On January 31, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 — the founding local of the 2-million-member international union — laid off 10 of its 89 unionized staffers after little over two weeks’ notice due to a budget shortfall. Nine of those impacted by layoffs are organizers or grievance representatives, which is nearly a third of the member-facing staff at the union, according to the Chicago News Guild, the union that represents Local 1 staffers.
“All of us on the ground actually doing the organizing, doing the work, building coalitions — we got laid off,” says Emily Little, a laid-off Local 1 staffer who helped organize workers in sports stadiums in Columbus, Ohio. Anne Balay, another laid-off staffer who spent three years organizing adjunct professors at four universities in St. Louis, Mo., tells In These Times she is worried about her members, some of whom no longer have an organizer on their campaigns.
Local 1 staffer Adam Stant (who was not subject to layoff) says that these layoffs come at a moment when the labor movement should be hiring, not firing, organizers. An Economic Policy Institute report presents evidence that suggests 60 million workers would join a union if they could. Some labor observers argue that the bottleneck preventing these workers from having a union is unions themselves. “There has been no investment in the army of union organizers necessary to meet demand,” writes Hamilton Nolan in a 2022 In These Times article, citing a 2022 report showing that unions lost 23,440 organizers between 2010 and 2020, a 19% decline, even as management positions within unions grew by 28%.
“Members don’t deserve this”
In a letter sent to all staff on January 27 and acquired by In These Times, Local 1’s president, Genie Kastrup, writes that due to a budget deficit, the executive board had called on union leadership to balance the 2023 budget. Despite “various cost-saving measures to meet that goal” — including a salary freeze for managers and fewer in-person meetings — Kastrup says the budget could not be balanced “without additional staffing adjustments.”
Local 1 lost over $2 million in cash and investments in
2022, with the largest loss, $685,000, coming from pandemic-related
layoffs of members, according to an executive board memo acquired by In These Times. Local 1 represents 50,000 janitors, security guards and other low-wage workers in six Midwestern states. In an email to In These Times,
Bailey Koch, a Local 1 spokesperson, wrote that the union had lost 20%
of its members since 2020 due to Covid-19’s impact on commercial real estate.
But workers say Kastrup, who was appointed president of the local in March 2022 and is up for election for the first time later this year, could still have avoided layoffs by using the local’s almost $9 million in cash and investments, or by making cuts to leadership compensation, which was as high as $251,760 in 2021. As vice president of the union in 2021, Kastrup was paid $177,094.
Koch told In These Times that layoffs targeted departments that were overstaffed. But organizers say layoffs will cause understaffing instead. Balay, who was Local 1’s sole higher education organizer, expressed worry about the layoffs’ impact on organizing. “We had nothing. Gradually I built it up, and now I have strong committees on all four campuses, new contracts, energy, leaders, advocates, political engagement,” Balay said. “Suddenly their organizer gets two weeks’ notice. No one is taking over. They’re just screwed and they don’t deserve it.”
“It’s not just adjuncts who are gonna be shafted by this,” says Balay, who is among the four organizers laid off in St. Louis. “In St. Louis, we organized 3,000 janitors, all the city’s lunch ladies, just a ton of people who need union representation and now are gonna have three incredibly overworked people trying in some way to meet their needs. It’s just criminal.”
“It’s worrisome that [these layoffs are] going to cause an
even greater decrease in our membership,” says Little. “If we don’t have
enough people on the ground talking to members, who’s gonna do it? The
employer’s not gonna tell them who the union is. We need to be on the
ground, talking to workers, telling them why it’s important.”
Local 1 member Kathy Ratino — who is an adjunct professor and a shop steward at St. Louis community college — expressed frustration with the firings. “We need to be able to trust that [Local 1] has our interests at heart,” Ratino says. “Removing the people who work most closely with us certainly does not seem to be in our interests.”
“The boots on the ground are all sacrificed, and for what?” Ratino asks. “What happened to the dues we have been paying?”
“Dues just aren’t being collected”
On January 30, roughly 20 staff delivered a petition to Local 1 leadership, as some laid-off workers turned in their work laptops at the union’s Chicago office. The delegation represented multiple divisions and several different cities, according to the Chicago News Guild.
The petition, which had gathered 643 signatures on Action Network as of Thursday afternoon, alleges that Local 1’s budget shortfall is in large part due to employers “refusing to hand over millions in member dues money each year.” Stant, who is the sole SEIU Local 1 organizer in Indianapolis, tells In These Times that according to his research, some $20,000 a year of dues “just aren’t being collected” in Indianapolis, a figure that represents some 40% of that city’s membership dues. Stant alerted the local’s leadership in September 2022, but says he never received a response.
Stant says that other organizers have told him of similar proportions of dues missing in locations where membership rolls are much larger than in Indianapolis (which only comprises around 2% of the local’s total dues). In St. Louis, Balay too says she noticed that dues were going unpaid. “I spent two months last fall tracking down dues in one unit and increased our revenue by five times just because I realized it was a problem,” she said. “I didn’t realize that it was a widespread problem.” Koch did not respond to claims about unpaid union dues; Kastrup and other Local 1 officers did not respond to emails or phone calls requesting comment.
“As a labor organization, maybe we should collect dues before we terminate our organizing mission,” says Stant. The petition delivered to Local 1 management demands they “recall all worker layoffs, terminations, and reassignments until our Executive Board and Staff Union have reviewed [Kastrup’s] claims” and made the necessary efforts to collect missing dues.
“Wouldn’t have any recourse” without staff union
SEIU staff from locals around the country spoke up in solidarity with the laid off workers. Unionized staff at SEIU’s international headquarters tweeted: “As leaders in the #LaborMovement, SEIU & SEIU Locals must live their values & prioritize union jobs — not treat them as disposable.” The staff union of SEIU Local 2015, in the Pacific Northwest, also tweeted in support, writing “Tell @SEIU Intl E-Board VP @geniekastrup to respect unions by recalling unnecessary layoffs at @seiulocal1!”
DJ Cronin, a grievance representative with the Northeastern local SEIU 509, told In These Times that “what Local 1 is doing is disheartening. Unions should be leading the way on workplace rights, not engaging in layoffs.” Cronin said the events at Local 1 show the importance of unions for organizing staff.
Amid their frustration at management, laid-off Local 1
staffers are thankful for their union. “If we didn’t have a staff union
we would be just like Amazon workers right now,” Little says. “We
wouldn’t have any recourse to fight back. We wouldn’t be able to hold
the employer responsible for acting like a corporation instead of a
labor union.” Multiple Local 1 staffers allege that management
undervalues its staff, pointing to how an administrative staff member
was terminated outright after 20 years of service as part of the layoffs
(she eventually convinced managers to let her retire instead).
This is not the first time an SEIU Local has conflicted
with its own unionized staff. In November 2022, 130 staff at a Local
2015 launched one of the largest union staff strikes in US history
after management allegedly refused to bargain in good faith with their
staff’s union. During the strike, a human resources manager of the local
drove a pickup truck through the picket line, striking then-organizer
Alex Sanchez, who alongside another staff member, was eventually
terminated when the strike ended two weeks later in what the union claims was a retaliatory firing.
“There’s a reason we ended up having our own staff local,”
Stant said. “Because, well, there’s a reason workers organize. Something
has to agitate them first.”
Aparna Gopalan contributed reporting to this article.
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