Day 1 - Time to Vote! (Long Post)
After the division reports, International Executive Vice President Tom Woodruff closed the show, emphasizing a couple of the key pieces of the “Justice for All” program. These include:
- Ensuring all locals follow through on constitutional commitment to spend 20 percent of their budgets on organizing.
- Recommendations from the International Executive Board (IEB) that when bargaining with designated national employers and industry sectors, designated by the divisions, that we speak with one voice and unite our strength.
The first one is important because this year at convention the IEB is proposing that any local failing to meet the 20 percent target be required to transfer any organizing money “left on the table” up to the International. The money will be used to finance division organizing programs. This is not peanuts, either. Internally the International estimates it spent $530 million on organizing through the local 20 percent funds between 1997 and 2006. But they estimate another $97 million was “left on the table” and went unspent over the same period.
The International also recommended as part of Justice for All that the 20 percent funds be “blended” with the divisions' dedicated unity fund. It was not clear from the recommendations whether this money “left on the table” was the only way the money was going to be “blended” or whether there were other ways the local organizing budget was going to be redirected to fund division plans.
Getting down to brass tacks, the second point is about establishing national bargaining with targeted employers, “speaking with one voice” in SEIU-lingo. This is controversial because the proposal is to let the division coordinate this national bargaining with targeted employers. The devil is in the details, and how that division-led coordination will happen. Critics argue that the International’s plan could very well exclude rank and filers from participating in bargaining.
This is what happened to United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) in 2007, when their elected rank-and-file bargaining committee at the Tenet healthcare chain was left cooling their heels while staff from the International sat down at the table with their employer. (you can read about that here) The same thing happened in the California Nursing Home Alliance, where not only were rank-and-file members excluded from negotiations with the Alliance, UHW leaders at all levels were barred from participating in the negotiations (read more about the California nursing home alliance from the July 2007 issue of Labor Notes).
ROUND ONE: GUARANTEE RANK-AND-FILE MEMBERS AT THE TABLE OR NOT?
In one of the many not-so-subtle ironies of the day, who should take the stage but Dave Regan, who coordinated the negotiations with the California Nursing Home Alliance that iced out UHW members and elected leaders. Regan has also been the International’s go-to attack dog when it comes to UHW’s President Sal Rosselli, and as the fates would have it is the co-chair of the program committee together with Damita Davis-Howard from Local 1021 (who had her own share of trouble in the run up to this convention).
Among other things, their committee is recommending the adoption of a resolution that formally sanctions the International’s recent practice with Tenet and the California Nursing Home Alliance, where the International appointed the individual(s) who bargain with the company. Specifically, the resolution’s Appendix B reads:
“Upon the recommendation of the division leadership board, the International president acts and utilizes his/her authority under the SEIU Constitution to authorize national bargaining and appoint a national barraging chair and team for the strategic employer(s). The chair is responsible for implementing the strategic plan of the division and is the chief spokesperson. The makeup of the other team members will depend on the category of strategic employer relations designated by the division leadership board.
Regan reported that the committee had a “full and vigorous debate,” hearing seven hours of debate and testimony on Sunday (and an additional two hours of discussion in closed session) which he called “a hallmark of this union.”
Davis-Howard went to great pains to stress that these proposals for nationally coordinated bargaining were democratic. “Our members are the heart and soul of this union. They are the voice of this union,” she said. “In all circumstances there will be representatives from affected local unions on the national bargaining team. These local representatives will be accountable to their members because it is the members that select the local representatives in the first place. And if any of you have served on the bargaining team, you know your members will hold you accountable for what goes on at the bargaining table.”
Davis-Howard’s choice of words was interesting—saying selected instead of elected—because she wasn’t elected to her current position, but appointed by SEIU President Andy Stern to head the newly merged Local 1021 despite no small amount of rumbling from the membership.
The floor debate started and the first five speakers each lauded the resolution. The chair of the North Carolina public employees association SEANC, for example, claimed they symbolized the workers SEIU has chosen not to leave behind with this plan. Pearl Granat, from 1199 New York, emphasized that the division plans were democratic, comparing them to an organizing committee where everyone brings their ideas and talents, and everyone has a voice (with weighted voting I wondered?).
Stern then asked for someone with a different point of view and Maya Morris, a UHW vice president and leader of the rank-and-file reform group SMART (SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today) took the mike. Morris' comments went right to the heart of the matter, introducing an amendment to guarantee that elected rank-and-file members participate at every level of contract negotiations:
I support wholeheartedly the principles of winning justice for working people everywhere. I support growing our union through nationally coordinated campaigns and strategies. And I believe the best way to do this is by building a strong member-driven union, rooted in the principles of democracy and worker self-determination. Unfortunately these proposals do not guarantee democratic decision-making. They do not guarantee the right of rank-and-file members to participate at every level of contract negotiations. In fact rank-and-file members are excluded at the highest level of contract negotiations and replaced with boards of appointed leaders and staff, mostly from Washington, D.C., rather than from local unions.
The message being sent is that rank-and-file members aren’t trusted to make the right decision on behalf of all workers. Yet rank-and-file members should trust these appointed boards to make the right decisions on behalf of us, without any system of accountability to the members? Ironically, these proposals turn democracy and worker empowerment on its head.
Maya's comments were the opening salvo in what is sure to be a long and uncomfortable trek through the convention for the dissidents here in San Juan.
It also was a green light for the International to pull out the big guns, and that is exactly what they did. First to speak on the amendment was Kathy McCormick from 1199 West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, director of their Long Term Care Division. This protection was unnecessary, she said, since they elect their local leaders. (Somebody needs to tell her that is not true for a sizable chunk of the SEIU members in California - in Locals 721, 221, 1021, 521).
Suzanne Wall speaking at the 1991 Labor Notes conference. Her best line: "If you're not having fun you're not organizing." The Mickey Mouse shirt shows Mickey giving someone the finger.
Then Suzanne Wall, secretary treasurer of Local 775, spoke, reminding delegates that members always would get to vote on their contracts (not really the point but good to know) and she also gave a shout-out to Susie Young, a rank-and-file member of the Addus national bargaining committee from her local. (A subtle way to point out that you're already doing exactly what they want, so need to write it into the resolution, I wondered?)
But then Tony Aidukas, a rank-and-file board member of UHW, spoke in favor of the amendment, pointing out that when his rank-and-file bargaining team was kept out of talks at Tenet the International staff signed off on a tentative agreement to subcontract 12 percent of their workers. Those kind of specifics sort of trump Wall's Addus reference.
Then it was back to the big guns, as Leslie Frane, president of Local 503 spoke, followed by Regan. Frane make the savviest rhetorical move of the day, arguing that because the national bargaining council is supposed to have one leader and one member, and because the bargaining council elects the bargaining team, then everything is safe.
The only problem is that a) the resolution doesn't say anything about the member being a rank and filer (remember, staff can be and usually are members); b) the members in question are "elected/selected" -- not quite the same as a what UHW was pushing for. Just ask any public sector delegate from California in a local where their president and e-board was chosen for them following reorganization.
Regan spoke next, and aside from trumpeting how they have "gone the extra mile" to ensure member participation, he couldn't resist taking a swipe at UHW. "I also think it has to be noted that what we are putting forward in the resolution," he said, "does far more to protect the rights of inclusivity and participation than do the constitution and bylaws of the local union that is proposing the amendment on the floor."
(Regan didn't say anything about 1199 WOK's bylaws and how they stack up in all this, but since I don't think he ever spent a day in his life as a working member of the local that has to tell you something.)
What was really creepy about watching Regan speak was that Andy Stern was hovering right behind him the whole time, so close it almost looked like he was whispering in Dave's ear. What a pair those two made up on the podium!
Al Bacon, executive vice president from 1199 WOK, followed Regan supporting the original motion. Then there was a little pro-reform interlude. Keenan Sheedy from Local 721 read an amendment he hoped to introduce, designed to ensure that local democratic practices and structures are respected in national bargaining. Then Jonathan Meade from Local 1021 spoke in favor of the amendment, noting, "Elections are fine, but they are not the only hallmark of democracy. The other very, very important part of democracy is member participation -- the life of the union."
Then just like that time ran out. The amendment was voted on and failed by a wide margin. (UHW has about 8 percent of the delegates and with different pockets of support about 10 percent of the delegates supported their various initiatives). The main motion passed easily.
INTERNATIONAL GAINS MORE POWER OVER NATIONAL NEGOTIATIONS, LOCAL ORGANIZING BUDGETS
The laws committee, co-chaired by Anelle Grajeda (the Stern-appointed head of Local 721) and Tom Balanoff, president of Local 1, gave their partial report next. Their committee handled all the constitutional amendments that were proposed at this convention, and the first two to come to the convention floor were amendments 308 and 316.
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Amendment 308 broadens the powers of the International president to negotiate national agreements, particularly with strategic employers (identified by divisions). Amendment 316 modifies the system of accountability for spending the 20 percent organizing fund each local is already required to maintain.
In addition to putting the money in a designated, separate account (easier to get your hands on if you're the International?) it provides for a review by the secretary-treasurer if the division believes the local is not complying with the 20 percent mandate. Although Grajeda said this doesn't change anything, based on my read that seems a little misleading. Now, rather than having a hearing and hearing officer appointed to review the situation, the secretary-treasurer has the discretion and can impound the local's organizing funds if they determine the local is falling short on their 20 percent commitments.
In this round of debates, UHW and the other reformers were a much more solid presence at the microphones. At one point only two people had spoken in favor of the proposals, and five or six had spoken against them.
Two comments from the second round of debate really stood out. The first came from Arturo Diaz, a member from Local 721 and activist in SMART. He said:
My experience is that when it comes to higher executive positions in the International. If you are called upon, if you are selected, if you drink the Kool-Aid, you can get there. But people that like to think for themselves, that are trying to have the respect of their fellow members, and are trying to organize at the local level, are not being allowed to forward their ideas, they are not being respected by the International, and I just think this is another consolidation of power that would result at the local level in less flexibility for us as thinking members.
Since I've seen more than one cartoon about SEIU playing on that Jonestown theme I had to laugh.
But I also could really relate to something Jorge Rodriguez said when he spoke from the floor. He is a vice president in UHW, and he actually served as a committee member on the laws committee. Referring to the International's tightly run ship, he said,
This is my fifth SEIU convention. I’ve seen first hand how tightly controlled our conventions can be. I’ve seen first hand how there are people assigned, and security everywhere, and walkie-talkies in people's ear, and people standing close to you, in constant communication. It’s a very controlled atmosphere. I understand that. And I’ve seen first hand too, where our leadership get very nervous if somebody gets off script or something is not under full control.
Rodriguez's comment really struck a chord with me because as he was speaking I had one of the communications staff with the International, Carter Wright, sitting to my left. Carter (who is a very nice and thoughtful guy) was a regular presence wherever I found myself on the first day of the convention. I first noticed it when we were talking with UNITE HERE President Bruce Raynor, who, trust me, doesn't need a handler with us reporters.
I felt paranoid, like Carter was writing down the questions I was asking, which weren't that pointed, I might add.
In any event, when Jorge made his comment, I turned to Carter and said "Is he talking about you?" It got even weirder as the time went on because pretty soon Michelle Ringuette (also with the International's communications staff) sat down on the other side of me. It was kind of like being caught in a very friendly version of the Malachi crunch (with Tina Fey on one side and Peter Krause on the other). Why didn't I get someone to take our picture?
I have to admit, I felt a little sorry for the communications staff at times today. They got really twitchy and started running around in a frenzy as soon as the reformers made their move on the convention floor. They didn't really seem to calm down for the rest of the afternoon, even after the dissidents lost the vote on the amendments by a wide margin. Actual discussion and debate, where the outcome is not predetermined and you're not sure where it might go, seems to be the kind of thing that brings on the vapors.
After the second round of voting, the delegates went on to consider two more amendments. The biggie expanded the number of executive vice president slots from four to six, and the number of vice presidents from 21 to 25. The union is growing after all, so someone has to manage this behemoth. After two speakers in favor of the amendments, somebody called the question and the first day was over.
IS THIS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE?
I left today's convention feeling really down. I was deeply disturbed by the ease with which the union seemed to be voting on such big questions with so little real discussion and debate.
At one point Woodruff got up to speak, saying:
I think we have an honest disagreement about some conflicting proposals. I come from a local union that had a very democratic structure--150 people on executive board, people on committees. We had disagreements, we had debates, and then we decided. And that’s what’s happening here. People are being listened to. But there are some proposals where you are not able to convince the majority of delegates to be with you. That is what democracy is all about, hearing the minority but then voting and put into effect the will of the majority.
Listening to Woodruff reminded me of a recent blog post by Herman Benson at the Association for Union Democracy. Benson wrote "Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union and labor's latest celebrity, seems to be resurrecting a neglected ideology: the concept of a militarized "democratic" centralism." You definitely get that sense, with all the talk of holding individual leaders and their locals accountable to the national plans.
Democratic centralism is not a organizing philosophy I subscribe to, but it seems to animate Stern, who's following in the tradition of leaders who skip over the "democratic" part and head straight for the centralization of power and resources.
Organizing millions doesn't require this sort of lock-step control. Just look at the 1930s, where organizing efforts were virtual "schools of democracy" (and sometimes anarchy). The upsurge may have been "too democratic" for top union officials, but definitely not for the people who were risking everything to actually forge the modern labor movement.
But even putting aside ideals, just in a very practical sense, how could this stage-managed, tightly scripted union convention really measure as democratic? Delegates got the text of the resolutions and amendments a week or two before the convention. In most cases there was no way to discuss the proposals with other members of the local, or even between the delegates themselves, before they arrived in Puerto Rico.
A friend told me that when Change to Win's Chair Anna Burger came to Local 73 in Chicago to talk about the convention, she didn't discuss the specifics of their Justice for All program, their proposals to centralize more decision-making at the International level, or even their high-profile dispute with UHW.
She talked about the weather, and what to wear to the beach.
On the convention floor itself, each block of proposals was debated for 40 minutes, and the one effort this afternoon to extend time was decisively voted down.
It is also clear that many people were not versed in the finer points of each motion. How could they be with other 100 pages of resolutions to study in just a week?
Collette Forbes, an 1199 member from New York, got up and said as much. "I’m not going according to the paper that’s being distributed here," she said, "but based on the fact that I’ve been a rank-and-file member for the past 19 years. I’ve seen real democracy taking place in this union."
Her statement captures both the highs and lows of SEIU. It reflects the incredible degree of trust and confidence many members have in their leaders and in SEIU itself. That sort of trust is essential for any large organization to actually function. (Imagine writing contract language that every member in the local had to sign off on. Then imagine doing it in a union as big as 1199, which claims 300,000 members and retirees).
But trust is not a "get out of jail free" card. Forbes will have to live under the constitutional changes she and so many others voted for. And if these changes do ever come back to bite her, what will that mean for the union? Will she feel as betrayed by SEIU as many of the UHW members, who have been just as active, just as committed, just as central to building SEIU into the social justice union that (at its best) it is?
If so, will she vote with her feet, and disengage from union politics and activism, like so many people do when they are not really in the driver's seat when things are done in their name?
And even if she stays involved, and tries to make sure her voice gets heard, how many other people won't? Folks have enough things to struggle with every day, having a real say in their union shouldn't have to be one of them.