Day 1 - Stern's address: Honestly?

The afternoon started off with Andy Stern’s big speech. You can watch the whole thing on the web and I encourage you check it out and draw your own conclusions about Stern’s vision for the union.

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While writing this up, I was surprised to see how many people had actually watched the full video (448 at the time of this writing). For a sense of perspective more people have read my coverage of the Puerto Rican teachers protest against the SEIU convention. Don’t get me wrong, I thought what I wrote was funny and still made some important points, but given how many communications staff SEIU has down here (my conservative estimate is at least 40, about five times Labor Notes entire staff) somebody should really be asking some hard questions about their “messaging.”

In fact, that is probably the most important thing I could say about Andy’s speech. Like so much of the convention thus far, it had this aura of “spin” that left me queasy. As someone who spends most of my waking hours working to put the movement back in the labor movement, I understand that today’s union activists need a big shot in the arm. We need the kind of hope and inspiration that makes it feel worth taking risks, and sacrificing all that we sacrifice for our movement. It helps recharge our batteries, and softens the inevitable heartache you face when you lose (because we all lose at least sometimes).

But here is the rub. Listening to all the presentations at the convention today, and definitely listening to Andy’s speech, you get the feeling that SEIU never loses. Their history is just one long string of victories, a glorious, purple manifest destiny. In his speech Andy promised that if the delegates passed the Justice for All platform they would organize a half a million new workers over the next four years. They would also get Barack Obama elected president, win universal health care, end the war in Iraq, pass comprehensive immigration reform, and restore the American Dream.

Isn’t it usually the politicians promising us the moon and the union leaders bringing things back down to earth? How did we get in this Alice in Wonderland situation where the union leader is more of a politician than the politician?

In the end, I think the spin and hype have a really corrosive effect on the union. All this chest-thumping and bragging, in the name of hope and inspiration, creates the opposite. People get cynical, they lose confidence in the union.

Good union leaders have to be sincere. They have to be honest, with themselves and with their members. After watching Andy’s speech today, I was continually left feeling like sincerity and honesty were in short supply up on the dais.

There were the more obvious things, like the big production that Andy made about SEIU hitting its two million mark (which you can read about here).

At one point Andy got out the big calculator and literally added all the latest organizing numbers together on the screen. What put them over the top were the 55,000 people in the North Carolina state employees association who voted last month to affiliate with SEIU, forming SEIU Local 2008.

One important detail that Andy didn't mention amidst all the hoopla is that public sector workers don't have collective bargaining rights in North Carolina. And he certainly didn't talk about how they were going to get them.

Since I'm from North Carolina, this is something that struck me more than it probably struck others, but I can tell you the state legislature is not exactly poised to change things anytime soon.

There were also the deeper ways that this felt out of sync and jumbled up. As I mentioned earlier there is no place where you ever get the slightest hint that SEIU has ever failed at anything since Andy Stern became president (things, you know, like their decision to endorse Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries in 2004).

But being honest, of course, requires admitting when we fail, because failure is necessary if we want to win on the scale that Andy Stern dreams about. Every successful social movement in this country has been preceded by a string of losses.

Before the great upsurge of the 1930s came many lean years for union activists (where, incidentally, union density was as low as it is today). The same holds true for the civil rights movement, which racked up defeat after defeat before laws changed.

Right now it doesn't seem like the union has an outlet for acknowledging failure, much less for assessing whether any specific defeat is “successful failure.” (After a specific struggle do we come out the other side stronger as individuals or as a union? Are there more members in it for the long haul now than there were before we waged a fight? Do more members feel like they experienced power through the campaign than before?)

What happens when a critical mass of members in this rapidly growing union live through failures which, because of SEIU's relentlessly cheery disposition, don't become part of the story leaders tell from the front of the room? What happens to the union's strength, when it fails to draw collective lessons from defeats, or campaigns that aren't working? What happens to members sense of "we are the union" when they see a big gap between the story the union is telling (or not telling) from the dais and what they went through back home?

What I can tell you is I'm not the only one sitting here wondering about this elephant in the room.

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

Comments

ginny (not verified) | 07/01/08

I work for a great Oz union after defecting from a shitty one who viewed Stern as the messiah, I had always presumed we'd taken the "union call centre" idea from them because it's one of our shittier ones.

It CAN be a useful resource if organized properly. My old union however simply had clueless 20 year olds answering calls and constantly giving WRONG advice, they also rarely bothered to contact organizers if an issue was bigger than an individual one, meaning possible organizing opportunities were lost.

If the phone organizers are used to simply answer quick queries (on entitlements/conditions etc) it can work, or if they are allowed OFF the phones to actually represent workers.

My old union would NEVER send a union staffer out to support a member in a meeting w/ management, the best they'd get was a young, inexperienced call centre operator phone conferencing in from Sydney (I'm in Melbourne) - and when I took time off to go an support a steward in my own time I got to listen to the phone organiser ASKING management for advice??!!??

Like many things it can be implemented really well but only if it's viewed from the prism of benefit to members NOT as a way to "free up" organisers.

Local VP (not verified) | 06/24/08

Stern's message is spot on and, just with from own experiences, management is legitimately intimidated by the SEIU in a whole new way. His "carpet bomb" approach to organization, which sometimes amounts to an occasional willingness to soften union demands temporarily, is quite brilliant. Get the numbers, and you can influence policy a hell of a lot more effectively than insisting on a "boutique" union. Bargaining becomes a formidable challenge for management when the contract is up. Perfectionism doesn't work in a labor rebuilding mode. We have to get membership up, and then we can become demanding, not the reverse. Good workers will always be in high demand. I support the SEIU vision; not just because I'm part of it, but because human psychology research supports it.

Relentless optimism and stories about organizing success may rouse a momentary spirit of unity, but for those working in an as yet imperfect union workplace, an acknowledgement of the reality being experienced and suggestions for dealing with it would be more useful. We need MORE on-site union staff at the work-site, not less. As per Andy's plan for call centers to handle grievances--why not go all the way and locate the call-center in India, next to the computer help desk people?!!!--
UHW-w member and proud of it.

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/08/08

brother/sister from UHW

two thoughts
1. one of the ideas of the 'call center' is to free up in-site organizers to come to the facility more often by having an off-site resource center rep answer common questions or individual/non-group grievances. in local 1 in chicago, they created 'routes' for internal organizers to make sure they got to the shop floor more often.
2. your own president, sal rosselli, praised the idea of member resource centers as recently as one year ago. now he's against them since there is a dispute with some other SEIU leadership? it seems an opportunistic argument.

the same way some on labornotes would ask us to question our national leadership when necessary, a fine point, i would ask you to do the same with your local leadership from time to time as well.

there are legit points of contention at this convention, but i hope we will be in unity going forward in our great unions. peace.

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/04/08

If you don't cheer for Stern with enough enthusiasm, you are quickly fired as a staffer on trumped up charges. And in SEIU, the bosses run everything through the staff.

Staffers with working class backgrounds or other union backgrounds are ostracized. The cool thing is to be a college kid, join through the WAVE program, suck up to the bosses with gusto, and get promoted.

Epididimus (not verified) | 06/04/08

Just about on target. Long term messaging has never been a strong suit of our Purple Ocean.