Day 1 - Rival Amendments and Call Centers

This morning started early, with a breakfast hosted by the big California dissident local, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW). Sal Rosselli and three rank-and-file members—Mell Garcia, a UHW member at a Kaiser hospital, Rosie Byers, a 31-year homecare worker and UHW member, as well as Michael Fenison, a respiratory therapist in Englewood who joined UHW four years ago when his hospital was organized—talked to reporters about how things were unfolding at the convention.

Sal confirmed UHW’s depressing news that all of their resolutions and proposals were squashed in committee yesterday, so it looks like the only debate that will take place on the convention floor will happen inside the framework of the International’s “Justice for All” program.

Introducing new resolutions from the convention floor requires a majority vote. Hey, at least it’s a little easier this year, past conventions required a two-thirds vote. I’ll try and keep folks posted as the convention progresses but right now it’s not clear whether or how UHW (or rank-and-file reformers from the reform group SMART) will introduce amendments or resolutions from the convention floor.

Michael reported on tensions in the new delegate orientation he went to yesterday, where SEIU President Andy Stern and International Vice President Mary Kay Henry spent a good deal of time promoting the Justice for All platform. “We never had an opportunity to get our voice out there, to actually have an honest debate,” he said. “I told Mary Kay this whole process, this whole convention is basically a farce. It has already been choreographed.”

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In addition to the fate of UHW’s Platform for Change, we also spent a lot of time talking about SEIU’s plan to roll out “Member Resource Centers.” In plain English, these are call centers, designed to provide rank and filers—in the words of the Justice for All program—with “high quality member representation.”

Both Mell and Rosie took a pretty dim view of what this would look like. “How can any worker feel protected by dialing a number where they get pre-determined prompts," Mell said, "and where they’ll probably have to leave a message?"
"What happens when someone comes to work one day and their manager says, ‘You’re fired, here’s your last paycheck, give me your badge, see you later.’” Rosie added, “When we run into problems, we need help right then, right there. A lot of times we need our rep or one of our stewards to come to the area we’re working because of the type of problem we’re having. With the call center that would never work.” SEIU’s California call center is based in Pasadena (about a seven-hour drive for her) so she probably has a point.

Michael noted that before they joined the union they had a call center. His experience with management’s version of call centers? “The problems never went away. But you went away, because you got tired of waiting to get an issue taken care of.”

Mark Brenner is the Director of Labor Notes. He can be reached at mark@labornotes.org

Comments

former labor no... (not verified) | 06/05/08

my understanding is the writer spent some decent amount of time checking out a simulated member resource center/call center and discussing the concept of it with folks at the convention, but i don't see a very interesting report here.

frankly he gets some of the facts wrong:
- currently in some locals many members DO have to leave a message for staff reps when there is a discipline. the idea of a member resource center is a place where she WILL get a live person on the phone because the B.A. wont be on vacation or something, there will always be someone answering calls in a variety of languages.
- the concept isn't a bunch of pre-prompted responses like you'd get at verizon. the idea is to have staff who are trained to handle technical representational issues and answer common member questions. lets face it, there are some people who are stronger at internal organizing and mobilizing members and others who are stronger at dealing with grievances and technical issues. they should focus where their strengths are and get further training in those areas instead of being a jack of all trades, master of none.
- some of these member resource centers are currently focused on homecare workers who DON'T have a traditional workplace. the concept of a strong steward structure on the shop floor doesn't apply in the same way it would in a hospital or industrial setting. also, when workers speak several languages (the member resource centers in oregon and illinois deal with english, polish, serbo-croatian, vietnamese, mandarian, etc.) it's useful to have someone who can speak to them quickly.
- my understanding is member resource centers (check the resolutions language) will not be mandatory, but will be "encouraged" and "supported." some locals just wont be interested; fair enough. many have passed at this point, even before the convention, but many more are very interested and will want to set one up or join an existing MRC.

as for the previous comments in this blog, i tend to agree that the member resource center is a tool (used first by unions like the organizing model-oriented "miscellaneous" service workers in australia) that can be used like any tool, for good or bad.

locals that do have a strong shop floor steward structure (or delegate structure as we said in 1199) will use member resource centers to help those stewards with digital records on grievance and settlement histories that will be search-able and online. locals that have a service culture will indeed probably use it to service members only, which is a shame. some will do a bit of both, and use the center to answer common questions but "farm out" organizing issues back to stewards and internal organizers/staff.

the idea should be about as controversial as cell phones. i suppose in theory, cell phones can take away from face to face time with members -- but there is no reason it has to -- plus we have to deal with the reality of changing technology in the world. there seems to be some luddite thinking out there on this issue.

in many locals there have been many meaningful and difficult discussions between rank and file workers, local e-board members, and staff about how locals should use member resource centers, or if they should adopt them at all.

but i doubt i'll find that coverage in labor notes, a formerly solid news source that's writing seems to be lacking depth in some of the "emerging" trends in unions globally. the misunderstanding on how you represent homecare workers or build a union in that setting, is an example.

going more broadly, now that i read the entire coverage so far from this site on the convention, there are fair criticisms and debates to be had about many SEIU locals and its international union leadership -- like in any union -- but frankly labornotes seems to get the "scoop" less and less and want to launch a crusade in issues that are multifaceted.

labor notes is an important check against those of us in our unions who support the direction of our leadership. but sometimes you'd have more credibility with some deeper reporting, interviews, and separating analysis from editorials from articles from blogs instead of throwing it altogether in a crusade of words that includes little information about some of the emerging trends in the labor movement (be it from australia, europe, or in seiu.) i do applaud some of the coverage i've seen about workers in Venezuela, for instance though. it hasn't been enough for me to want to subscribe again though.

final thought on that, but i didn't see much coverage about the agreements and push for global neutrality/organizing rights going on in the international solidarity parts of the convention. this was very exciting to me, and maybe more relevant than many of the (important) debates between UHW and the SEIU IEB. we heard about campaigns that effect workers in thailand, the UK, the netherlands, and beyond, but the only "international" coverage labor notes gave so far was to the puerto rican teachers situation, because it was more negative. tell both sides of the story! be a fair watch dog for the working class!

Mark Brenner | 06/05/08

Hi disappointed, Thanks for taking the time to write in, and for reading what I had to say so far about the convention. I hope you will keep coming back and checking out reports as I post them. I am trying to have everything done by Saturday. I had to give up on real-time reporting each day precisely because I don't want to be flip and dismissive about everything (although there is plenty to ridicule, and I'm not going to hold back when the ridiculousness rears its ugly head). There are big questions, that SEIU takes seriously, under discussion at the convention and mocking everything about the event would be too easy of an out.

Take the call centers that SEIU is setting up and which you asked about specifically. I got a lengthy tour with some of the people involved in the roll out, as well as a chance to sit down with some stewards who've worked with them and who talked about their experience with reporters. Just knowing all the difficulty we have here at Labor Notes keeping up with address changes, new phone numbers or email addresses, I was fascinated by all the ways the call center could be used to systematize information gathering and maintenance (not to mention actually analyzing where problems are happening and using that to inform our strategies, develop contract proposals, organize in different worksites, etc). I can immediately see how the call center could be useful with a home-based workforce, too.

The rub is that the call centers could easily become a substitute for a good worksite leadership structures, or regular member contact. I am not confident the atmosphere inside the union is open enough to ensure that they'll work they way you describe and not become a shortcut to building a real organziation.

I am going to write more about my tour of the call center tomorrow so I hope you come back, check it out, and keep up the discussion.

As for the international stuff, you are right SEIU had a lot of international folks at the convention, and was squarly raising the need to build a global movement. As the Puerto Rican teachers situation illustrates, however, these are not simple issues, and SEIU sure didn't give enough of a picture of the work they are doing building connections with unions around the world for me to draw any conclusions. The one thing that did seem to be true, however, is that SEIU is not prioritizing connecting rank-and-file workers here with rank-and-file workers in other countries.

From every indication SEIU's international work seems to be cross-border meetings of high-level staff, working out the fine points of their strategic campaigns. I am all for being strategic (you can check out some thoughts on organizing in logistics that we put together in our recent pamphlet on the logistics industry http://www.labornotes.org/cargochain). But developing a potentially winnable strategy in some room with 15 people, even if they are from 15 different countries, isn't the same as building connections and solidarity with workers at the grassroots. Why have sister Torrant, the president of the Australian service workers union speak? Why not have a member organizer who went to Australia and worked with that union for three months or six months give a report? (Assuming there are members getting plugged into their international program)

slightly less d... (not verified) | 06/06/08

"The one thing that did seem to be true, however, is that SEIU is not prioritizing connecting rank-and-file workers here with rank-and-file workers in other countries."

thanks for the response.

i think this was an issue of the presentation more than reality. i
know our local and many others have sent rank and file members to other countries in two different senses.

1. international solidarity. this is important. often this took the form of folks from our local and others going to places like el salvador, colombia, iraq, etc. -- where workers are under the most severe attacks over the last 25 years. US labor against the war, of which i am a member and is my local, had good access to the convention and helped passed a strong resolution. this is important work, even if its not as fruitful as many of us wish.

2. international organizing campaigns. this is what this convention highlighted. maybe it would have been better to have an australian janitor talk instead of a president (or even better, have them both speak) but this is an exciting time when UNI gets a global neutrality agreement with a security or building service company. and i do know that some rank and file members, as well as staff, have been around the globe on organizing campaigns. we have had many guests from other countries come observe how we do justice for janitors campaigns long before the idea of a global justice for cleaners campaign took off.

anyway, i will keep reading your reports, as well as any other blogs i can find about this convention.

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/03/08

i work for seiu, and while i agree with many of your critiques, the coverage of the call center is misleading. as it is implemented at local 1 in chicago, and is planned in california, it is to answer basic questions, determine if there is a possible grievance etc. the point is to take some of the workload off the field rep and give them more time for actual organizing. there will still be field reps out doing steward development, issue organizing, and there will still be a field rep for handling grievances, disciplines etc, and both of these local positions will still work with stewards. the call center people will even have the contact info of stewards, and what level of training they have, and will refer some cases directly to those stewards. the devil is in the details, but all in all the call centers have been effective at some locals for freeing up some time for field reps and stewards to do more proactive big picture work.

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/04/08

Well perhaps that is because your local may be better run than local 888 in MA. They have implemented call centers without any input from the rank and file and only have one rep that is responding to the problems of over 240 contracts! Members are dissapointed, discouraged and confused. They feel abandoned by the local. And this was done immediately after a successful dues "equity" vote that resulted in increases in many peoples dues.People are rightfully asking,how is that translated to "justice for all?"