Facing Movement for Democracy, SEIU Gives Massachusetts Members to Teachers Union

More than 2,000 SEIU members who work for the University of Massachusetts (UMass) left SEIU in late 2005, just as SEIU was leaving the AFL-CIO. What's most surprising is that SEIU preferred to lose these workers, rather than let them have a democratic local.

Members on four UMass campuses, in 10 bargaining units, were represented by four different SEIU locals until 2003. Through a top-down reorganization of locals under SEIU's New Strength Unity Plan, all these units were placed in the newly created Local 888.

While new and unknown, two discouraging things were known about the local: the bulk of its members would be spread over 200 small-sized municipal units, and the appointed interim president of Local 888 was to be Susana Segat, a long-time SEIU official, with no track record running a local.

Leaders in many of the UMass units were concerned about whether they would be able to continue the democratic structures and traditions they were used to in Locals 509 and 285 (pre-merger locals). Local leaders hesitated to endorse the reorganization without details about the process by which Local 888's constitution would be written.

Segat and Anna Burger (SEIU's Secretary-Treasurer and currently chair of the "Change to Win" federation) were unwilling to guarantee any specifics.

The new local was officially constituted in August 2003.

MEMBERS IN THE DARK

Immediately following the merger, Segat told local staff that the union's job is to provide good services, but that members should not be concerned about how they get them. Proposals and suggestions from both members and staff to bring the UMass members together were ignored, undermining the very rationale for the reorganization.

Fall regional meetings, the promised first steps toward drafting a constitution, were not held. Furthermore, the new local shunned the statewide coalition of public higher education unions (Higher Ed Unions United) that had been coordinating a campaign to secure legislative funding for the state's previously negotiated 2001-04 contracts.

Segat was unresponsive to invitations and questions from the UMass units despite the fact that UMass members constituted 20 percent of the local. The crisis escalated when Local 888's Higher Education Coordinator quit in protest over Segat's leadership, and 1,000 UMass members signed a statement declaring No Confidence in Segat. It was sent to the SEIU International. Soon thereafter, Segat was appointed to SEIU's national Executive Board.

SEIU leaders would not allow Local 888 to be led by its members, and Local 888's UMass members could not exist in an undemocratic local. Once a decert seemed inevitable to SEIU, a quiet uncontested transfer to another union was the only option.

The No Confidence petition led to the formation of the Local 888 Members' Democracy Campaign in early 2004. Its initial goals, besides improving the situation at UMass, were to coordinate efforts to write a democratic constitution, and when elections were finally held to vote for democratically-minded leaders. A victory in 888 would have led to progressive control of SEIU's Massachusetts State Council.

The group quickly learned that many units and leaders had major problems (servicing, finances) with the new local. It was fertile ground on which to organize, but there were some obstacles.

Calling 888 members out of the blue was hard and there were too few people making the calls. Successful calls required in-person follow-up and this was very labor-intensive.

Finally (this was actually the single biggest obstacle), the activists had too many pressing priorities organizing their base at UMass, day-to-day battles with the employer, and the constitution process.

NEW CONSTITUTION?

Under the Landrum Griffin Act, a new local has three years from its inception before it must have elected officers (unlike a trusteeship which must be ended within 18 months). Local 888 made several false starts toward a constitution, but by late in 2005, there was still not even a draft.

Members' Democracy Campaign leaders decided to fight for a constitution with a powerful elected executive board, chapters and councils with their own elected leaders and power to set local policy, no limits on numbers of stewards, a strong member bill of rights, and union staff not eligible to vote or hold office.

By Fall 2004, the campaign's core group had successfully reached out and incorporated leaders of most of the other UMass units in the Higher Ed Council. No longer could 888 leaders isolate the dissidents as unrepresentative radicals.

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However, three things soon converged to make the UMass activists reorient their focus away from reforming Local 888 and towards leaving it. Little progress was made on the constitution and elections. Building a local-wide campaign seemed too overwhelming. And pressure from the members to get out of 888 was mounting.

Leaders had a number of options to consider, including decertifying and forming an independent union, and decertifying and affiliating with the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA/NEA).

The MTA was a very appealing option because it represented thousands of workers in Massachusetts public higher education and affiliation would provide opportunities for greater on-campus collaboration.

SHOULD WE STAY OR SHOULD WE GO?

Some people, however, preferred to remain in SEIU, hoping that the progressive aspects of SEIU would prove more influential than the undemocratic ones, and in order to remain in the AFL-CIO (SEIU's departure from the AFL-CIO was not yet on the horizon). Equally important, this group was very wary of a bitter decertification fight-with a ballot that would have "No Union" as one of the choices.

Other members, more and more fed up with the traditional labor movement, were drawn to the idea of going independent.

There was growing desperation, unrest, and agitation. Talk of decertification grew louder and more widespread, and the International finally started paying attention.

Against the backdrop of a potential decert and increasing unrest, Anna Burger was convinced to look into the situation in December 2004. She asked two respected labor leaders to investigate the situation

The investigators read an 85-page dossier prepared by UMass activists and met with 20 leaders representing most of the UMass units. After explaining all the problems, the leaders listed three acceptable resolutions within SEIU:

1. Creation of a separate Massachusetts SEIU higher education local.

2. A transfer of all UMass units to SEIU Local 509.

3. The democratization of Local 888-involving Segat's removal, a transition team that included rank and filers, a speedy and democratic constitutional process, and elections as soon as possible.

DECERT DRIVE PICKS UP

By March 2005, possible options had been reduced to very few, and the argument to join the MTA grew in popularity. A decertification drive seemed inevitable.

A small group got the okay from the Higher Ed Council to make a final appeal to the SEIU International. The meeting had a surprise result. Burger put another option on the table: an uncontested transfer to the MTA.

SEIU was apparently not ready to be dragged through a messy decert battle. SEIU President Andy Stern and Anna Burger each signed letters on May 6, 2005 confirming that "SEIU supports the desire of our UMass members currently represented by SEIU Local 888 to join the Massachusetts Teachers Association." After six months of legal hurdles and negotiations, all but two of the higher education units (with 2,200 workers) voted overwhelmingly to join the MTA.

SEIU's public explanation for letting these workers go was that higher education is not one of the union's core industries. But the story of Local 888 illustrates what happens when different visions of unionism clash.

SEIU leaders would not allow Local 888 to be led by its members, and Local 888's UMass members could not exist in an undemocratic local. Once a decert seemed inevitable to SEIU, a quiet uncontested transfer to another union was the only option.

Ferd Wulkan was the Higher Education Coordinator for SEIU Local 888. A longer version of this article is here.