

In 2008, this conflict came to a boil, when teams of CNA nurses descended on Ohio to expose a sell-out agreement that the SEIU made with a chain of hospitals, scuttling the agreement that would have gained the SEIU thousands of registered nurses. In retaliation, at least a hundred SEIU staffers and officials attacked a Labor Notes conference in Detroit, where CNA representatives had been scheduled to speak.

Nine months later, faced with the possibility that two of his opponents, Rosselli and DeMoro, were allying against him, Stern approached DeMoro with a deal, and she accepted. In fact, it was little more than a "non-aggression pact" – you stay off my turf, I"ll stay off yours!

UNITE HERE: Divorce Bureaucratic Style

To cope with the long-term decline of not just membership, but dues money, a number of union apparatuses have merged. In 2004, this is what two unions, UNITE and HERE, did. Along with Stern and the CtW, they called for even more mergers.

UNITE, led by Bruce Raynor, had already been through a number of mergers over the decades, as remnants of the old garment and textile unions joined together. At the time of the UNITE/HERE merger, UNITE had a very small membership base. But it did have valuable Manhattan real estate and the Amalgamated Bank, with assets of more than five billion dollars, the only union-held bank in the country. HERE, the union of hotel and restaurant workers led by John Wilhelm, had many more members, including those who work at the Las Vegas casinos and hotels.

It was a tentative merger, a trial marriage, in which both sides kept their own apparatus and organization separate and intact. Raynor and Wilhelm shared the top office. All the real problems of how to merge the two apparatuses were put off for five years, until the June 2009 convention.

If the union had grown, there might have been a way to finish the merger. But the partially merged union, which started out with about 400,000 members, failed to recruit many new members. Given the impact of the recession and the jobs crisis, both unions have since lost members and dues money. A finalized merger certainly would have meant a reduction in staff positions. Greatly outnumbered inside UNITE-HERE, Raynor could only fear that his side of the apparatus would be swallowed up, along with those valuable financial assets.

As the convention and the deadline to complete the merger approached, the conflict between the two apparatuses began to come out in the open. In December 2008, the executive committee, dominated by HERE allies, voted to place UNITE-led locals in the Northeast under trusteeship and appoint HERE allies to oversee them. Wilhelm's HERE allies also sought administrative and budget changes that fell most heavily on UNITE-led departments. In January, Raynor filed suit for UNITE in federal court to stop these moves. There were also physical clashes, as officials connected to UNITE padlocked Local 24 in the Detroit area, in order to keep out the officials from HERE.

Into this disintegrating marriage stepped none other than Andy Stern. Under the guise of peace maker, he "generously" offered to absorb both sides of UNITE-HERE into his own union. This only exacerbated the conflict – especially since everyone knew what Stern was after – to get his hands on the bank, the real estate and more dues money. Raynor, with fewer options, finally accepted Stern's offer – under the proviso that his apparatus and its financial assets would remain autonomous. Stern agreed – for the moment....

Now, all sides are embroiled in nasty fights over jurisdiction, with stories of UNITE and the SEIU trying to get workers to decertify HERE at various work sites. The question of control over the bank and real estate is also tied up in the courts.

Meanwhile, the memberships, which never were involved in any discussion or decision over this marriage and divorce, are caught in the middle.

A Different Policy

These disputes by union bureaucrats over their share of the shrinking membership pie do not in any way serve the interests of the workers. Nonetheless, there were people on the left who thought they recognized "progressive" qualities in one or the other bureaucrat. In the not so distant past, many were enthusiastic about Stern's purported organizing prowess, only to become disillusioned and move on to cheerlead others, Rosselli, Wilhelm, DeMoro – although DeMoro's recent detente with Stern seems to have dampened some of their enthusiasm for her.

In reality, none of these officials has proposed a different policy in the interests of the workers. None can be counted on. They all tie the workers to the bosses and government officials through deals and partnerships of one kind or another. They all subordinate the interests of workers to those of the bourgeoisie. This is not something they hide or that they are ashamed of. They do it and say it explicitly.

The working class needs a different policy – a policy that does not consist in relying upon one or the other union bureaucrat, but a policy which could define the workers' own class interests and goals, separate and opposed to those of the bourgeoisie.

Today, the worsening economic crisis is creating conditions for new social explosions. What is needed is a policy for the working class to build its own organizations on a class basis. Revolutionaries have a role to play in this process, if they do not turn their backs on this task.