June 2011

Mariya Strauss

Prole Art Threat

The Plot Sickens

My first unionized job was as a part-time adult literacy teacher at a local union in Boston. The local union itself represented nursing home and hospital workers; nurses' aides, mostly. We staffers also had our own union, the UWU (YOU-woo), or Union Workers United. I'm in a similar situation now, as I work for a small union-based press association, and also belong to a union and have a union contract. Since almost 90% of working people don't currently belong to a union, I'm guessing that you, dear reader, don't know what it can be like. Here is what that first job was like for me:

I worked, as I say, for a local union, SEIU Local 285. Our workplace, a fairly well-resourced operation of around 30 staffers, had four basic job categories: the "reps" took care of helping members who had grievances, whose contracts had been violated, and bargaining when those contracts expired. The organizers worked out in the community, trying to get more nursing home and hospital workers to join. The admin staffers held down the front office (a major responsibility) and kept the books. And the teachers, whose jobs were funded by grants rather than by SEIU members' dues, held ESOL and basic literacy classes both at the job sites and at the union hall. I, for instance, drove over to a nursing home every Thursday to teach a 2-4pm ESOL class to Haitian nursing assistants in the chapel. We were called the Worker Education Program, or WEP, and because we were grant-funded we were considered a separate bargaining unit and had our own boss. We'll call her J, and she reported to the Staff Director.

The rest of Local 285's (rarely) merry band of union staffers reported directly to Staff Director HR, a collective bargaining whiz with a Yale degree and a desire to rise within the SEIU national leadership structure. You wouldn't want to go up against HR in contract bargaining, but that's exactly what we did when our UWU contract expired. UWU's structure was pretty democratic, and it worked okay: when someone was getting heat from HR or other managerial types at the local, word spread, and the other UWU members stepped up to accompany the beleaguered staffer in meetings. We UWU members worked together to make sure all staffers were treated fairly and not exploited, as many union and nonprofit staffers often are in the name of helping "those less fortunate." During contract bargaining, HR met with members of UWU to swap proposals and go over the budget again and again, parsing it for hidden possible concessions we might extract from the other side. The teachers' bargaining unit (mine) sat across the table from J and HR together, and the pair of them tried everything they could to avoid giving us anything. I learned some of my best negotiating skills from them good-cop-bad-copping their way through those sessions.

HR made it plain, every chance he got, that he thought staff unions within unions like ours were an abomination. He reasoned that the workers we represented and helped at the nursing homes and hospitals were making shit wages, and it wasn't fair for the staffers to have their own union to try to get more for themselves out of the members' dues. UWU took the position that having our own union created a sense of solidarity with the workers we represented, because we understood ourselves to be workers too -- and that our fates were bound up with theirs. Countless times, UWU members took pay freezes or reductions when the SEIU members were having a rough year.

I left Local 285 in 2001. A year or two later, it was reorganized to create Local 2020. The staff union survived, but it did not survive a merger in 2005 with 1199, the mega-local of SEIU healthcare workers based in New York. Steve Early includes a mention of the UWU's disappearance in the Notes to Chapter 5 at the back of The Civil Wars in US Labor: "Another precondition for the merger between 1199 and 2020 was the dismantling of the latter's longtime staff union. 1199 field reps and organizers in Massachusetts today have no staff union contract like their predecessors had with Local 2020 (and Local 285 before the local was reorganized and renumbered). 1199 has always opposed unionization of its field staff and, during Dennis Rivera's presidency, campaigned aggressively against past organizing efforts by staff members in New York."

Early's note is the only documentation I have ever seen of that six-years-dead staff union. Yet it existed; it had members and by-laws, and it served an important purpose for the several dozen people who comprised its membership over the years. As a former dues-paying member of UWU, I'm grateful to Early for even this perfunctory entry, this parenthetical preserving of a vanished part of my early professional life.

So this is one of the essential -- and needed -- functions of Early's book: cataloguing the contorted, complex, and often ethically murky machinations of SEIU and its leaders that have resulted in new organizations being formed and old ones being elided from history.

By forcing mergers to consolidate the union into fewer local chapters, SEIU under Andy Stern's leadership in fact did violence to many of its fragile smaller locals that working people had carefully built and crafted and used to win decent contracts with employers they knew well. SEIU under Stern also engaged in costly battles with other unions over who would get to represent which workers. It intervened in at least one acrimonious breakup of a union -- UNITE HERE -- that resulted in financial near-ruin for the hotel workers' union and effective loss of representation for workers in the garment industry.

Early wants to be a chronicler of these now-finished internecine conflicts and sad defeats that are gathering dust like decimated, junked furniture inside locked rooms. I see a couple of big problems with his approach, though.

One problem is that Early can only see into the locked rooms from outside, through the cracks in the drawn blinds. Nobody from SEIU's leadership structure would talk to him for this book, he explains in an introduction that oddly and uncomfortably centers on his own relationships with both elected leaders and rank-and-file members from various unions. The reader is asked throughout the book to take those between-the-blinds glimpses from Early, along with direct quotes from rank-and-file union members who participated in the events he describes, as the real and true version of things. Certainly Early, a trained journalist who has had stories in major papers like the Boston Globe, is a capable reporter and interviewer, and there's no reason to doubt his five "w"s. But he was also personally involved with some of the events he describes, so his assessment of "what really happened" may really only inform readers about his version.

For me, that's actually somewhat okay, since he caveats his way into the chronicle via that Michael Moore-style introduction: I'm not a disinterested observer, I've worked for unions myself, I'm ideologically on the side of the rank-and-file workers, I want to see justice done and the underdog's story told, etc. All right, I think to myself. Salt grain taken. Let's hear some gruesomely true stories about scrappy union activist derring-do and wicked union-leader pirate captains.

But there's not much juicy fun to be had here. Early goes about storytelling with the grim-faced assiduousness of a medical examiner. He doesn't like -- and in some cases, obviously actively dislikes -- most of the people he writes about. It's clear he thinks of most SEIU leaders -- and, by extension, their staff -- as unqualified grifters with little or no commitment to workers' rights. Yes, Early documents cases of thieving leaders who were appointed by Andy Stern or others to lead portions of SEIU in the mid-2000s. He catalogues -- and rightly criticizes -- the nepotism and political chicanery that sometimes resulted in SEIU bulldozing the expressed wishes of union members in the name of growth, growth, growth. His indignation at the backroom deals Stern struck with politicians and employers, sometimes at the cost of better contract language and/or union bargaining power, is scorching.

But who wants to read a litany of complaints fueled by righteous indignation, however accurate? Despite being stonewalled by SEIU's national staff and leadership, Early did manage to interview a lot of rank-and-file union members and activists who told him their stories of building a union only to see it changed beyond recognition by higher-ups in Washington or New York. They provided him with quotes lamenting the corporate-style hierarchies Stern put into place at SEIU, and the corporate-style tactics that were used to grow the union at seemingly any price. Since Early decided not to render the narrative in Technicolor for heightened good-and-evil drama (as did several bloggers who wrote about Andy Stern's SEIU while all the events in Early's book were going on), I'd rather have the interviewees' stories told to me straight. A plainer, less agenda-driven telling of these stories would, I think, have made better reading and served Early's overall project better than his use of passages like the one below to canonize the self-sacrificing rank-and-filers who went up against the SEIU behemoth.

At a conference in New York City... Rafael Feliciano joined Sal Rosselli and Andrea Vanden Heever on a panel discussion about... the civil wars of 2008-2010. Speaking in English, which wasn't easy for him, the FMPR leader movingly recounted the story of the 2008 strike by forty thousand teachers in Puerto Rico. He reported that their union still lacks a clear legal route to regaining the bargaining rights yanked away by Acevedo Vila, the former governor, in collusion with [former SEIU1199 president] Dennis Rivera, that wayward native son of Aibonito, Puerto Rico. [Feliciano's union] has been able to keep its battle-scarred boat afloat, with voluntary contributions from eleven thousand teachers -- about a third of those once covered by its now canceled contract, which required everyone to pay dues to the union. Rafi described his own personal history as a socialist and union activist, making an earnest plea for linking labor and community struggles... He talked about [his union's] term limits for officers and the importance of union leaders being paid no more than the members they represent. "Workers," he insisted, "must always be the people who have day-to-day control over their union."

While I don't question the noble virtue of this beleaguered, outgunned union democracy activist, I have to wonder why Early wants me to root for him so badly. I tend to get suspicious when an author tries to tell me who the enemy is (in this case, Early thinks it's Dennis Rivera and Acevedo Vila). And in the book, the enemies list just keeps lengthening, including staffers who worked for SEIU and carried out Stern's wishes against member activists.

People who work in, around, for, and because of unions have a tendency to run in fear from magnifying glasses of all types. This behavior doesn't mean they are automatically guilty of wrongdoing, laziness or conspiracy. Historically they have been the ants trapped in the crispifying sun ray too many times to trust any observer, even one with left politics like Steve Early, to tell their story to the world and get it right. Often these staffers are in head-down, survival mode. They may even sympathize with, and be trying to work behind the scenes to assist, efforts to make the unions they work for more democratic and accountable to the membership. Some are faithful servants to tyrannical leaders, as Early shows, but it isn't quite fair to lump staffers in together with the people they work for. Early does the people in the book the greatest justice when he shifts angles, cuts off the death ray and simply lets us see them.

At his best moments in the book, like his chapter on the settlements reached toward the end of the SEIU "civil wars" called "Labor Day: The Sequel," Early uses his glass to simply scrutinize events, and gives us a more plainly-told story of what SEIU spent fighting its own former members and other unions in turf battles. I found these fact-based narratives to be more of a thorough indictment than the selectively-quoted, highly editorialized descriptions Early uses elsewhere in the book. The amounts spent by SEIU are shocking enough to put you off your brown-bag lunch: Tens of millions in legal fees. Millions more in direct-mail and other publicity efforts. Some amounts were harder to specify, like how much Stern spent to intervene in the split between UNITE HERE's two warring factions in 2008-2009. But these more straight-news moments in the book have the potential to spark an important discussion for union supporters: when intra-union conflicts threaten to drain reserves and override members' interests, how can members themselves take back the reins? And how exactly would the members decide on a different course of action than the ones their leaders would take against each other?

Rank-and-file union members, sometimes hardened by a lifetime of battle against shitty treatment at work, tend to stand their ground under the magnifying glass and will sometimes come around to the observer's side to check out what indeed might be going on with this institution their sweat-earned dues money is paying for.

This is how we got Labor Notes, the magazine by and for thinking rank-and-filers who hope they can improve their unions and hold their elected leaders accountable by publishing stories about how regular members are affected when said unions and leaders misbehave. They especially focus on tales of resistance to corporate-style unionism by rabble-rousing rank-and-filers. You can find Early's work in its pages, and in other outlets like The Nation and In These Times. Labor Notes also has an intelligent, lean staff who concoct a national activists' conference and a well-reported monthly magazine out of a budget that would be considered small in Turkey or Venezuela.

High-minded language about union democracy aside, Steve Early has written an important book. He is the first -- and hopefully not the last -- to attempt an examination of the breakdown in relations between SEIU and some of its chapters, as well as between unions like SEIU and the California Nurses' Association, or within UNITE HERE, that occurred between 2007 and 2010. Those interested in further explorations of Andy Stern's profile and legacy can read this piece by historian Melvyn Dubofsky. Perhaps he, or another labor historian, will tackle the subject next.

The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers' Movement or Death Throes of the Old?
by Steve Early
Haymarket Books
ISBN: 978-1-60846-099-1
409 Pages