How Not to Organize a Union — SEIU’s Failed Strategy of Corporate Partnership


The fastest-growing and most widely publicized union in the country has been building its dues base by making confidential agreements with employers that exclude the members. It is the opposite of union democracy: instead of members electing their leaders, these leaders work with employers to choose their members – and determine what rights and benefits they’ll have before they ever get the chance to join. The story broke after Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was involved in two well publicized fights.

In Ohio, SEIU made a deal with a Catholic hospital chain to hold an election in which workers, many of whom had never heard of the SEIU, would have a chance to vote on whether to have the union represent them. In order to have such an election without first obtaining employee signatures from 30% of the bargaining unit, the law requires that the employer request the election. An internal company memorandum instructed union supporters and management to do no campaigning, not even to answer questions if asked by the potential voters, just say that there was going to be an election.

Some nurses who thought “this sounds too good to be true” called the National Nurses’ Organizing Committee/California Nurses’ Association, a group that split away from the American Nurses Association a few years ago in order to more aggressively organize nurses nationwide. The NNOC/CNA, fearing that this deal would cause the very same employers they were trying to organize running to SEIU to get themselves a better deal, sent staff into Ohio to campaign against this one-sided vote.

SEIU and the employer called off the election, and SEIU have since gone on a public relations offensive against NNOC/CNA, calling them “union busters,” even going so far as to bus hundreds of staffers and members to attack a labor conference in Dearborn, Michigan at which CNA President Rose Ann DeMoro was expected to speak.

Meanwhile, a public split has developed inside SEIU, as one of its best-known local Presidents, Sal Rosselli of Health Care Workers West, a 140,000 member California local, left the International Executive Board of the union in order to publicly criticize what he calls a policy of “growth at all costs” in which, internally, as well as in terms of new members, contract rights are being sacrificed to buy employer neutrality in union elections.

When several unions, led by SEIU President Andy Stern, left the AFL-CIO a few years ago, the split was claimed to be about using more resources for organizing. It soon became clear that this included raiding unions that remained in the AFL-CIO, as this was already happening with disputes between SEIU and AFSCME in California and Illinois. Meanwhile, under both Democrats and Republicans the loss of union and well-paying manufacturing jobs has continued at a dizzying pace. The Change to Win (CTW) federation includes mainly those unions with the least to fear from jobs going offshore, and its aim is to organize the unorganized in the huge low-paid service sector.

The folks that run the big unions in the U.S. are individuals with middle class aspirations who have risen to the top of the union movement, based on the power of organized workers but making their living by cutting deals with the employers: deals that allegedly “both sides can live with.” However, time and again we have seen these “deals” end up working against the workers, especially the policies of concessions and the “team concept.” Without fighting policies that challenge the corporate establishment and their corrupt, undemocratic, unaccountable power over the rest of us, union leaders will inevitably deliver bad deals for workers.

Stern and CTW are not unique. The unions with the most to fear from the loss of good jobs, such as the autoworkers (UAW) and the steelworkers, have done no better. Both have taken on the burden of administering – and cutting – employee health care. Instead of dedicating their resources to fighting for a free universal health plan that would forever take healthcare off the bargaining table, they have joined the ranks of the health insurers – the very group that stands most firmly in the way of real healthcare reform.

The biggest public sector unions, AFSCME and the teachers’ unions, spend great sums of money and political capital calling for increased taxes, not so much on the rich, because that would “frighten” the big business politicians on whom they rely, but on other working class people – so that we can continue to get the raises and pensions that in most cases they, as working class taxpayers, cannot afford.

Until workers reclaim their unions and transform them into fighting democratic organizations to confront the real enemy, big business, using militant methods of struggle, we will continue to lose. “United we stand, divided we beg” is a good slogan. It needs to be moved off the buttons and bumper stickers of so many separate contract campaigns and be put into the field of organizing and political action. We must urgently start organizing mass demonstrations and strikes to demand free healthcare for all, tax the rich and big businesses, end the war, a living wage for all and to organize the unorganized. The militant actions of the ILWU in the ports of the west coast, and the courageous fights of the California Nurses Association against California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger show the potential that unions have to conduct a serious fight against big business.