Viewpoint: SEIU 503 Rank and Filers Defeat Mega-Local Merger

Union democracy triumphed in Oregon February 1 when rank-and-file members of Service Employees Local 503 organized to reject a top-down merger with SEIU Local 49. The merger would have created a two-state, 65,000-member mega-local in the Pacific Northwest.

The top leadership of the union had strongly pushed a “yes” vote for nearly a year. They used union resources and staff organizers to promote a pro-merger vote to the union’s General Council, a governing body that consisted of 198 elected delegates.

But several “sub-local” presidents and other officers organized to educate delegates and advocate a “no” vote. We used Facebook, emails, leafleting, and phonebanking to get our message out.

At the vote meeting, “no” speakers outnumbered “yes” speakers three to one. And opposition organizers were ecstatic when the tally was announced: 120 no, 75 yes, and three abstentions.

Merger Mania

The Service Employees have long pushed to create statewide and multi-state “mega-locals.”

In the last 20 years SEIU has reduced its number of locals by nearly two-thirds, from close to 400 in 1995 to fewer than 150 today. Over the same period, the union reported adding 1 million members.

The result is that more than half the union’s members are in locals of 50,000 or more—a troubling trend for rank-and-file activists who care about union democracy. Critics argue the consolidation drive has concentrated more and more power in the hands of national leaders, while eliminating channels for member participation and debate.

Officers of the newly-merged structures are often appointed by the International from its deep bench of career union staffers, rather than from the local’s membership. Merged locals tend to be more staff-driven, where an organizer’s job is to get members on board with plans cooked up in union headquarters.

Large-scale mergers have also been at the heart of some of the most intense controversies inside SEIU in recent years. In 2007, the union orchestrated a sweeping reorganization of 24 public sector locals across California, merging them into four mega-locals against the wishes of many local officers.

Lingering resentment over the merger fueled the ouster of the International’s handpicked leaders in the merged Bay Area Local 1021 in 2008. (The new locals were all given numbers reflecting their mergers, like 1021—“10 to 1”—and 721.)

Then in 2009, SEIU’s national leaders trusteed the union’s third-largest local, United Healthcare Workers West, after the UHW executive board bucked the International’s plan to shift UHW’s 50,000 homecare workers into a different local. More than 10,000 members left UHW to form a rival union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

—Mark Brenner

Is Bigger Better?

Each of the two locals already encompasses several different industries. SEIU 503, the larger by far, includes workers in homecare, state and local government, and private nonprofits. Most members of SEIU 49 are health care workers or janitors.

Merger supporters’ main arguments were that bigger is better, bigger means more political power, and merging would help fend off the attacks unions are facing.

Initially they stressed the threat of a “right-to-work” ballot measure coming to Oregon. But once word got out that the measure probably wouldn’t make it to the ballot, the emphasis changed to the anti-union climate.

Why did we organize against the merger plan?

For one, the rushed process was undemocratic. The appointed committees responsible for shaping the merged union met in private. Members weren’t even allowed to hear the committee’s discussions.

Suddenly in December, proposed bylaws were released with no opportunity to amend. The only options were “yes” or “no”—and delegates were under heavy pressure to vote “yes.”

The proposed bylaws were less democratic than those now in place at 503. The merged union would have restricted the General Council, the union’s top decision-making body, to meeting every three years, versus every two years now.

The General Council functions much like the state AFL-CIO convention: it’s the site of lively debate over resolutions that cover a wide span of union issues. For instance, at the last General Council I submitted a resolution for our union’s representatives to the public employee benefits board to be elected by the membership (it failed); a resolution endorsing Obama for President garnered significant opposition. Any delegate can speak on the resolutions.

The board of directors, which governs in between these meetings, would have grown from 40 to a bloated 80-plus members, and met only four times a year (down from six). The rest of the year, a tiny executive board of 12 would have governed the union.

The merger would have essentially gone with SEIU 49’s governance and dues structure—even though 49, with 10,000 members, is much smaller than 503, with 55,000.

Many SEIU 503 members simply wanted to keep their union intact, with the bylaws they had shaped and defended. Members had voted down the leadership’s previous attempts to change General Council from every two years to three, and to extend officer term limits from two to three years.

Others distrusted the rationale behind the merger, assuming the International union was the real motivating force—the assumption being that the International wanted 503 and 49 to resemble mega-locals elsewhere. (See box.)

Strategy and Tactics

Merger opponents organized through the Committee for a Strong Union (CFSU), begun three years ago as a Facebook group for members to discuss and organize against a concessionary contract bargained by the union’s state worker arm. Afterward, some CFSU members ran for various union offices, with the group’s support.

These mostly-failed efforts taught the group valuable lessons in organizing—though many of CFSU’s members grew discouraged, finding it “impossible” to successfully organize anything not supported by the union leadership with its immense resources.

The retirees sub-local of SEIU 503 was especially outspoken against the merger. CFSU worked with retirees to release a statement signed by two 503 past presidents and by the current retirees local officers:

“We [retirees] spent years writing, amending and voting on our Constitution and By-Laws that protect and define us as a member run union. This is our legacy to future union members. Vote NO for this proposal [merger] to make our union strong!”

A crucial point in the campaign came when the local’s immediate past president, Linda Burgin, came out fiercely against merger.

Burgin had participated in some of the appointed committees planning the merger. She told the board of directors:

“When [merger] committee members raised issues, we were told to trust our leaders, who would ‘fix things later…’ The [new] constitution and bylaws were written not by our General Council, but by Locals 49 and 503 staff. Committee members suggested changes, but they were clearly not welcome suggestions, and most were not incorporated in the document. The Unified Constitution and Bylaws totally changed our union structure.”

Dueling Email Blasts

As the vote neared, CFSU sent an email blast to all delegates, incorporating Burgin’s and the retirees’ statements along with others co-authored by officers who had participated in the merger process. It also included “10 Reasons to Vote No,” such as “bigger unions are not always better”:

When a union gets too big democracy faces new challenges. Most members already feel alienated from their governing body, the Board of Directors. A bigger Board of Directors will create most distance between members and the Board of Directors. A less Democratic governing structure—with less frequent General Councils—will result in a less engaged membership, which will make for a weaker union.

The email blast received an immediate positive response from many General Council delegates, who were not even aware anyone was opposed to the merger. Some of these delegates joined in CFSU’s efforts and helped organize on the day of the vote.

The union leadership responded immediately by mimicking our email blast: they sent out their own email with “10 Reasons to Vote Yes.”

CFSU also organized a phonebank to delegates that won some additional votes.

Day of the Vote

On the day of General Council, CFSU brought a packet of the above-mentioned documents and another called “Four Myths of Unification.”

[Myth #2] We need to create a new union in order to fight political attacks: This myth ignores the fact that, when it comes to politics, SEIU 503 and 49 have been unified for years. The two unions already coordinate closely on political campaigns, and share a unified process for screening and endorsing political candidates. When it comes to fighting anti-union ballot measures, the unions also share resources, in coordination with the International. Creating an entirely new union adds zero value to the existing political dynamic.

We handed these packets to delegates as they registered and engaged them in conversation. Many said they were changing their votes to “no” after these discussions.

When the meeting began, CFSU joined forces with other “no” voters to craft and pass a motion to amend the agenda to allow Burgin equal time: after the current president spoke in favor of the merger, Burgin was allowed 20 minutes to speak against it.

For the discussion, CFSU had organized many “no” speakers, so that a diversity of arguments was expressed.

After the victory, everyone involved felt fired up with the power of rank-and-file organizing. We are now inspired to organize for the upcoming General Council in August, where members can submit new resolutions. We want to use this opportunity to steer the union’s policies in a more progressive direction and extend democracy further.

Shamus Cooke is an elected officer of SEIU 503. He can be reached at shamuscooke[at]gmail[dot]com.


LeeLaColeman | 03/09/14

I am one of the involved sub-local leaders who stood with members to organize a no vote on unification. After being told for months that there would be time "later" for our input, we were suddenly pushed to get members to vote for unification. Our concerns were dismissed with "vote to unify and we can fix problems later". We had virtually no time to get input from members, examine the pros and cons and make an informed decision with our members.

Voting to dissolve our union would have been irrevocable. The reality of fixing bylaws within the new structure would have been nearly impossible. Because top union leadership refused slow down the process and allow time for an informed decision, and the only option was "yes' or "no", the responsible thing thing to do was advocate a "no" vote.

Leadership had compressed the voting schedule, leaving virtually no time to have discussions with members and answer questions.Democracy requires making informed votes. If the argument for unification was solid, top-leadership would have had nothing to loose by giving a few more weeks for discussion.

We didn't take away anyone's democracy, we made it possible to flourish by giving members time to become informed and examine all sides of the issue.

shamus cooke | 03/08/14

a couple of the below comments contain factual errors.

1)The first comment states --and the third comment implies -- that Joe DiNicola is a member of the Committee For a Strong Union. He is not, nor has he ever been.

2) the second comment states "He [shamus] voted to not let me vote and he calls that increasing democracy. No. Wrong." It is true that, if passed, the resolution would have gone to the general membership for a vote. However, we opposed the resolution because, if passed, it would have included a "recommendation" to the membership to vote yes, without including ANY of the arguments of the opposing side of the debate. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to amend the resolution, so we felt that we were forced to help organize a 'no' vote.
3) the first comment mentions that the unstated goals of the CFSU are: "anti-immigrant, racist, and white privileged." this is of course slander, as well as an additional insult to the several members of the CFSU who are minorities. I do know of one individual on the CFSU FB page who said that he is against "illegal immigration" -- just one. That of course does not make all of CFSU "anti-immigrant", in the same way that his presence in the union itself doesn't make SEIU 503 anti-immigrant, racist, etc.

MargaretStephens | 03/04/14

I was in favor of unification, but did not get a chance to vote. A major issue I have with crowing about defeating the proposal to take a unification vote to the whole membership, so we all could vote, is the fact that the statement by the Retiree Local 001 was created without checking with the membership of this Local (a sub-local of SEIU 503). As an active member of 001, I strongly resent that. Additionally, it is interesting that one of the officers of 001 hates Democrats and doesn't want to work with them, but is willing to work with the virulently right wing cadre in the CFSU group - which includes (former ?) minute men and people praised by neo-Nazi groups, as well as deep-pockets Joe DiNicola, the perennial suer of 503. And when I asked to join the CFSU Facebook page, so I could view what was being discussed, I was denied, because the president of 001 stated I was "hostile to the stated goals of the group." Really? I looked at the stated goals, and they are basic, albeit narrow, trade union values. I think the real issue is that I, and many others in 503 who want to progress our union into a stronger force for social justice, is that it is really the UNSTATED goals of CFSU that we have problems with: anti-immigrant, racist, and white privileged.

Greg Ledbetter | 02/14/14

Shamus has an interesting definition of democracy. Wrong but interesting. I am a retired member of the state sector of SEIU503. I am a rank and file member as a member of the retiree local. I attended the Special Session insisted on by this group because they did not want this sent to the membership as the Board of Directors initially voted. It cost a ton of my dues money to do this event. I was not there as a voting representative. Shamus was. He is a leader in the union. He voted to not let me vote and he calls that increasing democracy. No. Wrong.

pdxchad | 02/14/14

rank and file power? really?! so who made up the committees that you dismiss? weren't they rank-and-file members and staff (who are hired and fired by elected members)? how long was the research and discussion by members on the merger? at least 8 months. this is a secret plot by the eviiiil international to force small locals into mega-locals? well that fits nicely into the little story Mark Brenner and Steve Early and their accolytes want to pass off as easy history about SEIU, but the truth is that this came organically, from the locals in Oregon. the right to work ballot measure is not going to the ballot? oh really? maybe some homework is needed here. instead this is just more knee-jerk, reactionary b.s. that follows the dogmas of "big is bad" and "staff are corrupt" and "don't trust your leaders" that only serve to offer simpler "struggles" and easier rallying cries that distract well-meaning activists from the harder, infinitely more important struggles to bring new workers into the union and win/defend improvements for union workers. how was this merger bad for those two goals (organizing and winning)? Because you don't say. All you can say is that it's "bad for democracy". But you don't mention that a large number of the members of 503 who work for state agencies are and have been opposed for some time to broadening the board of directors to include the existing 503 membership who works in home health care. democracy sounds good to you until someone proposes including those members in direct proportions to their numbers. and why doesn't this article mention that one of the main proponents of the no vote is a disgraced former president of 503 who sued the union to get paid "overtime" for his time as a salaried staff? that guy is as big of a scab as there ever was, inviting months of anti-union press and years of ready-made anti-union lit for bosses fighting organizing across the country. what a fucker! while this reads like a post from a war zone in which the brave union soldiers for democracy beat back the evil fascists, in reality this is just another draft for the bitter-comic epitaph that will be engraved on the labor movement's tombstone. and the capitalists are laughing their way to the banks.