Viewpoint: SEIU Staff Fight for Their Union

In early March the Service Employees (SEIU) announced plans to lay off 75 organizers and other field staff represented by the International’s staff union, the Union of Union Representatives (UUR). The “reorganization” is another step in the increasing centralization of SEIU.

All non-senior organizers, nearly a third of our unit, were targeted. The announcement came less than a month before our contract was set to expire on March 31.

SEIU has tried to justify the layoffs by citing the “Justice for All” program, passed at the 2008 convention, which shifted more responsibility for organizing on International campaigns to the locals. SEIU has said that members voted for “Justice for All” knowing it would result in layoffs, but we have yet to speak with an SEIU member or delegate who was aware of this.

Many suspect the layoffs actually arise from SEIU’s financial precariousness. The union did say budget problems led to the layoffs of dozens of managers and Office and Professionals union-represented headquarters staff. Its net assets suffered a drastic drop last year, while at least one of its staff pension plans fell into the “red” zone, indicating severe underfunding.

Meanwhile, the union has recently taken on millions of dollars in new financial obligations to subsidize Workers United, the new SEIU affiliate made up of former UNITE HERE members.


After years of merging locals and installing loyal leaders, President Andy Stern and the International Executive Board are now asserting their authority to direct local union staff to work on International campaigns—anywhere, anytime, for as long as they deem necessary.

Local staff have been relocated to California to work on the trusteeship of United Healthcare Workers-West. Others have been dispatched to distant states for health care reform and Employee Free Choice Act campaigns. Who knows how SEIU will staff the new Workers United campaigns?

The reorganization also reveals SEIU’s cynical view of organizers and organizing. While it lays off experienced and dedicated International organizers, it is outsourcing our work to non-union contractors and hiring dozens of temporary staff for health care reform efforts.



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Many of these employees receive less pay and less training, and (like local staff) have limited rights to visit home during the course of lengthy campaign assignments. SEIU has also hired or promoted so many “managers” that managers outnumber the UUR members they supervise. Taken as a whole, these actions have the feel of a traditional boss campaign to crush the union.

Another disturbing aspect is that a disproportionate number on the layoff list are people of color and older staff, which led UUR to file charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Some UUR members threatened with layoff rose through the rank and file to become paid organizers, like Helen Sanders, a 58-year-old former security guard who left a stable SEIU-represented job eight years ago to organize full time.

Those laid off are not guaranteed job placements in the International or the locals, and SEIU knows there are not enough local jobs available that match the skills and geography of laid-off staff. As a result, Helen and other staffers face unemployment during an economic crisis already Depression-like for workers of color.

Faced with disappointment over SEIU’s hypocritical and heartless layoffs and its belligerent bargaining position, we made the difficult decision to make this a public issue. UUR members have leafleted SEIU headquarters and educated SEIU members about what SEIU is doing in their name.

We have filed unfair labor practice charges against SEIU over its refusal to bargain over the layoffs, the erosion of our bargaining unit, and the threatened termination of staff who try to organize SEIU local staffers into UUR.

We are proud of our work to build SEIU and through these efforts hope to rescind the layoffs, win a decent contract, and push SEIU to uphold the values it claims to represent—dignity, respect, and fair treatment of workers. Then we can get back to our real work, building the labor movement.

Malcolm Harris is president of the Union of Union Representatives.


Anonymous (not verified) | 06/10/09

I have been involved in the labor movement for over thirty years, across varied industries, working from the front lines to the executive offices of some mighty fine unions.

I was offered a job with SEIU and was told that work life balance was important to them to attract and retain talent. I took a cut in pay, but could afford to do so and wanted to work in the field again.

I cannot believe the hypocrisy that I witness daily. The unbelievable hours, the lame reasons for the low pay and long hours, the unrealistic goals, the constant threat of job loss, the patronizing forced discussions, the lack of any honor, the non reality of any respect for seniority, and a propaganda machine that is so well oiled as to border on insanity,

I have believed in the "movement" for my entire working life and I always had a contract to assure that we had what we fight so hard for our members to have. The most basic of those being good pay, respect in the workplace and decent work hours that allow us to pay more than lip-service to the concept that "family comes first!"

I have paid dues since entering SEIU employ but have never had the protections of a contract. A group of experienced hard working staff members decided it was time to change that. The push back was unbelievable. You have never seen such a boss campaign in your life. Complete disregard for EFCA ! Hypocrites! These bastards used every trick in the book and could teach some of the worst bosses out there how to most successfully subvert a union.

They of course will claim that a "majority" of staff were not interested, and I guess when you count all of the supervisors, managers and directors that weighed in, that could be true. And don't forget the folks that didn't even work for us that got to cast their vote. The maintenance crew from across the street :-), (sarcasm, but just barely) who was invited to sit in, and any other warm body who would spew the crap that they were told to spew and vote the way that they were told to vote. What a circus and what a riot.

Strap yourself onto the intravenous purple kool aid machine where you will learn that the "movement" truly requires this sacrifice from it's staff or the movement will collapse!!!!!!! The sky will fall! the conservatives will take over, yada yada yada.

What utter hogwash! if Stern and this type of tolerated behavior is the direction of the labor movement today...I'm OUT!

Anonymous (not verified) | 05/29/09

In this economy SEIU has laid off more staff representatives than the hospitals that employ the workers, in which the staff representatives worked hard for each and every day. In the 9 months I spent with SEIU as a staff representative 4 staff reps including myself did not pass extended probations or had to get out of SEIU, because we were expected to work 60 hours a week. Our Staff Director was one that was a micro managing freak and made all of our lives miserable. Members wanted the staff director terminated and to no avail she has remained in her position. In her 6 year term with SEIU she has had a 72% turn over of staff reps. No wonder management did not take SEIU seriously.

Dan Mariscal (not verified) | 05/24/09

I am a Steward of SEIU local 347 which was trusteed in 2008 and was merged into Local 721. Because of the 2007 mergers in California, we noticed that many experienced and senior staff were fired, abruptly and unceremoniously. News about this was not forthcoming to the rank and file. It soon because obvious that staff who did not "get with the program" were no longer around. They've now done away with "field business reps" and replaced them with "worksite organizers" who rarely visit the worksites. Now they have a Member Resource Center that handles the members calls for representation and the local is more dependent on stewards for actual representation. When the stewards need help, theyre just not getting it. The focus now seems to be on political representation, rather than worksite representation. This has resulted in the employer becoming more aggressive against the employees, and the stewards with dwindling influence and resources to help the employees enforce the contract, and uphold hard-fought-for rights and advances.
To now read that there are gong to be further reductions in knowledgeable and experienced staff is very alarming. Something about what is going on in SEIU, smacks of "The fall of Rome".

Emma (not verified) | 05/21/09

I worked for the International 1992-1997 in DC, KY, CA, CT, PA, Nevada, and Boston. Sweeney was president when I was first there, then Stern, Woodruff etc came in. Many organizers thought it would be great.... then they tried breaking UÜR, first by getting rid of the great health & safety organizers, I think that job was completely eliminated. Then they tried 2 tier wages, layoffs, using local they are trying now.

SEIU is known by some at a local NLRB office as one of the worst employers they've seen, ruthless against ULPs because of the cult mentality -- "you shouldn't have rights, you should sacrifice for the 'real' workers." It's so patronizing! (Because the leadership isn't from the working class, they think most organizers aren't either.)

Stay Strong, UUR ! Some day Stern et al. will be gone but our unions will remain -- both SEIU *members* AND UUR !

Anonymous (not verified) | 05/20/09

In the late 80's I worked for an SEIU local (now forced to merge with another local 600 miles away) and my pay was horrid. I worked long hours and was under constant threat of being "laid-off" if unrealistic targets weren't met.

The workers (14 of us in total) finally tired of being exploited and mistreated organized. We contacted the OPEIU (which represented union staff back then) & got a total of 13 cards signed. When the OPEIU staff contacted the head of the SEIU she went ballistic and threatened to fire me for organizing the union's workers. I decided it was time to get another job and did.

While I am still a committed unionist (member of a non-bargaining AFT local, AAUP & the IWW) I have no love for Stern & his regime.

I knew several of the UUR members & stand in solidarity with them.