Ugly, anti-democratic card-check on the table

In the 1970s, United Farm Workers founder Cesar E. Chavez fought in dusty fields and the halls of government to give agricultural laborers the right to cast secret ballots to form unions at California's farms, ranches and vineyards.

Now, those who came after Chavez want to change the rules, and that has farmers and business groups up in arms. A bill on the governor's desk would let the UFW represent workers and bargain for contracts -- without having won the backing of a majority of workers in a government-supervised vote.

The bill, SB 180, by Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), would bypass the electoral process created by California's historic Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975. Instead, workers could force a farming company to the bargaining table simply by getting a majority of employees to sign cards saying they want a union.

"SB 180 is simply a way for farmworkers to be able to more easily express their preference whether or not they want to be represented by the union," said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez.

Rodriguez and other proponents say voting by signing cards, both on and off the job site, would protect laborers from being coerced by their bosses into voting against their own interests. They say such coercion can occur even when workers are marking a secret ballot and sealing it in a private voting booth. Farmworkers want the same right to organize by signing cards that public employee unions enjoy, Rodriguez said.

Farmers call those contentions meritless. Union representatives are the ones in a position to coerce workers, especially when they ask people to sign cards in the presence of organizers and pro-union peers, farmers say.

"We feel the secret election is a democratic process. No one is pressured one way or the other," said Joe Pezzini, vice president of operations at Ocean Mist Farms Inc., which raises artichokes and a variety of other vegetables around Castroville in Monterey County.

The debate over farmworker union elections comes at a tough time for the UFW. Total membership, reported by the union to the U.S. Department of Labor, decreased to 5,500 in 2006 from 26,000 a decade ago.

Longtime UFW watchers say they understand why the union needs to find new techniques to deal with a changed organizing environment. A flood of illegal immigrants has kept farm wages low, and there has been a sharp increase in the use of independent farm-labor contractors, who act as a buffer between the union and employers.

But some of the UFW's earliest backers say they are puzzled by the union's reversal of its long-standing support for the secret ballot.

Don Villarejo, the former director of the California Institute for Rural Studies in Davis and a UFW volunteer activist in the mid-1970s, recalled that the union fought hard to include the secret ballot in the state law that guaranteed the rights of farm laborers. He said the UFW alleged that the rival Teamsters union had intimidated people by competing with the UFW and winning a series of sweetheart contracts that helped employers keep the UFW at bay.

"The UFW contended that the secret ballot was the only way people could be protected from intimidation by outsiders," Villarejo said. "You have to scratch your head and say, 'What's going on?' "

The UFW, which hasn't clashed with the Teamsters or other unions in decades, argues that times have changed, and farmworkers, who are mainly illegal immigrants, need new tools to fight for better working conditions.

Support for and opposition to the UFW's so-called card-check bill falls along predictable lines. Labor unions, liberal church groups and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are urging Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign the legislation into law. To press its point, the UFW stationed about a dozen red-shirted, chanting members on the sidewalk in front of the state Capitol for much of the last week.

More quietly, the state Chamber of Commerce, other business groups and a wide range of employers from California's $32-billion agricultural industry have been pressing the governor's office for a veto.

Schwarzenegger, who briefly visited with UFW demonstrators, is sympathetic to the farmworkers' cause but hasn't taken a public position on the card-check bill, said spokeswoman Sabrina Lockhart.

The UFW and other unions, principally the United Food and Commercial Workers, have had mixed success winning contractsunder the 1975 secret-ballot law. Unions won representation votes in 29 farm labor elections and lost in 19 from 2000 to 2007, according to a state Senate committee analysis of SB 180.

In recent months, UFW units lost two secret votes aimed at removing the union from representing workers at two farming operations. The vote at the larger company, Gallo of Sonoma, is being contested by the UFW, which claims that workers were intimidated into voting the company's way.

The UFW, however, posted an important victory in May, when it signed a five-year contract with Monterey Mushrooms in Watsonville. And a contract with D'Arrigo Bros. Co., a big Monterey County vegetable grower, is expected to be signed soon as a result of mandatory mediation, UFW President Rodriguez said. The union has been trying to get that deal for more than 30 years.

Miguel Castillo, a veteran farmworker at Giumarra Vineyards Corp. in Kern County, said he was banking on the new law to finally bring the UFW to the large Central Valley grower of table grapes. The union lost a 2005 election there; it claimed misconduct by the company.

Giumarra denied the charges. State regulators ultimately threw out the case without ruling on the validity of the union's allegations. The union has not sought a revote.

"We were intimidated," Castillo said. "The supervisors would not let us organize."


Disabled continue picketing against AFSCME

For the third day in a row, disabled activists blockaded a downtown office building. On Wednesday, protesters in wheelchairs blocked elevators and doors at 29 N. Wacker, where Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is located.

Chicago Police issued 110 citations for failure to disperse, based on complaints from building managers, said Police Department spokeswoman Monique Bond.

ADAPT, which organized the protest, wants AFSCME to support a federal bill that would enable more disabled people to live in their own homes rather than in institutions. ADAPT had organized similar protests at the Thompson Center on Tuesday and American Medical Association building on Monday.


Teachers reject contract, distribute picket signs

Members of the Cahokia (MO) Federation of Teachers on Wednesday night overwhelming rejected District 187's last contract offer. Union boss Brent Murphy said 97 percent of members voted against the contract, and unless a last-minute deal can be worked out, union members plan to walk picket lines starting Monday.

"We will continue to negotiate, and it is our hope that we can reach an agreement to continue to work," Murphy said, pledging to meet with administrators evenings and all through the weekend to try to hash out a deal. "But the 17th is a firm deadline."

Cahokia School District Superintendent Jana Bechtoldt could not be reached for comment Wednesday. She said earlier in the week that she did not have a feel for whether the district's offer would be approved. But she said she was still hopeful that a strike could be avoided.

Union members -- 300 teachers and 200 secretaries and service workers -- would not comment about the deal after Murphy's announcement. But they did cheer loudly when he revealed the results of the vote. Several stood on the parking lot of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 309 in Collinsville where the meeting was held, calling family members on cell phones to tell them how the vote went. One member brought several picket signs to pass out.

Murphy said he would not reveal the details of the district's latest offer because negotiations are ongoing. But he did say it wasn't very different from the one union members rejected two weeks ago -- with 94 percent voting against a deal -- that called for a 2 percent pay increase.

One of the union members' biggest complaints, according to Murphy, was the fact that no school board members have attended negotiating sessions up to this point.

"We hope, with the statement members made tonight, that board members will come to the table," Murphy said. "They need to hear directly from us."

Union members also were upset with the size of their raise in light of the district recently learning that its state funding has been increased by $1.8 million a year.

According to District 187 Human Resources Director Art Ryan, salary and insurance benefits were the two main sticking points in negotiations. He said the average salary for a teacher in the district is about $58,000. By the terms of the expired, two-year deal under which employees are still working, a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree earns $36,102 a year while the highest paid teacher currently makes $64,471.

The Cahokia School district has 4,266 students.


SEIU boss knee-deep in national politics

John Edwards has more support from Service Employees International Union members than any other presidential candidate, though not enough yet for an endorsement, said Andy Stern, president of one of the largest U.S. labor groups.

About 2,000 of the union's leaders will meet Sept. 17 in Washington to listen to pitches from the major Democratic candidates and take a straw poll that will help guide the group's endorsement, Stern, 56, said in an interview.

"Edwards has done an awful lot with leaders and members in our union," said Stern, who expects a decision on whether and who to endorse by the end of October. He said Senators Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York have strong support within the union, too, and together may be able to fend off any endorsement of Edwards, a former North Carolina senator.

Stern's group is one of the most sought-after endorsements for Democratic presidential candidates. The union represents 1.9 million health-care workers, janitors, security guards and other service employees; it's the fastest-growing labor group in the country and the largest in New Hampshire, which plans to hold the nation's first primary.

Separately, Stern endorsed a plan outlined last week by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel for a major overhaul of the tax code that would repeal the alternative minimum tax and reduce payments for as many as 90 million U.S. households, while putting more of the burden on the richest, including executives of private-equity firms.

Private Equity

He ridiculed a recent effort by the Private Equity Council, a Washington trade group representing the largest buyout firms, to block any tax increase by enlisting businesses owned by women and minorities, including Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson and former National Basketball Association star and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, now chairman of Magic Johnson Enterprises in Los Angeles.

"I've been to every private-equity firm in every office and I'm not saying I've met everybody, but I think I've not met anybody who's not a white man," Stern said.

On health care, Stern said yesterday that a proposal by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to raise $12 billion needed to expand coverage to the state's 6.7 million uninsured may be the impetus for other states to overhaul their health- care systems.


"Every issue that is being raised in California about who pays and how do they pay and how much do they pay will be raised at a national level," Stern said.

He said the California measure would force every governor to take notice, and say: "Can we do that here?"

Stern has long called for an end of health coverage tied to employers because the model no longer fits the needs of a global economy.

"The sad thing is employers, who should be the ones screaming to get out of the employer-based system," he said. "CEOs are the dinosaurs of the 21st century because they seem not to be able to make the switch to the fact that we have a global economy."

Returning to the 2008 elections, Stern said there are "big regional differences" in the membership's preferences for presidential candidates. "Midwesterners love Obama'' while "Californians are much more Edwards," he said.

Most of the Democratic contenders will address the Washington forum next week. The union later will determine whether any one candidate has the more than 60 percent support of members required to make an endorsement before the primaries.

No Lock

So far, no candidate has a lock on the endorsement, he said, and a strong performance at the Washington forum could bring a surge of support.

"If Obama rocked the place," he said, or if Clinton did well, "you don't know what's going to happen."

Edwards, 54, who trails Clinton and Obama, 46, in national polls, has been aggressively courting unions.

Clinton, 59, leads the Democratic field in the latest Bloomberg-Los Angeles Times poll of voters in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa. She has gained backing from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

In 2003, the SEIU backed Vermont Governor Howard Dean. This year, Stern asked every candidate to spend time with a union family and work alongside a member as part of the group's challenge to ``walk a day'' in a union member's shoes. Clinton worked as a nurse, Obama took over the job of a homecare worker while Edwards toiled as a nursing-home worker.

Clinton Strategist

Stern also said he spoke to Clinton's campaign aides about Mark Penn, her top campaign strategist, who has been criticized by labor officials. Penn, chief executive officer of the New York-based public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller, should ``stop taking any clients in his business that are anti-union,'' Stern said.

He stopped short of saying that Clinton's association with Penn would prevent SEIU from backing her.

On the issue of private equity, Stern said buyout firms "aren't paying their fair share" of taxes.

He said he favors prefers Rangel's "global" approach to more narrowly focused Senate legislation because he fears Democrats may simply increase taxes on Wall Street's elite and claim victory without addressing broader inequities in the tax code.


Security officers picket Center for Disease Control

Picketing signs in hand, about 50 security guards and sympathizers gathered at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday to protest what they term unfair and unlawful wages.

The demonstration at the CDC’s main entrance on Clifton Road was organized by Security Police Fire Professionals of America (SPFPA), the international labor union representing the security guards. Organizers said the issue doesn’t concern the CDC itself, rather their security services provider, Chattanooga-based Walden Security.

“Basically, we have a substandard employer here that is violating the law and their workers’ rights,” said SPFPA International President David Hickey, himself sporting a picketing sign reading “Hey Walden! Security officers have families too!”

But Walden’s labor relations consultant, Fred Grubb, said the company has a different perspective on the negotiations.

“The SPFPA is demanding that Walden Security collude with it to defraud taxpayers,” Grubb said. “I don’t say that lightly at all.”

SPFPA Organizing Director Steve Maritas said other unionized security guards in Atlanta enjoy higher wages. At the IRS building in downton Atlanta, he said, guards earn $17 per hour and $3.25 in benefits. At the CDC, he said, guards make $16 an hour and $3 in benefits.

Gene McConville, president emeritus of the union who handled negotiations with Walden, said the security company’s “final offer” came on Aug. 6, but the union found it unacceptable.

“They just did their contract, and we are so far removed from [it],” he said. “It’s a slap in the face to every security officer in Atlanta.”
Grubb said Walden must abide by the Service Contract Act in its negotiations with the SPFPA, which forbids unions and employers from collaborating during the negotiation process. This prevents the possibility that the two parties work together to get excess governmental funds.

“The union and the employer cannot say, ‘Hey, let’s give everybody a $10-an-hour pension plan because the government is going to pick it up,’“ Grubb said. “I’ve been working as a labor relations consultant for 23 years and I’ve never had a union want so clearly to violate the law.”

Grubb, who handles Walden’s union negotiations, said the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is currently investigating the SPFPA on these allegations.

On May 8, Walden Security filed a suit against the SPFPA for trying to involve the CDC in the negotiations. The NLRB regional director in Atlanta decided in favor of Walden, and the SPFPA agreed to stop pressuring the CDC. By law, third parties such as the CDC cannot intervene in union-employer negotiations.

But Grubb said Walden remains open to negotiation.

SPFPA’s Hickey said the union has filed five charges against Walden in the NLRB, among them an unfair labor practice charge.

Approximately 270 guards at the CDC are on Walden’s payroll, according to Grubb. Tom Skinner, a spokesperson for the CDC, said local law enforcement officials and federal employees also provide security services at the centers. He added that Walden is in the sixth year of a multimillion contract with the CDC.

“We feel the situation will not impact physical security,” Skinner said.
In case of a strike, which the SPFPA is threatening to organize, Skinner said the CDC could seek out more local and federal law enforcement officials, and he said Walden would provide other security guards.

Grubb said Walden has prepared for the possibility of a strike.

“[But] I hope that doesn’t happen,” he said. “Nobody wins in a strike. The union doesn’t. The employees don’t. And the employer certainly doesn’t.”

At 2 p.m., the picketers included several sympathizers from other unions such as the AFL/CIO — an industrial workers’ union — and the Teamsters union, which represents transportists. Maritas said the group expected an additional 50 demonstrators to arrive later in the afternoon.


AFSCME pay strike triggers students hunger strike

Hundreds of University of Minnesota students rallied in support of striking union workers on Thursday. The students gathered in front of Coffman Union to announce they'll go on a hunger strike in a show of support to union workers who are striking for higher pay. AFSCME union workers walked off the job on Wednesday, September 5 after negotiations with the U of M failed.

Amit Singh is one of those who will begin the hunger strike on Monday, September 17. The graduate student says, "We have tried for two weeks to get the administration to listen to us. All we want is for them to give the AFSCME workers a living wage."

The students striking in solidarity read a statement at the noon rally, which said in part:

"Our professors and graduate assistants have written many collective letters of solidarity, and thousands of students have attended classes off-campus to show that we refuse to cross the picket lines. We do this with courage, in spite of the vague threats by the administration to discipline us and our teachers. Yet they still refuse our demands. When a hundred of us tried to speak face-to-face with the decision makers in the Board of Regents, we were ignored and arrested..
The administration's treatment of the AFSCME workers represents a future of economic injustice and inequality. The administration's offer is not only unfair, it violates the inherent human rights of workers to a livable and equitable wage. We refuse to live in that world and we refuse to silently allow our institution to perpetuate this inequality and injustice."

University officials say they have offered the union workers a fair wage increase, but say they cannot meet the union's demand for higher wage hikes.


SEIU boss faces recall over OT pay scam

The president of Oregon's largest union for state employees is facing a recall effort because of his claim that he is owed more than $100,000 in back overtime pay. The president of Local 503 of the Services Employees International Union has traditionally been seen as a management position exempt from overtime.

That is according to those seeking to recall Joe DiNicola. An SEIU board member backing the recall is Barbara Casey. She says they want to hold their leaders accountable just like the public wants public employees held accountable.

DiNicola, meanwhile, is seeking a court order charging that union and government resources are being used to aid the recall, which SEIU denies. He also has filed a civil rights complaint charging he has been discriminated against for making his wage claim.


AFSCME boss OK's University strike-breakers

Angelika Huglen, AFSCME Local 3800 boss at the University of Minnesota, Crookston stated in an email to the Times Wednesday that there are actually four AFSCME members on campus still on strike, not two, as reported to the Times Wednesday by UMC. Fourteen AFSCME members initially went on strike last week.

"The ten employees who returned to work totally support the cause, but felt they had to return to work for various personal reasons, which we respect," Huglen said. "It is unfortunate University frontline workers have to give up pay to stand up for our standard of living." There are 36 AFSCME members on the UMC staff.

Huglen said the striking AFSCME clerical, technical and healthcare workers hope the University "will come back to the bargaining table and negotiate in good faith soon." She said the impasse is mostly rooted in the Minnesota legislature this past spring approving a 3.25 percent raise, but the University offering 2.25 percent.

"It is my understanding all state employees across Minnesota received the 3.25 percent raise - except, of course, our AFSCME unit of 3,500 employees," Huglen said in her email.

She said that letters of support for the AFSCME position, many from key state legislators as well as one from U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama, are posted at the AFSCME website


SEIU security workers walk out over wages

Two dozen security officers protested outside the Costa Mesa (CA) headquarters of Pacwest Security Thursday morning, picketing and chanting slogans for higher wages and health-care benefits. According to Terence Long, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, the officers made their protest public because Pacwest had refused to join other security companies in negotiating with the union.

Officials for Pacwest, 3303 Harbor Blvd., did not return calls seeking comment. The guards, despite their picketing, have not gone on strike and are attempting to negotiate with Pacwest, according to Long.

“Security officers who work for Pacwest are still going to be living in poverty, still living on wages they can’t live off of,” he said. “The irony is they protect multimillion-dollar buildings and get paid poverty wages in return.”


Interpreters strike against county court system

When Jose Navarrete received the call that he’d be going on strike, he prepared himself for a solitary stand outside the Santa Barbara Superior Court’s Figueroa Division. Navarrete may be a member of the California Federation of Interpreters (Newspaper Guild), but he’s the only one working in the city of Santa Barbara and has thus become a one-man picket line.

Union officials had been negotiating with representatives from the San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara county court systems in an effort to get full-time court interpreters paid on a merit-based salary schedule like all other judicial employees — five percent raises every five years, in addition to cost-of-living increases. When those talks reached a stalemate in July, however, union members were told to be ready to strike any day. “It’s symbolic, what I’m doing, but I believe what I’m doing is right,” said Navarrete, who heard news of the walkout on the evening of September 4.

Santa Barbara County’s five union court interpreters — Navarrete plus four working in Santa Maria and Lompoc — may pale in number compared to the more than 400 protesting outside Los Angeles-area courthouses, but Navarrete said he hopes the strike will draw attention to what many court interpreters are calling a matter of unfairness and disrespect. Santa Maria interpreter Doris Vick agreed. “I know when people read about the strike in the paper, they think it’s all about the money,” she said. “[However] it’s that they refuse to even consider or negotiate with us about it.”

That “it” is the scheduled salary raises, which CFI members claim would reward long-term service. Gary Blair, the Santa Barbara Superior Court’s executive officer and chief administrator, sees the math differently. He said with the four percent cost-of-living adjustment already awarded to interpreters, they would be making roughly $75,000 a year — “not a bad salary” in his estimation. Furthermore, Blair said, because the union wants to make the interpreters’ current salary the first step in the salary increase scale, those at the top of that pay scale could cost the court system around $95,000 once benefits are considered. “And we’re state-funded,” Blair noted. “So we have to depend on the state to provide that money.”

Because Santa Barbara County employs so few full-time interpreters, Blair said his courthouse has felt little impact from it. Contract workers do the bulk of translation work, with six regular contractors working in Santa Barbara and another six in North County. Santa Barbara County falls into Region One of the California Superior Court, but only Los Angeles County employs a large enough stable of interpreters for the strike to affect work. In Santa Barbara, contractors are filling in for the approximately 20 percent of adult cases and 35 percent of juvenile cases that necessitate translation. (Almost all translation in Santa Barbara County is between Spanish and English.) Whatever the resolution, however, it will be felt most strongly in Los Angeles. “We’re a minority player in the whole thing,” Blair said.

Perhaps nobody understands that better than Navarrete, whose solo protest has entered its second week. A Los Angeles native, Navarrete studied for two years at the Southern California School of Interpretation. As he explains it, court interpretation is more than the mere transformation of inocente into “not guilty.” Navarrete’s training allows him to understand how a person’s national origin can shade their perception of the American justice system. That’s in addition to familiarity with legal, criminal, and medical terminologies, as well as slang. “There are so many ways you could translate something, and the wrong one can affect how a client sees a case,” he said.

Until the strike’s resolution, Navarrete’s expertise isn’t benefiting anyone. Courts insist the union’s demands are not a realistic possibility this year. Sylvia Barden — president of CFI, which is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America — said 94 percent of union members are participating in the work action. Together, these facts may mean Navarrete and others will be waiting for some time before hearing word — in any language — that they’ll be back at work soon.


Teamsters organizing local law enforcement

Scott County (MO) sheriff’s department and jail employees will decide for themselves if they want to become a union shop or not. Robert Hutchings, business representative for Teamsters Local 600, and Tim Meadows, the local’s business representative, organizer and communications/research director, asked county commissioners during their regular meeting Tuesday to approve a measure by which the county’s law enforcement personnel would become members of the Teamsters labor union.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court decided public employees such as law enforcement personnel may organize into unions. Teachers and law enforcement are two of the biggest groups unions are now seeking to organize.

Hutchings said employees of the sheriff’s department and jail in Scott County have signed cards twice indicating their desire to become a union shop. “It seemed like these people wanted it without an election,” he said.

The Teamsters officials said law enforcement personnel are interested as the union can offer a better health insurance plan along with job security due to the union’s seniority policy and grievance procedure.

“We just knocked a home run with our insurance,” Commissioner Dennis Ziegenhorn said. “You would have to have a heck of policy to compare with what we’ve got.”

Hutchings said the Teamsters have saved new members from $160 to $700 per month in insurance premiums.

He said the Teamsters can tell county official now what premiums would be for the next three or four years whereas with the county’s current insurance plan “you don’t know what it’s going to be next year.”

Meadows said the union also offers the county’s law enforcement personnel the ability to campaign for whomever they wish in county elections for sheriff without concerns about losing their job if they support the losing candidate. “Their jobs are protected,” he said. “They’re going to want to organize for their protection. ... That’s what they like; that’s what they want.”

If the sheriff’s department and jail staff become part of the Teamsters, Hutchings said he would act as their spokesman and negotiate employment contracts on their behalf.

County Clerk Rita Milam asked about the possibility of employees resisting management because they know they can’t be fired.

Hutchings assured county officials that “there’s guidelines for both sides” as far as terminations go.

Hutchings also said no strikes would be allowed in the event an agreement on a contract could not be reached although they would have the option to do informational pickets. “I’ve never run into spiteful opposition,” he added. Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger said as elected officials, they must keep the county’s best interests in mind.

Burger added that as elected officials, he and other county officials have seen the difference between promises of support and actual votes during campaigns so he is not convinced the signed cards are a clear indication of whether the county employees really want to become a union shop or not or not.

“I feel we owe it to our employees, owe it to our constituents, to have a vote,” he said.

Burger said if the employees do vote for organizing, county officials will do whatever the law says they must do.

“Then we’ll have to go to the election process,” Meadows said. “We’ll get the paper work started and begin the process.”

Before an election can be held for the department and jail to become part of the union, the state will have to approve the election, according to the union officials.

Meadows said as far as the state’s reaction to their request for an election to unionize the county’s law enforcement, “I don’t know what they’ll do or even how they’ll react to it.”

As an gubernatorial election is coming up soon, there is even more uncertainty, he added.

If the state approves the election, only the sheriff’s department and jail staff would participate in the vote to decide if they will become part the union. The communications department would be a separate vote to become part of the union.

If voted in, the first step will be drafting a contract proposal, “their wish list,” Hutchings said. “Then we sit down and start negotiating that contract.”

The cost for each employee to join the union would be a $300 initiation fee plus monthly dues of 2.5 times the employee’s hourly rate plus $7.

In other Scott County news, a 9/11 tribute ceremony was held in the courthouse atrium Tuesday morning.

“Jamie spoke to us and then we had a moment of silence,” Commissioner Ron McCormick said. “It was pretty moving.”


The future of Labor: SEIU's business-unionisn

"Once Devereaux and I were face to face, we acknowledged that our conflict had taken on a life of its own, and we had lost sight of the reasons why we were fighting so viciously. We admitted that it wasn’t working for either of us."

This passage isn't from the latest romance novel by Danielle Steele. It's from a book called A Country That Works, by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). David Devereaux, on the other hand, is a rich business executive, from Beverly Enterprises Inc., a for-profit nursing home chain infamous for both patient neglect and union-busting.

It may seem strange for the president of the country's largest union to be speaking so mushily about a profit-driven business executive. But Stern is one of the most outspoken advocates of the idea that it's both possible and necessary for businesses and unions to shed their differences and build a relationship to benefit both.

This is how he plans to rebuild the labor movement. In fact, one purpose of Stern’s book is to justify the idea of "business unionism" and SEIU's more recent alliances with employers.

What else to read

Andy Stern's A Country That Works is advertised as providing an account of labor in the first decade of the new century and proposing a way forward.

For a left-wing analysis of the issues facing labor today, including the split between the AFL-CIO and the Stern-led Change to Win coalition, read the coverage in the International Socialist Review, including "The labor movement: State of emergency, signs of renewal" by Lee Sustar.

Kim Moody's new book U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above, The Promise of Revival from Below provides another account of labor’s decline and the split in the union movement it led to.

While his actions and advocacy have landed him flattering, full-color spreads in publications such as Fortune 500 and press conferences with fat cats like the CEO of Wal-Mart, Stern has been criticized from the left. The criticism is correct--the path that Stern is "steering labor" (to use his expression) toward is the wrong one.

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STERN WRITES that relationships with employers that were once "antagonistic" should be replaced with "partnerships" and "alliances." He says that "the rumble-and-tumble class-struggle world" of the 1930s is a thing of the past, and that it’s unproductive for unions and businesses to fight when they could work together in a "win-win" situation.

But if Stern thinks businesses will be willing to give workers a larger share of the pie in any type of "partnership"--without a fight--then he's fooling himself.

Writing of certain deals made with nursing home owners, Stern claims "on a state-by-state basis, we have worked to increase reimbursements and give workers more of a voice on the job."

One such deal, the 2003 "“Agreement to Advance the Future of Nursing Home Care in California" allowed the SEIU to organize nursing home workers without resistance from the employers in exchange for the SEIU helping the companies get more subsidies from the state.

But the workers actually didn't receive "more of a voice on the job." In fact, under the new contracts, they can't report health care violations unless required to by law (surely making employees afraid to speak up in any situation). Nor can they negotiate for improvements in benefits. The employers, on the other hand, would have the exclusive right to manage minor details such as pay, hiring and firing.

The nursing homes under the agreement will end up receiving an additional $900 million from the state, thanks to the SEIU. Members, however, are seeing only a fraction of that ($21 million in the 2006-2007 year).

This story mirrors other agreements that top SEIU officials have struck with businesses: you let us "organize" your workers, and we'll find out how to make you more money. And the result is always the same: the members lose.

Plus, because the union isn't ready to "rumble and tumble," the bosses eventually try to roll over them. The SEIU does get new members, but when employers do attack wages and benefits and start laying off, the union is unprepared to fight.

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UNFORTUNATELY, WHEN members have tried to fight these pacts within the union, they have been met with resistance.

One example involves a deal brokered between the AFL-CIO (which included the SEIU at the time) and the health care giant Kaiser Permanente. The accord allowed several federation unions, including the SEIU, to organize Kaiser workers on the condition that they encourage their own members to get their benefits through Kaiser.

Out of this deal also came a labor-management body that involved the union in making decisions on changes such as closures and expansions. However, the union was forbidden to talk about these discussions, and any decisions made jointly were not binding anyway.

Yolanda Rios, a member of SEIU Local 399, criticized the agreement, saying it "takes things out of our hands." She explained, "Our problem here has been that while the union organizes [new workers], it doesn't represent us well. We want to fight the company more effectively and win better conditions at work."

You won't find the criticism in Stern's book, but he does give a flowery description of how the deal with Kaiser was "an amazing experience." He continued, "As hard as I tried, I could not distinguish the union representatives from the management representatives."

Rios and her progressive rank-and-file caucus went on to win all but one of the leadership positions in the next election. However, in true management fashion, when a power struggle broke out between old leaders and new ones after the election, the SEIU international office stepped in to put in one of their own, placing the local under "trusteeship."

SEIU is known for its use of tactics like this and others to impose decisions made at the top levels of the union. After all, if Andy Stern is going to be doing the wheeling and dealing for you, why do you need a voice?

We didn't have a voice two years ago when Stern’s secret meetings with other select union presidents led to the formation of the Change to Win coalition, which broke away from the AFL-CIO in labor's largest split since the 1930s--all without a vote.

And we certainly don’t have it now as massive mergers create monster locals so removed from the workplace that members often don’t know they’re in a union, or its name.

Stern's attitude about these changes is summed up by what he said about SEIU staff workers who lost their jobs in a consolidation at the international office: "There are winners and losers."

Meanwhile, some of the losers in one of Stern’s new alliances will be immigrant workers.

The SEIU has been integral to a labor-business alliance that is trying to pass the largest guest-worker program our country has had since the bracero program of the last century. The history of past and current guest-worker programs shows that they are rife with abuse, difficult to organize and actually drive the wages of all workers down.

The SEIU says it is willing to hand businesses a reliable source of cheap labor for the legalization of some of the 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S. But none of the legalization plans offered are actually workable for most immigrants, and they all include stricter enforcement measures. Still, the SEIU supports the passage of these bills, while whispering some criticisms.

This is the logical conclusion of business unionism. The SEIU is working with Corporate America and hoping for something in return. Perhaps it expects a shot at organizing some of the immigrant workers whose rights they will have already bargained away if it passes.

The ideas presented by Stern in his book are ones we need to challenge.

There are already campaigns within the SEIU to challenge some of these specific alliances, and they deserve our support. But these are also steps toward building a broader movement for union democracy, which is important if we want the decisions of unions to represent the interests of workers instead of bosses.

The unions we need won't be built around a cult of personality, but by members organizing to win the kind of contracts they want through their own struggles, and learning from those experiences.

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