Wednesday, April 09, 2008

On ‘democratic’ centralism: Stern’s illusion and democracy’s nightmare

By Herman Benson

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union and labor’s latest celebrity, seems to be resurrecting a neglected ideology: the concept of a militarized ‘democratic’ centralism. For him and his followers, the hope of imposing it upon a newly invigorated labor movement may be a utopian illusion. For union democracy, it is a nightmare. Hints, but only hints, of his underlying philosophy were implicit in his schemes for reorganizing his own SEIU and the whole labor movement. But its trend has become manifest as he is apparently moving to crush critics on the west coast, impose a repressive trusteeship over the 140,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West, and cut down Sal Rosselli, its president.

In February this year, Rosselli resigned from the SEIU International Executive Committee so that he could feel free to criticize what he charged was the “undemocratic practices we have experienced first hand.” The SEIU convention was coming up at the end of May. “In good conscience,” he wrote, “I can longer allow simple majorities of the Executive Committee to outweigh my responsibility to our members to act out of principle on these critically important matters. I say this with no ill will, but with a deep sense of conviction.”[Rosselli to Stern 2/9/08]

They differ over bargaining strategy, over the role of the international and locals, over the right of the membership to veto the merger and dissolution of local unions, over whether to go easy on employers to get a foot in the door for unionism. The issues in dispute are not trivial, and the charges and countercharges are correspondingly harsh. Rosselli accuses the Stern people of “company unionism” and “top-down organizing” to beef up membership statistics by any means whatsoever. They denounce him for sabotaging the SEIU drive to organize, for falsifying the record, for hypocritically benefiting from policies he now derogates.

This is no idle talk at a cocktail party; it is a serious difference over policy. He attacks vigorously; they reply in kind. So far, routine. That’s what democracy is for, to allow an outlet even for the bitterest of debates. But the problem is that Rosselli’s critics go beyond denouncing him for criticizing. They would make his very right to criticize illicit. And, because they are armed with organizational power, they would resolve the dispute not simply by democratic decision but by suppression. The irony is that they wrap autocratic intentions in the flag of a democratic “majority”. Rosselli, they insist, must go along with the “majority.” But a majority in power can always take care of itself. The essence of democracy is to preserve an orderly means of opposing a majority.

In replying to its self-posed question, “What is real union democracy?” The SEIU’s anti-Rosselli web site, “Fact Checker,” pandering to the bias against any genuine spirit of democracy asks, “Is democracy abiding by majority rule just when you like the outcome but ignoring it when you don’t?” But democracy, as we practice it in America, cherishes precisely the right of a minority to oppose the majority. ‘Fact Checker” continues in line with what has become official SEIU ideology, “ Is it democracy when 11 out of 12 workers in an industry are not even at the table?” What they mean by this muddle is what they have suggested before more clearly: members must abstain from exercising their union democracy until most workers, now nonunion, are organized. By that standard, union democracy must wait patiently for a long time, perhaps forever.

They use the boilerplate language available to any overbearing union official annoyed anytime by any critical dissident. Mary Kay Henry, international executive SEIU vice president, writes in the course of a long attack on Rosselli [ website 3/25/08], “he is giving employers ammunition to use against workers….”

Three members of the SEIU international executive committee found Rosselli’s decision to speak out impermissible. “Just as we expect members of our local unions to unite behind a common strategy after there has been a full debate,” they wrote, “and a majority has reached a democratic decision, we as leaders must do the same.” There it is. Once a “democratic decision” is reached everyone, members and leaders, must swallow their opinions, keep quiet, and toe the line. We discuss, we decide, we unite, you shut up, we remain a fighting force. If you open your mouth against the line we discipline you. (How some might love to apply this principle to the Iraq War! The irony in this case is that, as they wrote, the SEIU was on the eve of an international convention to open in three months. If now is not the time for that democratic discussion, when?) [Regan et al to Rosselli 2/11/08]

That same tone now permeates life in the SEIU. In 2006, as the SEIU was about to run a membership referendum on creating those huge California megalocals, Stern turned the union into one advocacy monolith to guarantee a favorable outcome. He ordered, “All local unions, union officers, and assigned staff must fully cooperate in the implementation and transition process to assure that this decision is carried out in an orderly fashion…. No union funds, resources or staff may be used to oppose, interfere or undermine in any way the IEB determination in this matter.” (The referendum carried, but according to one report, only 16% of the membership voted.)

In the same spirit, applicants for appointment to the executive board of the new 45,000-member Local 521 had to sign an oath of loyalty to the union administration, including these assurances: “I will not … engage in personal attacks on other members, staff, or leaders at unions meetings, in the press, or other literature, or venues…. Once a decision has been made, I will support that decision to members and others…I will not …take … legal action against the union for actions they take in their legal role as leaders as long as I remain a member of this appointed board or committee.” Come weal, come woe; high or low, no one can remain in any official union position and ever ever act against any misdeeds by other officials.

Here then is how the labor movement would operate if the system being implanted by Stern could take root and flourish:

A policy is adopted, say at the international convention, the union’s highest constitutional authority --- for the sake of argument we make the generous assumption that it has been a ‘democratic’ decision. Then for the next five years until the next convention (four years for the SEIU) every union institution and representative, must fall in line. No criticism permitted: every hired staff employee, every elected officer in every local and in the international, every steward appointed or elected, every editor and PR spokesperson, every executive board member of every local must propagate the vaunted ‘democratic’ decision. None can oppose it or publicly express misgivings on pain of swift dismissal. Stern envisions a monolithic disciplined army of thousands, all spouting the politically correct official line. After five years, during which everyone sang the same notes in harmony, comes the next convention; and at last, presumably, democracy’s brief moment has arrived.

Proceedings at the convention, as always, are carefully manipulated by the administration. Under the Stern regimen, those in power will already have been safely protected against criticism for the previous five years. If, at the convention, venturesome critics are unusually resilient, if they are not demoralized by five years of deadly uniformity, if they are lucky enough to get the floor and keep it before the question is called, they might get five minutes in the sun, maybe even seven or ten. Then it is all over. The delegates, people who knew how to stay on top during those five silent years, adopt the new official policy. The period for ‘democratic’ debate is over. Time to unite and fight and bite your tongue. Five new silent years loom.

But is this bureaucrat’s dream likely to come alive? Perhaps in part, but never in full panoply. By now, websites and the Internet afford too many ways for members and officers alike to evade the proscriptions on democracy. Federal law offers some protection for civil liberties for members in their unions. Stern will never have full scope for the fulfillment of his dream; nevertheless, as we see in California, federal law and the union constitution still provide ample means for chilling dissent.


Anonymous said...

A really confused analysis. Majority rule is democracy--the preservation of individual rights (including the right of dissent) is a check on democracy. Obviously unions need to balance majority rule with a base line of liberties within a union. But here we go: if a majority votes to strike, all must strike--there is no room for dissent--the debate is over and we all need to abide by the will of the majority even if we think it is a bad idea.

What would be helpful is deciding those situations when dissent should always be allowed (merger votes, bargaining strategy), and those situations when dissent is not allowed (following a properly sanctioned strike).

The labor movement was built, and will hopefully be rebuilt, on collective acts, not individual acts.

That said, I'm not too fond of Stern's approach. I think it is ultimately bad process which will lead to losing results.

Anonymous said...

Benson you are off. The Labor Movement is under siege. We are at war. We all have to be faced in the same direction or face irrelevancy. So yes we have democratic processes in SEIU, but once we make a decision, we need execution. Democracy is in the eye of the beholder. We believe we have democracy in SEIU. The issue at hand at this moment is a leader who's position is "Just for Us", while the wast majority of SEIU members stand for "Justice for All. 88% of workers in this country have no Union. Democracy at work for them is non-existent. With a Union they have a shot. Your agenda is Democracy with no context. If you have to approve all comments, what type of democracy is that. You are taking responsibility for your sight and it requires some level of control. Your democracy has a context.

Sean said...

The posters above key mistake, of course, is that no one voted any of this stuff in. Like the betrayal at P-9 in the 80's, and other strikes, contracts, and assorted sundries decided by union "leadership", most of the stuff was either passed in what amounts to a procedural vote, low turnout, or with a stacked deck.

And the second poster is trying to use scare tactics. No one involved in the labor movement ignores the reality on the ground; but this is, after all, a movement of LABOR, not of labor LEADERS. Workers make the decisions, for better or for worse. Without active participation, and an ability to for individuals in each DIRECT bargaining unit (and not as a monolithic local in name only) to decide and approve their contract and strike decisions, WITHOUT being overruled by the international, the union is nothing more than a lapel pin we put on.

Anonymous said...
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Democracy4SEIU said...
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Anonymous said...

Used to work for SEIU till I was driven out for not showing enough enthusiam for selling out workers under the buzzwords of "partnership" and "21st century".

I've been in the union movement for 20 years. All unions have good and bad sides, but my time at SEIU was the worst. The managers are an extreme collection of hypocrites, asskissers, backstabbers and pure phonies. All they care about is climbing the bureaucratic ladder.

There was no democracy at all, and there was a climate of fear and intimidation among the staff. And the staff union is no help at all.

Bravo to Sal Rosselli for standing up against Stern and the international union. That takes a lot of guts, given how ruthless and undemocratic the Stern gang is.

Anonymous said...

We agree with Mr. Benson completely. The level of suppression at SEIU locals is chilling under Stern's appointee system.

To read about another California merged SEIU local, see: "The SEIU Local 521 Story" under "Documents" at

This page also has stories from other locals working for democratic reform and self-governance within SEIU.

In Solidarity,
SEIU Members for Democracy
One site, one voice for a strong and democratic labor movement

FightFor347 said...

Having your carefully placed loyalists as leaders and then having them "vote" doesn't count as democracy. The true sound of democracy is the clashing of ideas.
The purpose of a union is to represent it's members at the worksite, as well as the bargaining table. The members must determine the shape and direction of their union, as well as have a mechanism to hold their leaders accountable and be able to remove them if they act against the intent of their local. Otherwise, you eventually will wind up with a mafia that will only collect "protection" money. Anyone who has studied the labor movement will tell you that what Stern is trying will eventually fail and have a detrimental result for the members. A blind focus on growth will sacrifice the intent of representation.