SEIU President Andrew Stern

Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.

SEIU’s Civil War

American workers need a labor movement grounded in social justice, not fractured, fighting unions.

BY Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Nelson Lichtenstein

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The ideas contained in the insurgency are contagious. It is not just a question of union democracy, but of how labor is to organize itself in order to confront employers and push policy in a progressive direction.

What can one make of the civil war playing itself out inside the Service Employees International Union? “Civil war” is not far from an exaggeration. When the SEIU leadership decided to move against one of its largest locals–SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West–and place it into trusteeship early this year, they unleashed a storm that few of the leaders apparently believed possible.

The widely unpopular trusteeship not only has met with internal resistance within the local, but resulted in the establishment of a split-off union–the National Union of Healthcare Workers–and fights over who will represent workplaces that SEIU-UHW had held for years. This fight has drawn in many outside friends and observers who have hitherto been loath to get involved in the internal affairs of a national/international union.

Given the stakes, it has been less and less possible to sit on the sidelines.

Trying to keep a bubble under water?

This internal conflict and the emergence of NUHW can only be understood in the context of both the evolution of SEIU since the assumption of leadership by Andrew Stern, and by the 2005 split in AFL-CIO, the labor federation.

After his election in 1996, Stern set out to transform what was already the fastest growing union in the AFL-CIO. Ostensibly he wanted it to grow faster and serve as a flagship for the rest of the union movement. His broader vision was somewhat vague, but clearly contained at the time the rough outlines of a left/progressive contour.

As it turned out, this vision evolved into something else–but in the late 1990s, it appeared that Stern wanted to turn SEIU into an organizing machine that would sweep through a large slice of the nation’s swollen service sector. Many people inside and outside SEIU responded with great hope to Stern’s aggressive leadership and the ambitions he put on labor’s agenda.

Although the SEIU has grown by about 50 percent during the last 13 years, the evolution of the union has been misunderstood by those who have assumed that this growth was a product of progressive and democratic structural change within the organization. While important changes did take place in the governance of the SEIU, it is perhaps better to see these transformations through the prism of the union’s shifting internal alliances and leadership purges. Over time, those reconfigurations paralleled the SEIU’s development of a new and disturbing set of objectives that it moved to the top of labor’s organizational and political agenda.

In his struggle to win the SEIU presidency and consolidate the power of his slate, Stern formed two sets of alliances and inaugurated one important purge of his opponents. First, when Stern sought the presidency he needed the support of then-SEIU President John Sweeney, if only because Stern himself was but a mere staff officer of the union.

Sweeney gave Stern a position on SEIU’s International Executive Board (IEB) to insulate Stern from exile if Sweeney’s own constitutionally-based successor, the late Richard Cordtz, chose to fire him in the immediate aftermath of Sweeney’s victory at the AFL-CIO. Cordtz did try to purge Stern, but Stern, being on the IEB, held a secure post from which he could and did campaign to become SEIU’s president.

But this challenge would have failed had Stern not succeeded in working out important alliances with key local unions in SEIU. These alliances were built on popular opposition to Cordtz and Cordtz’s running mate, Gus Bevona (the autocratic leader of a large building service local in NYC). In this sense, the 1996 Stern candidacy was primarily an oppositional movement, a throw the bums out candidacy (or, perhaps, a keep the bums out of the International’s leadership), rather than a programmatically progressive coalition, despite some innovative proposals from his slate.

Nevertheless, Stern reached out to long-standing critics of John Sweeney, including Sal Rosselli, president of northern California’s big Local 250 (and later UHW) and Dennis Rivera, leader of the then independent 1199 National Healthcare Workers Union in New York. Rivera would, shortly after Stern’s internal victory, lead 1199 New York into SEIU.

Once in office, Stern reorganized the union in dramatic and traumatic fashion. Departments were closed, others were reorganized, and with Steve Lerner and other veterans acting as a kind of brain trust, Stern emphasized massive and rapid growth, either through mergers, organizing blitzes, or corporatist-style accommodations with key service-sector employers. The “Justice for Janitors” campaign experience had taught Stern and Lerner that unionism would remain but a weak and barely tolerated presence unless organized labor achieved sufficient “density” within an entire labor market or occupational niche.

In Los Angeles, the SEIU could not push wages upward when it controlled but 20 percent of the janitorial labor market, but once that figure moved past the halfway mark, employer opposition to unionism declined. This was an important insight–and a potentially winning strategy–but the quest for “density” could become an organizational fetish, eclipsing and then eviscerating the militancy, participation and democracy that were also essential to union success.

Consolidating power, stifling debate

But all this was in the future. In the struggle to eliminate old enemies, the Stern leadership took on the more corrupt and backward local union leaders. In almost magical fashion, one leader after another fell. In many if not most cases, the weapon of the trusteeship was utilized in order to eliminate this strata, composed in most cases of leaders from Sweeney’s generation.

They were replaced with Stern allies, usually younger and progressive. The culture of SEIU, however, permits trustees–the individuals running the local unions during the period in which the SEIU leadership controls the local–to run for office at the time that the trusteeship ends. Thus, many of these trustees had the power of incumbency and the ability to gain and hold office. This became a powerful inducement to align with the leadership of the International even if, and sometimes directly because, one lacked an internal base in that local union.

As this process unfolded, it should be added, attention was turned toward the reorganizing of local unions. The principal vision was that of large local unions allegedly designed to match the power of regional, national and international employers. But the process of local union reorganization eliminated many longer-term local union leaders, particularly those of color. And large, state-wide locals made it very difficult for oppositional candidates to successfully challenge those in control of the mega local’s affairs.

As one might expect, these large locals had few tools to elicit informed participation by non-activist members. In furthering consolidation, a process of elimination of potential opponents took place. They were quietly driven from their posts and replaced with individuals whose allegiances were directly to Stern and his soon to be Secretary-Treasurer, Anna Burger.

Such consolidation made the SEIU an increasingly inhospitable venue for dialogue, debate, and dissent. American trade unions have never figured out how to operate with a functioning, internal two party system, so Stern stands in the same tradition as that of John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, and even Caesar Chavez. But the more sophisticated union leaders have provided a space for disagreement, even if their latitude is carefully constrained. Stern and his leadership team did not do this, and in the new century they made it increasingly difficult for dissent to operationalize itself, either at the SEIU convention or on the international executive board. Thus when local SEIU unionists disagreed, they did not challenge the leadership but merely ignored it insofar as that was possible.

Paralleling this process of internal consolidation, SEIU leaders grew increasingly frustrated with the pace of change at the AFL-CIO. Despite the bold rhetoric that accompanied John Sweeney’s accession to the presidency of the federation, the new leadership there had been unable to convince many old-line unions to ramp up their organizational effort and expenditures. Thus the AFL-CIO was losing millions of members in the wake of the bust and the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing in the early Bush era.

By 2003, Stern and other impatient union leaders had begun to openly criticize the AFL-CIO in a series of articles and interviews regarding the future of organized labor. This built into a near crescendo in 2004 when, at the SEIU Convention that June, Stern announced in front of former SEIU President John Sweeney that if the AFL-CIO did not change, SEIU would leave the AFL-CIO.

Although something of a cease fire took place during the rest of the 2004 electoral season, the die had been cast. In the summer of 2005, Stern led the SEIU and five other unions out of the AFL-CIO and into a new federation, “Change to Win.”

The split in the AFL-CIO is directly relevant to the later civil war in SEIU, precisely because many of the issues that needed to be debated at the time were suppressed and replaced with sound bites. This is especially true about matters such as core jurisdiction (over what sectors a particular union should have responsibility for organizing and representing) and the relationship of bargaining to organizing (and vice versa).

Yet in the absence of debate, the confrontation leading to the AFL-CIO split became more about posturing than substance. Indeed, the split in the AFL-CIO actually hid the fissures that existed both among the Change To Win unions and within them. Subsequent to the split, these internal conflicts began to emerge and today C-T-W finds itself fragmented and adrift.

The end of the beginning

The circumstances leading to the SEIU civil war leaked to the surface in 2007. By then it was clear that the alleged promise of the Change To Win federation had gone unfulfilled. It was also becoming clearer that there were differences within the ranks regarding how the union movement should grow.

The unofficial release of documents from SEIU-UHW in 2007 signaled the opening of what could have been a constructive and insightful debate. As reported by the San Francisco Weekly, the documents constituted a criticism of SEIU’s leadership for its approach toward collective bargaining. Originating from within UHW, but shared in other parts of SEIU, the critique focused on the “density” issue, charging that SEIU was sacrificing collective bargaining standards, as well as local union autonomy and democracy, all in the name of membership growth.

SEIU responded with a manifesto, “‘Just Us’ or ‘Justice for All’?” in which the SEIU asserted that “History demonstrates that ‘I Got Mine’ – ‘Just Us’ unionism has hurt all workers, including existing members.” SEIU charged that even militant locals like the UHW were doing a disservice to the union movement by concentrating on improving their own contacts, even as the majority of workers in the rest of the healthcare industry remained unorganized and poorly paid. The SEIU thought that it might be necessary for existing locals to moderate their wage and benefit demands as part of a “bargaining to organize” strategy, in which companies ceased their opposition to unionization in return for uniform standards throughout the firm or even outright concessions at the bargaining table. (This was a tactic that SEIU imposed on UHW when the International persuaded the big California local to reach a template agreement in the nursing home industry in 2004).

Certainly one could find examples, in history and in the contemporary union movement, of militant but insular unions who protected their own membership but ignored the larger working-class interest. But the UHW was hardly such a trade union. Within the SEIU, UHW had one of the most active, if not the most active, organizing postures in hospitals, nursing homes and among home healthcare workers. UHW leaders thought there was no contradiction between militancy at the bargaining table and an effective effort to extend the benefits of unionism to others in the health care industry. High standards in the core UHW jurisdictions, such as Kaiser Permanente, set a standard for unionism everywhere and made it more attractive to potential union recruits in non-union facilities.

Equally important, the UHW saw itself as a union whose jurisdiction took in all healthcare workers, from doctors and skilled technicians to the more than 60,000 home healthcare workers who had been organized in the last decade. In contrast to the SEIU, which wanted to put all nursing home and home healthcare workers into mega locals that would have the “density” to bargain for all such workers, UHW thought that the home health care workers would be best served if they were part of a larger amalgamation of hospital and nursing home workers.

The SEIU determination to sever 60,000 home healthcare workers from the UHW jurisdiction was therefore not just a turf fight over members and their dues. It reflected key strategic issues of which “density” captures just a part. The SEIU drive to put all these home healthcare workers into one big California local–so as to more effectively lobby for higher levels of support in Sacramento–consigned these tens of thousands of largely immigrant women to the status of welfare recipients. The SEIU drive for “density” was proving the handmaiden of an increasingly austere welfare politics. Indeed, the union’s big home healthcare locals in Southern California have failed, for nearly a decade, to materially raise the wages and benefit levels of the hundred thousand plus workers they represent.

As this conflict unfolded in 2007 and 2008, it became intertwined with issues of local union autonomy, the UHW critique of SEIU’s overall trajectory, and the personalities and ambitions of the leading antagonists, notably the UHW’s Sal Rosselli and the SEIU’s Andrew Stern. Had the SEIU leadership taken the high ground, this debate could have been quite instructive for the rest of the movement.

There were a number of issues at stake, including: What sacrifices should newly organized workers be asked to make–in the realm of collective bargaining–in order to be unionized? Specifically, should the standards of a collective bargaining agreement be significantly lowered in order to gain the right to collective bargaining, with the hope that over time standards will be raised? What is the relationship between high standards in collective bargaining and the ability of unions to organize and recruit workers? How should decisions be made in a national/international union when it comes to standards?

The high ground, however, was not taken. Instead, a campaign of vilification began almost immediately, focused on attacking the person and character of UHW President Sal Rosselli. The intensity of the struggle quickly led to an effort to isolate and demonize UHW’s leadership. The release by the SEIU leadership of a peculiar letter (written by a defecting UHW leader, and former SEIU International staff person) critical of Rosselli and UHW leadership further distracted from any real discussion of the issues that UHW tried to surface. This was accompanied by a proposal from the SEIU leadership to seize a significant portion of the UHW membership–long-term care workers (nursing home and homecare workers)–and place them into a state-wide long-term care workers local union.

The factors that led to the actual trusteeship are both complicated and to a great extent mystifying. By early 2008, it was clear to most outsiders that preparations for a trusteeship of UHW were underway, in large part because of UHW’s vehement opposition to giving up their long-term care members without an honest, democratic voting process. SEIU openly denied that there was any plan for a trusteeship, even after accusing the UHW leadership of moving union money around inappropriately.

After the release of a letter by dozens of academics calling upon SEIU’s leadership to engage in principled struggle with UHW and to not repress them via a trusteeship, an orchestrated effort was undertaken to have key SEIU personnel–local leaders and staff–contact signatories of the letter to not only assure them that there was no trusteeship in the works, but that it had been insulting to suggest that Stern had anything other than an honest and restrained attitude toward UHW. (Lichtenstein signed the letter and then received an SEIU phone call.)

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Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Executive Editor of, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice.

Nelson Lichtenstein teaches history at University of California Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy. He is the author, most recently, of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, a portion of which was adapted for this feature.

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