SEIU’s Mega-Local Meltdown: Size Matters, But Members Matter More

Steve Early

Sin Yee Poon, center, SEIU's Local 1021's Chief Elected Officer, meets with members. Created three years ago after the merging of ten locals, the local's members stretch from the San Francisco Bay area to the California-Oregon border.

Near­ly one year after Mass­a­chu­setts local makeover, Cal­i­for­nia fol­lows suit

When rank-and-file mem­bers run for office in the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU), it’s not easy to win — or even run. And that’s not by accident.

In Los Ange­les Local 6434, for exam­ple, offi­cials installed by Pres­i­dent Andy Stern adopt­ed an elec­tion rule found ille­gal by the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor, but approved by Stern. The by-laws required would-be can­di­dates to col­lect near­ly 5,000 names on nom­i­nat­ing peti­tions. In a local” of 160,000 — most of whom are home-based work­ers who nev­er see oth­er mem­bers — this was fool­proof incum­bent pro­tec­tion. It was also a for­mu­la for uncon­test­ed elec­tions ad infini­tum and lack of lead­er­ship account­abil­i­ty to the rank-and-file. (Not coin­ci­dent­ly, 6434 soon became the scene of a major 2008 cor­rup­tion scan­dal involv­ing the local’s top offi­cer, Tyrone Free­man, who mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ed near­ly $1 mil­lion from its trea­sury.)

Even in SEIU mega-locals” where there’s no steal­ing, lack of account­abil­i­ty to the mem­ber­ship is still a big prob­lem. When pre­vi­ous­ly sep­a­rate locals are merged to cre­ate new ones cov­er­ing a whole state or region of the coun­try — a wide­spread prac­tice in Stern’s union — the offi­cial ratio­nale is that such con­sol­i­da­tion builds pow­er for workers.”

But a num­ber of recent­ly-restruc­tured SEIU locals, run with­out ben­e­fit of elect­ed lead­ers — who were removed in favor of appoint­ed offi­cers and staff — have proven to be extreme­ly dys­func­tion­al and unpop­u­lar with dues-pay­ers. On both coasts, SEIU-rep­re­sent­ed work­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the pub­lic sec­tor, are say­ing that pow­er” was tak­en away from them, in their own union, and they want it back — so they can deal more effec­tive­ly with their employers.

Mass mega local’s makeover

The trend of reclaim­ing big pub­lic employ­ee locals from dis­cred­it­ed and increas­ing­ly incom­pe­tent Stern appointees began last Spring in Mass­a­chu­setts. The 10,000-member Local 888 was the prod­uct of SEIU restruc­tur­ing that shuf­fled work­ers around like pieces of fur­ni­ture for sev­er­al years; through a com­bi­na­tion of trustee­ships and then merg­ers, some mem­bers were deprived of the right to vote for local offi­cers for as long as five years.

By ear­ly 2009, Local 888 was in bad shape finan­cial­ly and lit­er­al­ly com­ing apart at the seams. Angry mem­bers in some of its 207 sep­a­rate state, coun­ty, and munic­i­pal bar­gain­ing units were peti­tion­ing the labor rela­tions com­mis­sion to decer­ti­fy the union. In 2005, the local’s largest unit, com­posed of 2,000 work­ers at U‑Mass, was so dis­grun­tled that, after a long strug­gle, it was allowed to leave and join the Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Association/​NEA).

888’s stew­ard sys­tem was in dis­ar­ray. High staff turn-over con­tin­u­al­ly dis­rupt­ed con­tract nego­ti­a­tions and enforce­ment. When mem­bers had a work­place prob­lem, they were told to con­tact 888’s call cen­ter” which was not good at return­ing calls. Due to local fis­cal crises through­out the state, gov­ern­ment work­ers were at risk of los­ing jobs, pay, or ben­e­fits. But that didn’t stop Susana Segat, a loy­al ally of Andy Stern on SEIU’s nation­al exec­u­tive board (who was orig­i­nal­ly appoint­ed by him to run 888), from award­ing her­self a whop­ping pres­i­den­tial salary increase.

After a dif­fi­cult cam­paign, the sec­ond of its kind against Segat, the Change888 slate suc­ceed­ed in oust­ing her last April, by a two-to-one mar­gin, with 22 per­cent of the mem­ber­ship vot­ing. (For a full account, see Mem­bers of a Mass­a­chu­setts SEIU Local Dis­lodge an Incum­bent,” by Bruce Boc­cardy.) Unlike Segat, who was nev­er a work­ing mem­ber of 888 — a not uncom­mon but often unhelp­ful lead­er­ship cre­den­tial in SEIU — her chal­lenger, Bruce Boc­cardy, had spent many years in SEIU bar­gain­ing units as a Boston city employ­ee and active stew­ard. Since tak­ing over the local with a like-mind­ed group of reform­ers, he has expand­ed stew­ard train­ing and recruitment.

The local now tries to keep every­one bet­ter informed with reg­u­lar newslet­ters, fly­ers, and an e‑bulletin called The Spark, which is reach­ing 3,000 mem­bers at their home email address­es. Work­er par­tic­i­pa­tion in bar­gain­ing, orga­niz­ing, and polit­i­cal action has been active­ly encour­aged and would-be defec­tors have been urged to give SEIU anoth­er chance.

Unlike his aloof and impe­ri­ous pre­de­ces­sor, Boc­cardy makes fre­quent work­place vis­its. He has cut his own salary, empow­ered the exec­u­tive board, and invit­ed mem­bers and their fam­i­lies to vis­it the union office. He is also try­ing hard to repair 888’s dam­aged rela­tions with a wide range of com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing Jobs With Jus­tice, the work­ers’ rights coali­tion that 888 aban­doned under Segat. (Last Sat­ur­day, the local even host­ed a well-attend­ed JWJ train­ing ses­sion attend­ed by 100 mem­bers of SEIU, IBEW, CWA, AFSCME, AFT, AFGE, and oth­er unions.)

Our goal,” Boc­cardy explained in a recent open let­ter, is to trans­form [888] into a mod­el for oth­er SEIU locals….We believe that none of our goals and objec­tives will be real­ized with­out a high­ly active membership.”

California’s vic­to­ri­ous change slate

As report­ed in the last sev­er­al days by Labor Notes and Randy Shaw’s Beyond Chron, Change888” has now been joined by Change1021,” a com­plete­ly sep­a­rate but sim­i­lar­ly inspired move­ment of north­ern Cal­i­for­nia pub­lic work­ers to reclaim their local as well. Local 1021 posed an even big­ger chal­lenge for reform­ers, who swept 26 out of 28 elect­ed posi­tions there last Friday.

As its num­ber implies, 1021 is the prod­uct of an even grander Stern con­sol­i­da­tion of ten locals into one, three years ago. The com­bined mem­ber­ship — five times larg­er than 888’s — extends all the way from the Bay Area to the Ore­gon border.

As San Fran­cis­co EMT Lar­ry Brad­shaw, 1021’s new­ly-elect­ed third vice-pres­i­dent explains, the International’s orig­i­nal merg­er sce­nario was to tight­en head­quar­ters con­trol over the local’s affairs — for the ben­e­fit of the mem­ber­ship, of course. 

Stern jus­ti­fied his cen­tral­iz­ing agen­da on the claim that big­ger equals stronger,’” says Brad­shaw. A pro­tégé and loy­al lieu­tenant — in this case, Dami­ta Davis-Howard — was picked to run the merged local. Per usu­al, he says,

the appointee faces no elec­tion for three years and uses the pow­er of the pres­i­den­cy, and patron­age, to build a base and tran­si­tion seam­less­ly into becom­ing an elect­ed leader. [But] Stern’s for­mu­la was dys­func­tion­al from the begin­ning, with many staff vacan­cies and no one over­see­ing con­tract issues for thou­sands of city and coun­ty workers.

Then came the reces­sion. In the face of bud­get deficits and aggres­sive employ­ers, Local 1021 proved dis­or­ga­nized as lead­ers con­ced­ed to almost any demands by employ­ers for con­ces­sions,” Brad­shaw says. Many mem­bers began to con­clude that big­ger seems to mean more bureau­crat­ic,’ not more effec­tive or responsive.

In late Jan­u­ary, a 1,500-worker 1021 unit in Marin Coun­ty did what small­er 888 groups start­ed to do in Mass­a­chu­setts under Segat — they peti­tioned to replace SEIU with an inde­pen­dent union.

Change1021 hopes to dis­cour­age this exo­dus and revi­tal­ize the local, draw­ing on the skills and expe­ri­ence of its lead­ers and sup­port­ers. Their oppo­si­tion tick­et includ­ed clas­si­fied school employ­ees, munic­i­pal work­ers, nurs­es, tran­sit work­ers, and staffers at non­prof­its, like the Ten­der­loin Hous­ing Clin­ic in San Fran­cis­co, where new pres­i­dent Rox­anne Sanchez, a for­mer BART union activist, works. She won by a 2 to 1 mar­gin. Mean­while, her run­ning-mate for local CEO,” Sin Yee Poon, a rank-and-file leader from San Francisco’s Human Ser­vices Agency, defeat­ed Davis-Howard by 700 votes out of 5,300 cast a 4‑way race.

Extra­or­di­nary disaffection’

The plat­form of Change1021 echoes that of Change888. It calls for greater democ­ra­cy and account­abil­i­ty,” finan­cial trans­paren­cy,” rebuild­ing from the bot­tom up,” bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion and access to infor­ma­tion,” resis­tance to con­tract con­ces­sions, and restor­ing mem­ber­ship pride in the union.

The 1021 reform­ers also made a point of declar­ing that they will not spend a pen­ny” of pre­cious local resources” to raid or attack oth­er unions.” They crit­i­cized SEIU for spend­ing tens of mil­lions of our dues dol­lars” on such fights — a ref­er­ence to Stern’s cost­ly and con­tro­ver­sial wars with UNITE HERE and the new Nation­al Union of Health­care Work­ers (NUHW), which is gain­ing ground on SEIU in Cal­i­for­nia health care.

As Poon told Labor Notes read­ers: We will have to deal with a huge task of rebuild­ing a union in a new direc­tion.” Even in bet­ter times this was dif­fi­cult,” Sanchez agrees. But, with our local union in such dis­or­der and our Inter­na­tion­al union so estranged from its mem­bers, it will be a for­mi­da­ble challenge.”

One observ­er wish­ing them well and applaud­ing their achieve­ment is a Bay Area NUHW founder. He was part of the tal­ent­ed and ded­i­cat­ed lead­er­ship cadre oust­ed by Stern a year ago dur­ing SEIU’s dis­as­trous take-over over of Unit­ed Health­care Work­ers (UHW), which remains in trustee­ship, with thou­sands of its mem­bers poised to join NUHW in upcom­ing decer­ti­fi­ca­tion votes.

This long­time union activist, who wished to remain anony­mous, was struck by the extra­or­di­nary dis­af­fec­tion and demo­bi­liza­tion of the work­ers” rep­re­sent­ed by 1021, as reflect­ed in very low vot­er turn-out.

In what, by trade union stan­dards, was a hot­ly con­test­ed elec­tion, tak­ing place in the mid­dle of a fis­cal cri­sis with wages, ben­e­fits, and thou­sands of jobs on the line, only 5,407 bal­lots were returned (5,360 valid) out of more than 42,000 eli­gi­ble to vote and a claimed mem­ber­ship of 54,000?” With this kind of hol­lowed-out union­ism, how long will it be, he asked, before boss­es and politi­cians fig­ure out that the SEIU jug­ger­naut’ is a paper tiger” — in Cal­i­for­nia and too many oth­er places as well.

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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