SEIU faces crises over direction

Leaders respond by curbing democracy

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), with its 1.9 million members, has been stamped as the "fastest growing union in North America", but as it begins its quadrennial convention in Puerto Rico this weekend, it is facing a crisis over its direction.

The union, led by Andy Stern, has come under fire recently from within and without its ranks. The central conflict turns out to be Stern himself, who wants to shift the union model national - even global. He wants to contest the big issues of the day like healthcare and the war in Iraq, and advocate his views at the federal level of the US government.

This agenda has been forestalled by a push for locality from the rank and file. Local bosses have fallen out of love with Stern's vision. They want more control and more respect for local politics. I asked Sal Rosselli, president of SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) and one of the principal agitators against Stern, about his expectations going in to the convention:

"We view the convention as the beginning of the next phase of our movement to reform SEIU," he said.

There is also resistance from those the SEIU is looking to absorb, like the California Nurses Association. The SEIU wants groups like the nurses association to join its numbers, as the SEIU is comprised of nurses, hospital staff, nursing home care providers, building services, public service workers and security guards. The nurses union, which has grown by leaps and bounds and is fighting for its own voice and autonomy, argues: "Andy Stern has embarked on a disturbing path of corporate unionism - business partnerships with employers that undermine public protections and a voice for workers."

This conflict reveals a big question at play about how social change happens. Is it by way of many independent, local grassroots movements or a unified push for change on a national, even global level? Or, is it a combination of both? When I asked both Rosselli and Stern about their views on local versus national and international initiatives, Stern emphasised the need for a wider, more expansive vision:

"The fundamental mission of the union movement - and of SEIU in particular - is to build a more just and humane society for all working people. Right now, we are living through the most profound, most significant and most transformative economic revolution in human history. ...

"As a union, we are asking what is the role and the responsibility of private equity, big banks and multinational corporations to the working people who helped build their success? How do we insure that every man, woman and child has healthcare and economic security through retirement? How do we build a broader movement that doesn't only just take care of our own but brings justice for all? When capital has gone global, trade is global, finance is global and companies have gone global, global issues become local."

Rosselli, by contrast, responded by pushing for a local, bottom up approach and critiquing the recent confidential agreements that Stern has made with major employers:

"We believe what we're doing in SEIU is expressing an ideology, a point of view that many in the labour movement share beyond SEIU and beyond the US. It's about reinvigorating the labour movement from the bottom up, organising workers, rather than bosses, to build real power for workers globally.

"This isn't accomplished by cutting sweetheart deals with national employers or global employers. A sweetheart deal is a sweetheart deal. It's about creating a movement of workers by workers, for workers."

Of course, there are those who argue that both Stern and Rosselli want to hold the reins of power, that they are the ones who want to control workers, rather than empower them. When the New Republic's Bradford Plumer published an excellent article on this topic, a commenter on the website wrote: "The rank and file membership, are the union. It's not Andy's, Sal's or any other paid staffer's union. It's our union." Another replied:

"Unfortunately, viewing workers largely as an unorganised mass of unthinking and unfeeling apathetic beings who need to be 'Stalinised' by an autocratic and superior leader who thinks he (as labour is still largely male dominated) knows what is best for them - is the SEIU model of 'organising' that both Sal and Andy agree upon."

This conflict impacts those outside the union as well. As the SEIU stretches to shape policy beyond local politics - as it did in 2003 with its anti-war stance on the Iraq invasion; or its support of progressive radio at Air America (which I produce radio shows for); or its backing of Barack Obama for president - it affects the lives of all Americans, not just union workers.

How unions fit in to the lives of US workers remains unresolved. Most Americans are not union members. They go to jobs, hope they don't get fired and collect their paycheques. They are on their own. Union workers have other benefits - but a whole lot of drama to contend with. We all, however, are impacted and influenced by their work.


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