Saturday, March 07, 2009

Change to Win is losing it

Andy Stern's dream house is collapsing; but he hopes to pick up the pieces. Such is the implication of reports in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

UNITE/HERE, one of the pillars of Change to Win, the coalition that Stern led out of the AFL-CIO, is being chopped to bits by blows of mutual recriminations between its two warring top leaders. The union had been formed as a marriage, now clearly one of inconvenience, between UNITE, the needle trades union which had loads of money but not enough members, and HERE, the hotel union which had lots of members but not enough money. Bruce Raynor, who invested the needle trades cash into the merger, was awarded the presidency of the new union. John Wilhelm, who invested those hotel workers and is president of the united union's hospitality division, apparently emerged with a majority on the international executive board.

Raynor accuses the Wilhelm forces of too exclusive a concern for the wages and benefits of union members and too little for organizing the unorganized. They, in turn, accuse Raynor of acting like a dictator, one who is willing to trade away union standards to induce employers to accept unionization. On the face of it, this dispute seems like a mirror image of the battle inside the Service Employees between Andy Stern and Sal Rosselli which is now tearing apart the SEIU in California.

Raynor wants to pull UNITE out of the tie with HERE. Fifteen of his supporters on the international executive board are in federal court trying to undo the merger and get their money back. He is chairman of Amalgamated Bank, owned by UNITE, which seems somehow mixed up in this tangle. According to the Wall Street Journal, some believe that Raynor wants to safeguard his control of the bank in case Wilhelm wins out. And so he proposes to amend bank rules to make it difficult to oust its directors in one fell swoop and to require a 75% vote of all outstanding shares to approve any "significant transaction" not initiated by the directors.

Wilhelm apparently insists that unity is still possible, a position he elaborates in an unusual letter distributed to UNITE/HERE members on February 8. What is extraordinary about his statement is its affirmation that the merger can be saved, but only by a thoroughgoing democratization of the union constitution. ”Our constitution,” he writes, “is not a governing document that can withstand the test of time.”

Wilhelm opposes "President Raynor’s insistence on greater centralization of power” and he wants “reasonable checks and balances.” The General Executive Board should “become more active.” He wants to end the practice of electing GEB members at large and make possible a greater distribution of power by substituting election by industry and region “in a way that …the voice of the minority is always heard.” Trusteeships should be established and local elected leaders removed “only where absolutely necessary.” Local per capita taxes should be reduced so that “affiliates can keep the resources they need to operate and remain financially independent.” Most important perhaps, “The constitution should protect rank and file members, affiliate officers, and IU officers from retaliation for expressing their opinions, voting, or running for office.”

Realizing that the UNITE-HERE merger has failed, Stern proposes that the fractured union (or perhaps the fragments) simply solve the problem by affiliating with his huge Service Employees International Union. For Wilhelm and HERE it could be an offer they can't refuse. But it is difficult to see how either of the warring factions could find peace in the SEIU. If the charges against Raynor have merit, his entry into the SEIU could pit Raynor, one accused authoritarian, against another: Andy Stern. If Wilhelm is serious about the need to democratize, he would find the regime in the SEIU at least as distasteful as what he wants to change. Some of the issues that have erupted in the battle between Raynor and Wilhelm have been raging inside the SEIU itself, with disastrous consequences. Stern has used his authoritarian powers as SEIU international president to trustee the 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers and to destroy the influence of its leader, Sal Rosselli, Stern's most outspoken critic.

Even before the explosion of these new events, it was obvious that the Change to Win coalition, led out of the AFL-CIO in 2005 by Stern, was on the edge of extinction. Now, in unexpected fashion, Stern’s overture to UNITE/HERE calls into question the whole rationale for creating a new separate labor federation. Change to Win zealots justified their split from the AFL-CIO by two basic arguments: 1. By freeing themselves from limits presumably imposed on them by AFL-affiliation, they could embark upon a unified campaign to organize the unorganized, and 2. to fulfill that objective, it was imperative to get rid of the general type of union that tried to organize anyone anywhere and to direct each union to concentrate upon its “core” industry.

Now, less than five years later, the validity of both these principles has been exploded. Neither the AFL nor C to W can report any massive gains in membership. (Raynor charges that the two unions organized more workers when they were independent than after the merger.)

Coming from the SEIU, the stricture for other unions to limit themselves to their "core" was a classic example of "do what I say, not what I do." The SEIU is a typical conglomerate of three disparate main divisions: building service, healthcare, and public employees. If Stern succeeds in harvesting UNITE/HERE, he will add many more unrelated sectors to his Austria-Hungary type empire: the entertainment industry via HERE and another conglomerate in its own right, UINTE, with its needle trades, laundry and what not workers.

Even before the UNITE/HERE debacle and Stern's latest ploy, the demise of Change to Win was already in sight. Immediately after the split, locals in Change to Win internationals remained affiliated with AFL-CIO city and state federations. In July last year, Change to Win negotiated joint political action with the AFL-CIO and began tentative discussions on reuniting. In January, this year, twelve international unions, including the major C to W unions, called for an end to the split. It is obviously only a matter of time, a short time, before Change to Win goes down as an abortive footnote in labor history.


Anonymous said...

The workers united "union" delegates meeting in Philadelphia "represent" approximately 75,000 members of Unite Here. Several joint boards who had supposedly sided with Raynor's dissident faction chose not to participate in this mock convention and several large former HERE locals who were part of joint boards that did participate, pulled out of their joint boards. The voting leading up to the convention was a haphazard mix of partial joint board votes (some of the joint boards were composed of as few as 20 people, the majority of whom were staff rather than elected members) which included converting meeting sign-in sheets as "petitions" calling for a convention.

The real story here is the impressive media/communications juggernaut that SEIU has built up -- and corresponding disconnect from its own members and locals -- so that it could create the impression in the press and blogosphere of a reality that simply doesn't exist.

The other real story is that the HERE side of UNITE HERE has achieved 50% density in gaming nationwide and 20% density in hotels nationwide -- both are considerable achievements with generally high contract standards. SEIU by contrast -- though there has been a proud history of dedicated organizing in its core healthcare sectors, has only managed to achieve 9.5% density in hospitals and 11% density in nursing homes nationwide. Its dream of a national healthcare union and achieving majority density in healthcare are great dreams and ambitions. Stern is famous for asking to be judged by results rather than intentions. By his own measure, HERE has been far more successful than SEIU in organizing and establishing a high level of standards for service workers in their respective core industries. HERE has failed to amass the quite impressive SEIU media/communications/messaging prowess -- however, the growing strains within SEIU will show that a PR machine is a poor substitute for a union with a clear organizing focus in its core industries, a clear set of standards which are the measure of contract gains, and a structure which encourages rather than sees as incidental the ownership of the union by an engaged rank and file membership.

Lastly, Workers United, as of yesterday, was actually absorbed into SEIU and does not exist as a stand alone national union. See the Workers United website which states the vote resulted in Workers United becoming a "conference of SEIU."

Anonymous said...

Please add to your blogroll. It is the website for reform members of SEIU 888 in Massachusetts who are courageously taking back their union from one of the most incompetent lackeys ever appointed to lead an SEIU local. Massachusetts public sector SEIU members have long been held hostage by Segat at 888 and her significant other David Holway of NAGE. Finally, it looks like a change is coming!

Anonymous said...

The reform slate at SEIU 888 has prevailed in their campaign to "take back our union." AAA tallied the ballots today and Presdient Susana Segat and her slate of officers was defeated by a rank and file team campaigning on a platform of member democracy. Segat has long been a favorite of Stern and Burger and was appointed as the head of Local 888 when it was formed by a merger of several public sector SEIU locals in Massachusetts. She immediately embarked on a crusade to consolidate power and diminish member democracy -- though her public message was always wrapped up in purple happy speak.

The International union had ignored years of member complaints, massive decerts and defections, the ridicule she brought on herself and her local by others in the Massachusetts labor and progressive movements. Fortunately, her longsuffering members had suffered long enough under her member snubbing ways and she was voted out in spite of backing from the International union.

One can only hope that the many appointed heads of SEIU public sector unions in California and around the country will soon suffer a similar fate. Go SEIU reformers!

michael biskar said...

Hey! I'm an organizer with UNITEHERE on the Hotel Workers Rising campaign in Indianapolis, IN. Indianapolis hotel workers are engaged in a struggle of historic proportions. There are currently no union hotels in America's 12th largest city, yet huge majorities of workers at the Sheraton, Westin, and Hyatt Regency hotels have demanded a card-check neutrality agreement. They have yet to hear back from the hotel owners. Work conditions in Indianapolis hotels are really tough. Housekeepers routinely clean up to 30 rooms per day and make just $7.25/hr. We've just put together an inspirational video documenting this 2-year struggle. It would be great if you could put it up on your blog for people to watch.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Benson --
Please write a story about this breaking bit of news from California. Evidently, SEIU hired a security firm "Oso Group" to provide security and transportation during the trusteeship takeover of SEIU UHW. Said security firm didn't get paid. They're upset. Very upset -- so upset they are now suing SEIU for nearly one million dollars in unpaid bills.

What's truly unbelievable about this story is that the lawsuit details the agreement and two things stand out:
1) The firm was hired to do reconaissance and investigation prior to trusteeship.
2) In just 5 weeks, SEIU ran up $2.2 million in bills with this firm to purportedly provide protection for SEIU bigwigs and staff involved in the trusteeship because of "potential of violence."

As to #1 -- retaining and using this shady firm prior to trusteeship creates further evidence of bad faith since at that same time SEIU was saying that it wasn't rushing to trustee UHW.

As to #2 -- the UHW sit-ins and rallies were being conducted by a bunch of healthcare workers -- CNAs, clerks, housekeepers, radiology techs and the like. All in the best traditions of non-violent civil disobedience. And faced with this threat, SEIU had to blow through over $2 million in members dues money in just over a month to ""protect" the trustees and out-of-state staffers? This seems like paranoia run way way amuck. Please investigate and write up. Thanks.