Thursday, June 18, 2009

SEIU's Farce In Fresno

Another blogger whom I have just recently stumbled over has an absolutely masterful piece that pulls together, in one shot, everything that is going wrong within SEIU. Some pull quotes:
The fact of the matter is that it SEIU’s activity in CA has nothing to do with unionism, not even corrupt unionism, though Freeman is certainly corrupt. SEIU's farce in Fresno, which is just a subset of its larger treason to 150,000 healthcare workers throughout CA and everyone for whom unions matter, stems from a cancerously flawed vision. Stern and today’s SEIU have embraced a philosophy of growth at any cost, based on the assumption that larger membership automatically means more power for SEIU. (Note the uncomfortable distinction here between the workers and the union; this is a theme that will resurface.) But no membership organization stripped of the capacity to fight (more on that later) can somehow magically turn itself into a union when circumstances call for it. The relationships that comprise a real worker’s organization take time to build.

Stern and his allies are doing nothing short of using what was once a worker's organization, SEIU, to entrench corporate and state prerogative in the workplace. Since its seizure of the offices, resources, and name of UWW-West, SEIU has colluded with management to have elected stewards and bargaining-committee members fired, agreed to massive and unprecedented contract cuts in wages, benefits and working conditions, and spent something close to $10,000,000 of union members' money to try to break the union in Fresno. What Stern fails to see is that a union is not its offices, name, or even its budget. A union is nothing more and nothing less than workers standing together to hold employers accountable. NUHW is nothing more and nothing less than healthcare workers and their allies standing together to hold healthcare providers, profit, non-profit, and state-run operations alike, accountable to their workers, patients, and the larger communities in which they operate.


The growing healthcare-workers movement in CA caused a major problem for Stern and his faithful: workers who have experience in holding corporations accountable are not prone to submission when corporations say that they won’t or can’t do something. The facts are that they do when enough pressure is applied by workers (strikes) and their allies (pressure campaigns), and they only say they can’t or won’t to get rid of the pressure. This experience is one thing that separates the wheat from the chaff in the so-called "labor movement," and arguably something that distinguishes unions from governments as available accountability mechanisms in society. When Andy Stern started making far reaching template-contracts, agreements made by SEIU with corporations prior to and hence altogether without worker involvement, healthcare workers in CA said no. Even if those template-contracts hadn't included capitulations like: SEIU's agreement to represent only where those corporations allowed, SEIU's submission to gag-orders that precluded public criticism of employers (and thereby corporate campaigns), "no-strike clauses," and mediocre standards in general, the member-led Executive Board of UHW-West still wouldn't have played along.

In a real union, democratic organization and direction is every bit as important as what workers win. In fact, workers involved in a real union understand that they are only able to win by organizing and fighting for accountability and standards in their relationships with employers. In its template-deals, SEIU doesn’t merely circumvent worker action (strikes and pressure campaigns), SEIU make worker action impossible. This is not “a rose by any other name,” and SEIU is not revitalizing the labor movement. Stern and SEIU are developing the antithesis of unionism in the union’s house and calling it the union. Those template contracts, SEIU’s principle tools for growth, tie the hands of the workers who wind up subject to them: this sells out both the workers that Stern purports to represent and the communities in which they live.

Andy Stern and the SEIU organizers carrying their message are all working to break a union that already exists, and in so doing they undermine the accountability and standards that the union’s members and their allies fought hard to win. CA healthcare-workers and their allies won those standards and that accountability through working relationships with their allies and elected leadership, and the accomplishments of those relationship have been realized with stubborn persistence and a scrappy readiness to fight. Stern's locals, on the other hand, can't claim either to honor democratic practice or to have achieved anything in terms of real standards for workers. In fact, all of SEIU's activities in CA leading up to and following it's bogus trusteeship amount to either outright union-busting or capitulation to employers, neither of which is subject to the criticism, much less approval, of actual union members.


In the one place that workers have been able to vote, Doctor's Medical Center in San Pablo, the result was a landslide victory for NUHW: 85% of the union members there voted to leave the old name behind in order to keep control of their union, making NUHW the third name it has had in recent history. In Fresno, odds are slim that the contest will produce such a blowout if for no other reason than the enormous disparity in resources between the two organizations. On the ground in Fresno, the significance of the resource question is every bit as palpable as SEIU's systemic and duplicitous avoidance of accountability or honesty. For example, the contract between homecare-workers and the Board of Supervisors in Fresno County clearly lists the individuals who negotiated the contract for the Union's side; 100% of those individuals are now working as NUHW volunteers to help keep democratic principles at the core of the organization they've built. Yet UHW's trustees, appointed by Stern, take all the credit for that contract, which was settled in 2006, 3 years before the trusteeship. SEIU's message to homecare-workers in Fresno, like its message to healthcare-workers throughout CA, depends on this kind of misrepresentation, and SEIU's organizers are instructed to tell workers they should "stay with their union, the union that won them health insurance and increased wages," as if the union were just a brand, instead of a group of people that has already been working together to improve their lives for years. But in opposition to SEIU’s massive resources stand working relationships, and a history of democratic legitimacy. NUHW’s volunteers, and at this stage, everyone working for NUHW is a volunteer, are staking their efforts on the notion that actual relationships and democratic legitimacy are more important than any amount of resources that a company-union can use to brand itself and throw at a campaign.

At the end of the day, SEIU's campaign depends largely on such brand recognition. SEIU's strongest organizing tools to date include mailers, media spots, billboards, and roving signs on trucks. Such were the tools SEIU used when it tried to co-opt a teachers' union in Puerto Rico last year by colluding with officials in the Puerto Rican government. Those teachers, as volunteers and without a budget, out-organized SEIU's multi-million dollar machine, and beat SEIU, decrying its attempted intervention as a form of imperialism. SEIU's activity in CA is no less a project of empire, and though it's impossible to know exactly how much SEIU has wasted on its union-busting in Fresno, it's almost certain that the amount it has spent on nearly 900 paid staff, hotel rooms, rental cars, billboards, and countless radio and TV adds, could have been used to eliminate the pay cuts to which SEIU unilaterally agreed, pay-cuts that will be reflected in Fresno County homecare-workers' paychecks as of July 1st. Meanwhile, NUHW has worked out deals with officials in San Francisco and Sacramento to preclude such cuts, despite the slashes in funding from California's Governator. SEIU hasn't been able to stop the cuts; in fact, it hasn't even tried. Very likely it's too busy union-busting to contemplate a course of action that matches up with workers' interests.

In terms of field staff, NUHW volunteers were outnumbered by SEIU staff approximately 10-1, and that says nothing of the budget behind SEIU's deceptive media buys and mailers. A running joke among NUHW volunteers runs like this: Who spends money on billboards in the poorest neighborhoods in Fresno? Casinos, liquor companies, payday-advance lenders, and SEIU. SEIU has earned itself impressive company in this regard. Under Stern's leadership, SEIU has become not just a parasitic organization that sucks resources from some of the most vulnerable members of the community, but one that ties the hands of those for whom it purports to advocate, making it literally impossible for them to fight to improve their own circumstances. In short, Stern has turned SEIU into a union-busting machine of the kind that corporations could only dream: now business has a “union” to do its union-busting, and the most perfect of ready-made, company-unions to act as business’s front line in the interaction between employers and workers. If unions exist to hold employers and businesses accountable, Stern's SEIU doesn't just fail, it precludes such accountability altogether. That's not unionism, it's at best a farce, and at worst, it's social-facism.
Take ye some time and go over and truly appreciate Seth's work - it is nothing short of magnificent.

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