Over Before It's Begun?

Today the die may have been cast for United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), the 140,000-member local that has been leading a high-profile dispute with its parent body, the Service Employees International Union, over questions of centralization and member control in the union. UHW put forward a series of amendments to the SEIU constitution in late March, including:

  • Guaranteed participation by rank-and-file members in bargaining (both electing bargaining team members and approving initial contract proposals)
  • Direct election of national officers, one member-one vote.
  • Right of affected bargaining units to approve mergers and jurisdictional transfers.

Back in February I was talking with a friend who works for Local 1199 about the conflict between UHW and the International. He told me that the minute the SEIU convention started all the leverage that UHW had was going to disappear, since nothing was going to happen at the convention that SEIU's President Andy Stern and his supporters didn’t want to happen (clearly the Puerto Rican teachers weren’t part of his calculus back then). His point was that every important decision would be made before delegates got off the plane in San Juan, and this weekend may have proven him right.

Although the convention doesn’t officially open until tomorrow morning, delegates went through a series of divisional meetings on Saturday. Divided up along the union’s three key lines—Property Services, Public Sector, and Healthcare—delegates were supposed to start debating the proposals coming from the International Executive Board’s “Justice for All” program, as well as UHW’s competing proposals. Unfortunately the International didn’t release its actual amendments until last week, making it hard for most folks to read them before arriving, much less trace out how the various amendments and proposals would affect the structure and day-to-day operations of their locals.

To take just one example, the International is proposing to establish national bargaining teams to take on negotiations with “strategic employers” in each of SEIU’s three sectors (See pages 16-17 of Resolution 205 for more details). What isn’t really clear is how representatives from affected locals will be selected for a national bargaining team. Is it the local president or executive board who gets to select bargaining team members? Are they elected by members? Do International officers get to decide?

These are not unreasonable questions, especially given the large number of current officers who have been appointed to their positions by Stern. But it’s not clear that members were getting much insight into these or dozens of other questions stemming from the “Justice for All” program in Saturday’s meetings.

In the end it didn’t necessarily even matter, since Sunday everything came to the all-important Laws, Resolutions, and Program Committees. Each committee was composed of about a dozen officers, charged with hearing testimony on each resolution or constitutional amendment and deciding what should come to the floor of the convention for a vote by all the delegates.



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UHW had many of their proposals in front of the Laws Committee, which was chaired by Tom Balanoff from Local 1 in Chicago together with Annelle Grajeda from Local 721 in Los Angeles. According to Larry Bevan, a Local 1021 member from Northern California who testified in the Laws Committee today, “It was a real dog-and-pony show.”

Bevan’s concerns were clear. “I testified about the need for more rank-and-file participation," he said. "Why won’t they guarantee spots on national bargaining teams for rank-and-file members?”

What came of it? “I was there all day during the testimony," he said, sighing. "Late in the afternoon I had to go back to my hotel room, and was gone for maybe 20 minutes. By the time I got back the room was empty. The committee had already gone into executive session, decided on everything, and disbanded.”

After talking with Bevan, I spoke to Jorge Rodriguez, a UHW vice president who served on the Laws Committee today. He reported that all of UHW’s proposals got deep-sixed by the committee and will never make it to the convention floor. When I asked why the committee members didn’t send the proposals to the full convention, he replied, “Nobody gave any reasons, but if there was a dissenting vote, I was it. I asked a lot of questions [about the International’s proposals] throughout the day, but didn’t get a lot of good answers.”

Two things strike me about the SEIU convention thus far. First, I’m frankly amazed at just how shallow the debate has been. These are some fundamental questions about the future of SEIU on the table, and they seem to be more or less decided before most delegates have even had a chance to get up to speed.

Second, I can’t for the life of me figure out why Stern and company won’t let UHW’s proposals onto the convention floor. As my friend at Local 1199 pointed out, the outcome is certain. UHW freely admits they can’t win the votes but they want to have the debate. What are SEIU’s leaders so afraid of?

Mark Brenner is the former director of Labor Notes and is currently an instructor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education & Research Center.


Anonymous (not verified) | 06/02/08

the call centers will be located in india, that is where seiu takes the union movement global

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/02/08

Look at the "partnership" in Colorado -- read the merger agreement crafted by SEIU and signed by AFT and AFSCME. The selling out of American workers to feed the SEIU Corporate Union. Ultimately, AFL-CIO unions will need to grow a backbone and stand up for workers in the face of oppressive unions, as well as employers. Where is AFL-CIO??? (Look to eiaonline.org and search for the colorado merger agreement). I found it accidentally (as I do most things by googling) and was shocked and dismayed - feel sorry for those state employees out there.

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/02/08

The SEIU is well on its way to becoming a full-fledged cult. If members were exposed to any kind of debate, they might expect discussion to be allowed in their home locals. Stern is eliminating that possibility by creating megalocals whose leaders are far removed contact with any members, except for those hand-picked by staff. If there are no stewards and no local meetings, then members won't be able to bring up those annoying workplace problems that take staff time away from politics and "organizing". The average members contact with the union will be an 800 number they can call for a non-answer to their problems, plus an occasional mailing or robocall.

Of course after a few years of this kind of representation, SEIU would be ripe for decerts, but they feel that no major union will take them on because of their size and reputation for ruthlessness(and because they've made so many deals with AFLCIO unions like AFT and AFSCME for merged union locals). That's why they are so freaked out by CNA-NNOC. An aggressive union could take SEIU on and decert them in a lot of place.

As a former SEIU staff, I was continually told "we don't do repping",
and that workers with grievances were bad workers who should be fired. SEIU staff should only work with those members that like their bosses and had no problems. This what they really say in the staff meetings. I didn't go along, so I was fired. This is what the SEIU vision of "partnership" really means.