Tag Archives: The Alliance

SEIU engages in union raiding and busting in Puerto Rico

“In Puerto Rico, the SEIU is embroiled with the Teachers Federation, a 42,000-member independent union of public school teachers. After a 10-day inconclusive strike in February, the Federation was punished by losing its right to represent the teachers. The SEIU reached an agreement with a rival teachers group and supported its request for a collective bargaining election, which in effect would eliminate, if not destroy, the Teachers Federation. At the SEIU convention hall in Puerto Rico, a mass delegation of Teachers Federation members demonstrated with picket signs “Stop Union Raid.” Many of Stern’s critics support the Federation’s battle for survival. They ask: Will the new clause on “aiding” a “rival” make them vulnerable to disciplinary charges for openly expressing that support?”


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From the July-August 2008 issue of Union Democracy Review #174

Reflections on the SEIU Convention in Puerto Rico

At the June convention of the Service Employees International Union, climaxing President Andy Stern’s twelve years in office, a big majority of the 1,900 convention delegates endorsed his program and endowed him with increased power amounting to presidential authoritarianism couched in democratic verbiage.

But he has paid a price for that victory. When he first took office 12 years ago, his plans were greeted with near-unanimity by labor activists and pro-labor academics, and he was hailed in the press as the promising new labor leader. He came out of this convention stronger organizationally and constitutionally but with a diminished image. On the eve of the convention, a hundred writers, labor educators, and academics had expressed concern over the fate of SEIU democracy under his tutelage. Sal Rosselli, a major SEIU leader, broke with the administration and emerged at this convention as an outspoken oppositionist. Unexpectedly, more than a dozen rank and file delegates ran for international positions as insurgents. None were successful, but protest votes on their behalf were recorded from 15% of the delegates.

The union administration summed up its proposed program of action for the next four years until the next convention in an ambitious, emotion-stimulating 31-page declaration, “Justice for All.” It began on a high note of great promise and expectation. “We stand for not only ‘Just Us’ but for ‘Justice for All’ workers in our industries and in our country.” It called for “a more just and humane society”, for us and “for future generations.” That lofty theme was sustained and repeated in a multitude of variations. No one could fault such lofty goals. Can anyone object to justice for all? In a post-convention letter to educators, a Rosselli spokesman wrote, “Delegates from our local union … supported core parts of a platform proposed by our union’s national leadership, including expanding our organizing efforts and improving regional and national coordination among SEIU locals.”

But how to go about revitalizing the labor movement and changing the world? There’s the rub. And so there was criticism, and it was just as sharp and emotional as Stern’s support was enthusiastic. It emanated from two main sources: 140 delegates from Sal Rosselli’s 140,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West and about 100 delegates from other locals, many of whom joined together in a loose rank and file caucus called SMART (for SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today.)

In the spirit of “one national strategy” and “one voice” (phrases repeated over and again) the administration proposed a bewildering creation of boards, committees, and subcommittees — wheels within wheels — all dominated by the international president. Critics charged that the new structure of Division Leadership Boards and National Bargaining Teams overloads the system with international officers and appointive staff and reduces representation from local leaders and rank and filers.

But the critics’ main objection is to Stern’s basic plan, the stratagem that he hopes will open the road to a massive rise in membership. Stern is convinced that traditional unionism is not working; he would not rely on the old-fashioned method of inspiring workers in a battle for union recognition. He proposes to organize hundreds of thousands of new members, perhaps even millions, not in conflict with multi-million dollar global capitalists and corporate buyout firms, but in cooperation with them. That central aim was only imperfectly touched upon, and only by implication, in convention documents.

Many months before the convention, Stern disclosed his intentions to Kris Maher, a Wall Street Journal reporter, who wrote “Mr. Stern says he wants to remake the labor movement by shedding the old adversarial image and creating more labor management partnerships.” Stern told him, “We want to find a 21st century new model that is less focused on individual grievances, more focused on industry needs.” Alan Murray, of the WSJ, wrote that Stern told him, “he much prefers working with the buyout kings than with their public-company counterparts, ‘I’ve been incredibly impressed,’ he said, ‘…these men have much more understanding of what we are trying to accomplish.’ ” What all this means in practice has been revealed in actual agreements Stern worked out with cooperating employers:

In 2003, Stern negotiated an agreement with the employers’ California Alliance, an association representing 284 nursing homes. The Alliance turned over 42 of its homes with some 2,000 members to the union; but the union agreed that it would be barred from trying to organize its 185 non-union facilities. According to the UHW-W, the agreement covering the newly organized sites undercut union standards in the industry. It provided no vacation, holiday, or sick pay; no seniority rights, strict limits on stewards, and management’s right to change the economic terms of the agreement. The SEIU units were, according to UHW “close to becoming …company unions.” Rosselli’s public repudiation of the deal marked his break with Stern. Under pressure of mass protests from the UHW-W membership, Stern backed off and ended the controversial arrangement. But he had not abandoned his basic policy:

On May 10, Kris Maher reported that the SEIU and UNITE/HERE (Change to Win allies) had entered into secret agreements with two global employers of service workers, Sodexho and the Compass Group. “The old ways aren’t working,” Stern told Maher, “and we’re trying to find different relationships with employers that guarantee workers a voice.” And so, unions are formed behind the backs of workers and with the permission and cooperation of the employers. Not just the terms of the agreements, but their very existence is not to be disclosed, not even to the lucky new union members. Of the several hundred thousand workers employed in North America, the union will be permitted to organize a limited number at designated sites; the companies will cooperate by providing lists of the employees and permitting union access to their work sites. The unions agree to be barred from attempting to organize the others; and they will not post derogatory remarks about the companies anywhere in the world.

Stern aims to increase union membership and minimize individual grievances. In that spirit, the convention endorsed the administration’s proposals for “Membership Resource Centers.” From now on, instead of presenting their “job problems” on the work site to a flesh and blood steward-representative, members will log in to a central office where they will get “expert” advice from a voice at the other end of the line — perhaps human, perhaps electronic. This novel system will transform the whole dynamic between the union and its members. Shop stewards under pressure of their constituents day to day on the job, especially those elected, are motivated to take grievances seriously and work hard to satisfy the grievant. But the owners of those voices on the telephone will know that they are appointed by an administration that views grievances as a distraction. To please the boss who appointed them, they will be motivated to slough off those distracting “job problems.”

Its rhetorical call for justice for all — for the poor, the immigrants, the minorities, the oppressed — has enabled Stern to rally round him a troop of social idealists in whose eyes the SEIU has become an extension of civil rights campaigning and community organizing. On the other hand, its trend toward bureaucratic central control, and its justification of a kind of defanged hybrid unionism to be built in cooperation with big domestic and global corporations, has alienated a whole other cadre of social idealists who want the labor movement to be a democratic movement of workers, a movement that, they feel, can only be built in confrontation with big capital.

Two conceptions of the labor movement are counterposed. Because the SEIU has been built and has acquired power by action of militant union loyalists, not by corporate partners, at some point even Stern’s own followers are bound to ask, “What kind of labor movement are we building?” This is no crude battle for power. It is no conflict between so-called “business” and “social” unionism. Nor between a conservative “right” and a militant “left.” Nor between crooks and honest unionists. It is a dispute over the meaning and nature of democracy in the labor movement. Those “alternative visions of trade unionism” could be counterposed only inadequately and tentatively at this convention. What are the chances for a serous discussion during the four years before the next convention?

There are disquieting signs: The administration’s repeated call for “one voice” and “one national strategy” doesn’t encourage independent views. Stern appears to have backed off from a threat to trustee Rosselli’s UHW-W healthcare local; but the international now pursues Rosselli and other local officers by a complex suit in federal court. The convention adopted a resolution that will strip the dissident local of 65,000 of its 140,000 members.

The convention voted to expand the reach of its constitutional ban on supporting “dual unionism.” A member or local union can now be charged for “aiding a rival labor organization.” This provision is obviously prompted by a rivalry between the SEIU and at least two other unions. The California Nurses Association, an AFL-CIO affiliate, is extending its reach beyond California to the whole nation, thereby offering an alternative to any registered nurses who might be dissatisfied with existing SEIU representation. The bar on “aiding” rival unions can create a dangerous problem for SEIU locals which have overlapping, but friendly, representation in areas where the CNA represents nurses and the SEIU all other employees at a given site. Despite the hostility between the two national unions, practical necessity impels locals to cooperate. Stern’s critics, wary of how he will interpret “aiding” a “rival,” fear that he will use the new provision against them.

In Puerto Rico, the SEIU is embroiled with the Teachers Federation, a 42,000-member independent union of public school teachers. After a 10-day inconclusive strike in February, the Federation was punished by losing its right to represent the teachers. The SEIU reached an agreement with a rival teachers group and supported its request for a collective bargaining election, which in effect would eliminate, if not destroy, the Teachers Federation. At the SEIU convention hall in Puerto Rico, a mass delegation of Teachers Federation members demonstrated with picket signs “Stop Union Raid.” Many of Stern’s critics support the Federation’s battle for survival. They ask: Will the new clause on “aiding” a “rival” make them vulnerable to disciplinary charges for openly expressing that support?

How will it all work out? Will Stern’s program fulfill its promise as a devious route toward social justice for all in America, or will the centralized bureaucracy and the special deals with employers choke out the very spirit of idealism that inspires Stern’s dedicated followers? That question can be answered only after extended experience. Will the Stern regime use the endorsement by the convention of its “one voice” and “one national strategy” to justify turning the collectivity of hired staff, appointive and elected local leaders, and international officers into a disciplined goose-step apparatus to glorify the official line and exalt its results; or will it tolerate, if it will not encourage, the kind of free discussion that can truly assess what is achieved? The answer to that question can come promptly in how the regime responds to critics like Sal Rosselli in United Healthcare-West and other critics in SEIU locals around the country.

Which Side Are You On?


In the last few months I have had a chance to review a song I wrote in October of 2007. It’s called “Daddy Is White,” and I haven’t sung it out loud yet in front of an audience except to record a demo of it. My daughter worries that people might make fun of me. However, I feel that it is a truthful song.

In my last blog post I mentioned that I was raised in a half-Puerto Rican family and spent five years in East Harlem as a young child. At some point, when I was about 9 years old, I learned that my birth father was actually English-Scottish-Irish. Or white, as we used to say in my old neighborhood. Actually, anybody looking at me could probably tell that this was the case, but I felt I was the last to know, partly because I was treated by my Puerto Rican abuelita and my aunt and uncle as one of their own. I was proud, and still am proud, to be a Vega.

One person wrote in after my last blog entry to ask whether I had any plans to record Puerto Rican songs or songs in Spanish as a way of honoring those roots. I thought about this, but have to say no, even though I have had experience singing songs in Spanish. One of my first performing jobs was with a group called The Alliance of Latin Arts. I was 15 years old, and it was a government sponsored job, where we traveled from borough to borough singing songs in Spanish, like “La Bamba.” I attracted attention wherever I went, and it wasn’t because of my singing. (Somewhere in storage in a folder marked “scrapbook” I have a flyer from that job — when I find it I will post it here.) If you could look at the photo, you would see one girl in the line of dark-skinned Latinas to the far right looking down, and that is me, sticking out as usual.

It always struck me that in this picture I look like I am not only of a different race, but of a different century, as though I were Emily Dickinson and had somehow wandered into the Bronx in the 1970’s. (It should be noted that Puerto Ricans are not of one race — there are blue-eyed blond Puerto Ricans, though I never actually met any until recently.) I feel it would be false of me to do an album of Puerto Rican songs, since pretending I fit in, even back then, always felt a bit forced.

Songs brand us a part of a tribe. We can pick and choose what tribe we belong to. Goth, emo, hippie, punk, folk, alternative, for example. “Mom! Why are you wearing all black?” my daughter recently shouted at me. “You look so emo!” “I always wear black,” I mumbled. “But we are at the beach!” she said. Well, maybe she had a point.

I am of Irish descent, among other things, but I feel it would be false of me to perform traditional Irish music, even though I find some of it very moving. When I worked with Mitchell Froom, I liked that he said, “I will reveal you to be the mutant you really are!” when he heard how I grew up and about the mixed bag of stuff I grew up listening to — from Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs to Motown, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. But perhaps one day I could do an album of Jewish folk songs in A-minor, or an album of cante jondo, which Federico Garcia Lorca wrote of; this would take guts. I love sad and tragic songs, and I love the sensuality of Brazilian bossa nova; perhaps my melancholic temperament could do justice to an album like this.

I remember walking down the street one day, wearing a Smiths t-shirt, back in the mid-’80s. I was headed for the subway station, and I had to pass through a crowd of black teenagers to get there. There were maybe eight or so young men, looking me up and down as I picked my way through them. My neck prickled with worry. What would they say? Would they call me a goofy white girl, or worse?

One of them snickered. My stomach dropped. Then another one sang out, “I am human and I need to be loved!! Just like everybody else does!!” Morrissey’s transcendental lyrics from “How Soon Is Now?” It was so unexpected that I burst out laughing. They knew the song! Then we all laughed, and the tension was broken. Maybe we were the same tribe after all.
* * *

Ed Vega, circa 1972.
This song is called “Daddy Is White,” and I don’t know what tribe it represents. Maybe you also thought your daddy was Puerto Rican, and then you turned out to have another father! The song doesn’t even apply to my brothers and sister, whose daddy really was Ed Vega, who is shown here at the dining room table with the family guitar. However, the second and third verses were also drawn from reality — the second verse applies to the neighborhood I live in, where if you walk anywhere you run into the projects, where you can still feel those prickles, and feel all eyes on you: “What is she doing here?”

In the weeks following the recent election, though, there has been a very different feeling in the air in these neighborhoods, a feeling of relief, of recognition, of pride. There is going to be a man in the White House (Barack Obama) whose mother was white and whose father was black. He was a mixed-race child; he is a black man. His family is multicultural, as mine is. What a relief to see this represented in the realities of power and politics! In the media!

We say these words out loud and in print. Black, white. When I recorded the demo of this song earlier this year my engineer and I discussed what the song was about. At one point I realized we were whispering those words. Now we say them out loud, and they reflect our reality. It matters.

The last verse was inspired by a real-life discussion I overheard at a bar in Baltimore. A black man and a white woman were discussing a recent sports event. He called her “baby” playfully. She called him “stats boy,” meaning, I guess, someone well-versed in statistics. The conversation escalated quickly into a loud yelling argument, as he did not feel he was a boy of any kind and that word had racist overtones. Maybe the recent election means my song is on its way to being obsolete. I hope so.

Daddy Is White (By Suzanne Vega, 2007)

I am an average white girl who comes from Upper Manhattan.
And I am totally white, but I was raised half Latin.
This caused me some problems among my friends and my foes,
Cause when you look into my face, it’s clear what everybody else knows:

My daddy is white.
So I must be white too.
When you look into the mirror, what
Comes looking back at you?

If your daddy is white,
You must be white too.
When you look into the mirror
what comes looking back at you?

I feel it in the city when I take a walk uptown
I feel the tension in the air, I feel it ticking all around,
I feel it filling up the sidewalk, in the spaces in between,
Between my face and your face in public places where we get seen.


He called her baby. She called him boy, and then it started.
They were strangers at the bar, and they both ended broken hearted.
And it was a conversation, but it ended as a fight.
And I can tell you it’s because he was black, and she was white.