Working For Change: Interview With An SEIU Reformer
Of the unions involved in the New Unity Partnership, only one—the Carpenters—has an active rank-and-file reform movement. However, each of the other unions has rank-and-file leaders on the local level who are working to promote member control.
John Templeton, a longtime member of SEIU Local 509 in Boston, is an advocate for democratic reform in his union. He’s been a member of Local 509 since 1972, when he began working in the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare as a social worker. In December, in accordance with 509’s policy on term limits (which he authored and advocated for as a member), Templeton stepped down from the local presidency.
In 2004, he ran against SEIU International President Andy Stern and in this interview, he talks about his experiences at the 2004 SEIU Convention, as well as his experiences as a member and leader in his union.
Templeton refers to SEIU’s “New Strength Unity” plan in the interview. This plan, adopted at the union’s 2000 convention, gave the SEIU International greater authority to trustee and reorganize locals.
Tell me about the 2004 Convention. You pushed a few amendments there.
The reason I ran against Andy was, when I attempted to get a letter out to the convention delegates, about the amendments, the international said they’d only do mailings in relation to the convention if someone was running against Andy. So I ran against him and then I was able to send this piece on the amendments out to the delegates. Then I withdrew my name at the convention.
We introduced four amendments and a couple of resolutions. The first amendment was to have direct member election of all international officers. We really think that would be good because, in order for any officer in the international to get elected, there would have to be intense membership contact. We don’t have that now with our president, Andy Stern, being elected by the executive board.
Another amendment was that a person, in order to become a local officer, would have to be a member of the local. Because SEIU, when they trustee a local, they’ll appoint a president and often times that person will run for the presidency. As far as I’m concerned, there’s a disconnect there. Not just as far as I’m concerned—these amendments were submitted by our executive board to the convention.
The third amendment was that you can only trustee a local for corruption, financial malfeasance, or to restore democratic procedures within the local. The way I understand it now, the international’s talking about locals that aren’t spending 20 percent on organizing can be trusteed, and I just think that’s the wrong way of going about that.
I think the international can offer incentives or even moral suasion. I know, from going to conventions and public sector meetings, that the international president has a lot of status and a lot of respect, and most people do what he says because it makes sense and because they stand a little in awe of him. I think a lot of locals are really very fearful…
The fourth amendment was that locals that have the right to directly elect their officers should not be moved to locals that do not have direct elections. That last one was basically attempting to prevent the International from arbitrarily merging 509 into the National Association of Government Employees (SEIU Local 5000) which is a nationwide local of 33,000 people.
How did people respond to these amendments?
Presenting these amendments wasn’t an easy thing to do because there was a lot of pressure once we got to the convention, a lot of opposition. The idea was for us to plant some seeds as far as making the union more democratic and returning to much more democratic language in the constitution. We also felt that direct elections would mean a lot more contact between officers and members. I know that in the four terms that I stood for office I had to take between two and four weeks vacation to go out and campaign…I talked with members, found out about their concerns, what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong.
The only amendment where the vote was really close—where it was in doubt—was the first one on all SEIU officers being elected by the membership. When I noticed it was questionable, I went up to the microphone to ask for a rising vote, and the microphone was off. So I turned to the Sergeant at Arms and said “What the hell is going on here?” and he said “I don’t know, I’m flashing the podium but I’m not getting any response.”
So that didn’t get recounted, and I was very upset about that. The next day, at the microphone, I addressed Andy and told him what happened, he apologized, said he would try to make sure it didn’t happen again. Nevertheless, parliamentary procedure was not implemented. People should have been able to vote a second time.
Another thing they did was they bundled amendments. Our amendments were bundled with other amendments, which had the effect of burying them and thereby distracting the delegates attention from them.
We also submitted two resolutions, one on clean elections and the other was on minority unions and organizing minority unions—they were both passed but they were watered down, but at least SEIU is on the record as supporting clean elections and minority unions. I did notice when I came back from the convention that Andy Stern had something on his blog (http://www.seiu.org/blog/) about minority unions, but the whole sentiment was lost because it talked about letting people find a way to join SEIU as associate members.
The concept we were talking about was SEIU 509 going into a place where we lost an election, and gathering together the minority that had voted for the union, to start to organize to serve the people in that facility. That committee would decide on voluntary dues and continue organizing until they’re at a point where they want to vote on whether to join SEIU 509.
Let me just say, I don’t want to sound completely negative about SEIU—I really like the way they’ve organized janitors, and we were one of the first locals in the country to start devoting 20 percent of our dues to organizing, so I think the progress they’ve made with organizing, especially in organizing low-paid workers, is marvelous. Let me also mention that the international is working with us to organize about 35,000 Massachusetts community care workers that make dreadfully low wages, sometimes as low as nine dollars an hour, they’ve been very helpful in that regard.
Getting back to mergers, is the merger with Local 5000 something that’s been officially proposed?
There’ve been rumors that we’ve traced to the president of Local 5000, David Holloway. We are not in opposition to there being one public loca in MA as long as the democratic aspects of our local are maintained in that new local. We’re very concerned because there’s talk of us being merged into Local 5000, because they have indirect elections of their president. It kind of mirrors the international situation.
The really positive thing about our local is that we have a lot of member involvement. For instance, we have member political organizers, about 150 people, we also have a whole array of committees where members are involved, and I think direct elections have a lot to do with that. Every 3 years there’s a tremendous amount of activity that goes on, it helps to keep the members involved.
The last contract we negotiated for the public sector we had 700 contract action team people involved. So we’re very much concerned, we don’t see that [type of member involvement] in Local 5000 and we’re afraid that, if there was a merger, that Local 5000 would absorb us.
You’ve been with Local 509 since the pre-Sweeney days? (AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was SEIU International. President from 1980 to 1995.) What are some of the changes you’ve seen in your local and International since the early days?
I feel that our local has become much more democratic. Two examples are the term limits--which state that you can’t serve any more than two consecutive terms without stepping down for at least one year--and the constitutional amendment stating that no local officer can be paid higher than the highest paid member of the bargaining unit. So that’s the direction our local’s been going in. Sadly, the international seems to be going in the opposite direction, starting in 2000.
With the New Strength Unity plan?
Yes. At that time, I was at the convention and didn’t realize it…I and 14 reps from 509 voted for New Strength Unity, but buried in a lot of literature on the plan was changing of the ability of the international to trustee unions. Prior to 2000 there had to be corruption, malfeasance, and undemocratic activity, and after New Strength Unity they could trustee for almost any reason.
Was your local shifted around at all after New Strength Unity?
The international came into Massachusetts and they moved our professional employees from the Amherst and Boston campuses (of the University of Massachusetts) into Local 888, and they moved about 1,500 community care workers into our local. We supported the industrial model of bringing social workers into 509 because we have most of the SEIU social workers in Massachusetts. We didn’t, however, agree with the moving of 1,500 professionals because they more belonged in our local than in 888.
We had represented these people for 15 years and Local 888 didn’t have a preponderence of professional workers. As a matter of fact, they were and are still made up primarily of municipal workers. So we didn’t necessarily agree with it, but we went along with the plan because the international assured us that the union our professional workers would be going into would be as democratic, if not more democratic, as 509.
Have you maintained contact with those folks?
Yes, I have, and that local’s in a mess. We sat down with the president of 888, Susanna Segat, and I brought the UMass chapter board together with (International Secretary-Treasurer) Anna Burger, and there was a frank discussion and the chapter officers were assured that there demands were being heard. And the impression they and I took from that meeting was that in a short time there would be democratic procedures established, for electing a president and officers in 888. That hasn’t happened. The UMass chapter’s still having a great deal of difficulty, from what I hear.
There’s a lot of talk right now about restructuring the labor movement. What kinds of changes would you like to see for the AFL-CIO and SEIU in the future?
I hope that there’s a reversal of this threatening posture that the International takes toward dissident unions—you know that clause in the constitution around trusteeships was designed to eliminate corrupt unions. And it had been used, up until 2000, to do that, but to use it now as a weapon to get people to agree politically and to establish a monolith, I just don’t think that’s the right way to go.
The thing is, in our local we have a lot of dissent, and if you don’t allow for that people get really disillusioned and they don’t participate, and what we should be doing on the 509 level and on the International level is encouraging people to participate more and to speak freely, and even to change the union. If you can’t keep the members interested and involved on the local level, we’re not going to be able to make the union movement grow.