The Role of Staff Unions in the Labor Movement: Interview with Paul Krehbiel
[Editor’s Note: The following interview with a long-time labor activist is meant to spark dialogue and debate about the role staff unions play inside unions.]
Paul Krehbiel has been active in the labor movement since 1968, first as a rank-and-file member in an auto parts factory in Buffalo, and later as a full-time union representative. In 1998, he went on staff at Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 660 in Los Angeles, and helped organize stewards councils at the two largest L.A. County hospitals.
Krehbiel was also president of his staff union, United Union Representatives of Los Angeles (UURLA). He was one of 15 staff workers terminated by SEIU in February 2007 when Local 660 merged with six other southern California SEIU local unions to form Local 721.
Guillermo Perez: Let’s start by talking about the very idea of union staff having a union. The attitude from many progressive labor activists, including some active with Labor Notes, is that union work is a form of social/economic justice activism and therefore a staff union would be inappropriate for people engaged in such work. How do you respond to that?
Paul Krehbiel: First, let’s be clear: a worker is a worker. If you are a worker and are subject to the authority of an employer, or his or her agent, and you are given work assignments, can be disciplined and fired, you should be in a union.
While many unions do treat their staff fairly, unfortunately, this is not always the case. I have spoken to L.A. county workers, who are members of Local 660, who came off their county job temporarily to work for Local 660 as temporary staff, and who told me that they were treated worse working for Local 660 than they were working for the county.
How can union officials claim to be working to protect and advance the interests of workers, and then treat their own staff like cogs in a machine, to be turned on or off at their whim?
I have heard some people in the labor movement say that unions are engaged in social and economic justice work and therefore staff workers should not have a staff union because, somehow, their staff union will interfere with this important work.
I agree that a union’s mission should be to protect and advance workers’ interests, and that it could be called a cause. I don’t agree that a staff union hinders that mission or cause.
In fact, many of the progressive staff members of Local 660, under the direction of our staff union helped prod Local 660 top officials and leaders to launch an aggressive fight to keep open county health clinics and hospitals that were threatened with cutbacks or closures at a time when these top union officials had resigned themselves to accept many of the closures.
Fortunately, rank-and-file union members and the staff union convinced top union officials to conduct a campaign, and we able to keep open two hospitals slated for either complete closure or serious closings of wards. If we didn’t have our staff union most staff members would have been too afraid to push for a fightback campaign for fear that top union officials would retaliate against them.
GP: A variation on the theme that collective bargaining isn’t appropriate for employees of labor unions is the argument that staff unionism too often gets in the way of rank-and-file reform and union democracy. The thinking goes that the protections that union staffers enjoy as a result of having their own union make it nearly impossible to fire dishonest or incompetent staff. What do you say when you hear this stuff?
PK: First, if a union staff worker is not doing his or her job, is dishonest or incompetent, union officials can fire them. But union officials have to follow the rules and laws, just as we expect all employers to do. If the argument is that it takes too long to go through the proper procedures to get rid of someone who is sabotaging newly elected progressive reformers, there are provisions in law to remove such a person from the workplace immediately.
Unfortunately, this can cut both ways. These exceptions to the law can and are used against progressives. SEIU is using these exceptions and loopholes to circumvent the “just cause” language, lay-off language, and other clauses in our contract with SEIU Local 660, by arbitrarily terminating selected staff that SEIU has determined do not fit the new model of corporate unionism. One of those who doesn’t fit, in their eyes, is me.
The exception of the law that SEIU used was to combine a number of locals into a new local, now called Local 721, and claim that since it is a “new” business, it has no obligation to the “former” Local 660 staff workers, including even those covered by the UURLA contract. When businesses do this, unions are rightly outraged.
GP: There seems to be a trend among some of the major labor unions to emulate the organizational model of SEIU. As a union staffer who’s caught in the middle of a classic corporate-style reorganization of SEIU locals in California you’ve seen and felt this first hand. Obviously, it’s the rank-and-file members of these SEIU mega locals who will suffer the most. Why should we care about the staff?
PK: I believe that both members and staff suffer when a union moves toward a corporate model of unionism. The members lose because they lose their voice and any meaningful decision-making power, the staff loses because they unfairly lose their jobs, and the members lose again because the staff targeted for termination are often the most committed to empowering the members.
In my experience working for SEIU and other unions over the past 20 years, the vast majority of union representatives I know want to do a good job for the members. Unfortunately, with the move toward the corporate model of unionism in SEIU – and I’ve heard it exists in other unions as well, union representatives are actually prevented from doing a good job.
By corporate unionism I mean unions that begin to look more like corporations than unions: top down authority from a president with the power of the organization flowing from the office of the president (or CEO); the erosion and elimination of real democratic rights for those at various levels in the organizations so they have little or no voice or decision-making; and people at all levels of the organization forced by fear of punishment to march in lock-step with the top officials’ mandates.
The work we did in a number of Los Angeles County facilities to empower workers by building stewards councils and other structures is being undermined by SEIU’s turn toward corporate unionism. And the members are suffering because of it. SEIU’s secret back-room deals with nursing home owners in California and that sold out the rights of its members is hurting the members. All of this is hurting the cause of unionism.
There is an alternative to this corruption of real unionism. We can learn much from the union building that took place in the 1930’s and 1940’s in our country when the Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO was built. Then, there was self-initiative of workers on the job to improve their working conditions, and the far-sighted CIO unions welcomed, embraced and assisted those workers in winning real improvements on the job and in our nation as a whole.
Second, really good unions are social justice unions, which means they build on a strong foundation of empowered union members to fight for the betterment of working people everywhere and for causes to help humanity as a whole, such as the fight that the CIO and other forces waged for Social Security, unemployment insurance, civil rights, and many other gains.
To his credit, SEIU international president Andy Stern and many in the union have in years past fought hard for the rights of workers (though within some limitations), but Stern seems to have moved away from this strategy. Because Stern and his group want to limit and restrain member empowerment on the job, he is giving away the greatest strength a union has–an educated, organized and empowered membership.
Thus, from a position of weakness, he has entered partnerships with employers and been reduced to cutting deals with no or very limited member involvement; in essence trading rights (the union will give up the right to strike in return for you, Mr. Employer, allowing us to sign up some of your members).
Undermining the stewards councils and other structures that have been built at Los Angeles County facilities is causing harm to the members there. Organizing unorganized workers into unions that give them little or no real voice or control in decision-making beefs up SEIU’s treasury from dues collection, but leaves members feeling frustrated and sold-out. Selling out nursing home workers in California (and maybe elsewhere) is harming workers and patients.
Combined with abusing staff–forcing some staff workers to work 60 and more hours a week with no overtime pay under disrespectful conditions, ordering staff to disregard many of the grievances and problems of workers, and purging the progressive staff--all this harms the labor movement, it does not help strengthen it.
But growing numbers of members and staff at SEIU are realizing that Stern’s corporate model of unionism isn’t serving them or working people as a whole. Despite SEIU’s threats and retaliation, people are speaking up, holding meetings, and making plans to win back their union.
I have heard from SEIU members around the country that growing numbers are talking about forming rank-and-file reform group inside SEIU and in some local areas the beginnings of this reform group are already forming–and some are talking about the need for a national rank-and-file reform movement inside SEIU.
[Guillermo Perez is a labor educator with the Civil Service Employees Association/ AFSCME Local 1000, in Albany, New York, and the Vice President and Chief Steward of the staff union for CSEA, the United Union Employees of New York. Perez serves on the Policy Committee of Labor Notes and is also on the boards of two worker centers in upstate New York and the Association for Union Democracy.]