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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Nov 23, 2011, 8:00 am

SEIU Endorses Obama Without Members’ Approval

BY Mike Elk

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Last week, one year before the 2012 presidential election and without putting the decision up for a vote before its members, the Service Employees International Union endorsed President Obama for re-election. In its endorsement, the union adopted the language of the 99% movement, saying: “We need a leader willing to fight for the needs of the 99 percent ... Our economy and democracy have been taken over by the wealthiest one percent.”

Many on the left were critical of the quick endorsement, and how it framed Obama as a champion of the 99% movement. Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote:

Having SEIU officials — fresh off endorsing the Obama re-election campaign — shape, fund, dictate and decree an anti-GOP, pro-Obama march is about as antithetical as one can imagine to what the Occupy movement has been. And pretending that the ongoing protests are grounded in the belief that the GOP is the party of the rich while the Democrats are the party of the working class is likely to fool just about nobody other than those fooled by that already.

Indeed, SEIU’s framing of its endorsement seemed to contradict the advice of one SEIU’s top strategists, Stephen Lerner. Last month in an interview with In These Times, Lerner said that "if people try to narrow this and put their specific issue at the top of the agenda, it’s not going to work.”

The timing of the endorsement nearly a year before the election also raises questions about how SEIU sees its integration to social movements. From a political leverage standpoint, it makes little sense why SEIU would endorse Obama when large masses of people are in the street protesting as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement and several key issues remained unresolved—such as whether Obama will fight to keep the National Labor Relations Board functioning by fighting for a recess appointment.

Also, with SEIU convention being held this May in Denver, why not wait to endorse Obama until it can be brought to a vote of the membership at the convention?

Instead, the quick endorsement—at a time when only one other union has endorsed (NEA) Obama—suggests that SEIU is trying to curry political favor with the White House by looking like a firm reliable ally. Many other unions say they expect to wait till much closer to the election before deciding on whether to endorse Obama. (SEIU officials did not respond to requests to explain why and how they made their decision to endorse Obama.)

The quick endorsement is a reminder that, despite SEIU’s endorsement of the Occupy Wall Street movement, including a high-profile arrest of its President Mary Kay Henry, SEIU often follows a model of organizing in which the union mobilizes thousands of people, but these members have little say in making the important decisions such as political endorsements.

That model was on display last month, when, after mobilizing thousands of college students and members in a massive multi-year corporate campaign with Sodexo, SEIU cut a secret deal with the corporation to end the campaign. Just as with the 2012 election endorsement, many SEIU members likely didn't see it coming.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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