Monday, September 28, 2009

New constitutions for UNITE HERE and for NUHW: Calling for democracy, Resisting authoritarianism

By now there is something to be learned from the bitter internecine battles that embroil Andy Stern of the SEIU, Sal Rosselli of the new National Union of Healthcare Workers, John Wilhelm of UNITE HERE, and Bruce Raynor of Workers United. It is becoming clearer that this is no mere struggle for power among ambitious union leaders. It involves a sharp challenge to Stern's favored conception of a labor movement highly centralized at the top and regimented below. It marks an important break in the trend toward superbureaucratization of the American labor movement. That challenge is manifested in two new union constitutions: one, adopted in haste as the founding constitution of Rosselli's NUHW; the other, the extensively revised constitution of Wilhelm's UNITE HERE, just adopted at its convention in July.

In 'normal' times (if any times are normal), both constitutions would surely be of great interest to union activists and civil libertarians. However, in our times, they have a special significance. Not that they are flawless, certainly not. But in the context of the current internal labor battles, these new constitutions must be read not only for what they propose but for what they reject. They propose some steps toward democratization; they reject aspects of Stern's bureaucratization.

The NUHW constitution:

Andy Stern and Sal Rosselli once cohabited in a happy family and jointly envisioned the SEIU as the vanguard of a newly invigorated labor movement. But that bond was broken when Rosselli criticized Stern for a top-down organizing strategy bordering on "company unionism." After Stern trusteed the 140,00-member United Healthcare Workers-West and removed Rosselli, its president, along with all officers, they left the SEIU to form the new independent National Union of Healthcare Workers. Their new constitution bears all the marks of a hurry-up job, quickly put together to position their union for challenging the SEIU in collective bargaining elections. Nevertheless, at least two features stand out:

The NUHW constitution makes most big decisions of the president subject to review by the elected executive board. This provision, repeated on page after page, is a refreshing departure from practice in the SEIU, and from current trends in the labor movement, which turn top officers into near-dictators whose powers are limited only in theory by a rubber stamp international convention every four or five years.

The NUHW constitution rates highly the role of job stewards and provides for their election at all levels. Here, too, is a rejection of what Stern has introduced in the SEIU, where he would degrade the status of job stewards by replacing them with appointed clerks who deal with "job problems" over the telephone and at computer terminals.

The new UNITE HERE constitution:

The new UNITE HERE constitution is a thoroughgoing revision of the first constitution adopted at the union's founding convention in 2004. The union was formed that year by a merger of UNITE, the needle trades union, with HERE, the hotel and restaurant workers union. By agreement, Bruce Raynor, former president of UNITE was elected president of the merged union; John Wilhelm, former president of HERE, became the president of its hospitality division.

Raynor's union was weak in membership but it had lots of money (including a valuable stake in the Amalgamated Bank) accumulated in those bygone gloried days when clothing was still a respected part of the American economy. Wilhelm's union, in contrast, had plenty of members in the expanding service trades, but it needed money. Right from the start, the marriage was an odd coupling of money and members. However, that anomaly could be overlooked as the new union joined Stern's Change to Win in that momentary era of illusive enthusiasm. But it didn't last. Like Rosselli and Stern who turned from allies into enemies; so did Raynor and Wilhelm. The embittering disputes in both cases have a lot in common. Some time around late 2007, the agreement between Raynor and Wilhelm fell apart. Raynor complained that Wilhelm was squandering time and tons of money in old-fashioned organizing campaigns that could not show massive results. Wilhelm replied that Raynor sought to centralize authoritarian powers in the hands of the president and that he proposed to organize quickly by offering employers sweetheart deals.

Raynor faced a vexing problem. Since he had invested mostly money in the joint UNITE HERE venture while Wilhelm came in mostly with members, Raynor was sure to be outvoted when the union's convention assembled in 2009. He decided not to wait for the inevitable defeat. He resigned as UNITE HERE president, pulled his followers out, and formed a new union: Workers United. His new union promptly affiliated with Stern's SEIU, where Raynor found a natural fit. Stern now bankrolls Raynor's Workers United.

With Raynor gone, UNITE HERE reworked its constitution at its convention in July 2009. Unlike the NUHW constitution which was obviously hastily pieced together, the revised UNITE HERE constitution seems to be a product of careful thought. Commenting on the constitution, John Wilhelm, now UNITE HERE president, writes, "We have tried to learn from the recent struggles that have afflicted our union and to put in place a constitution that does its best not to rely upon the good will of the union's elected officers." They succeeded, not in hitting upon a perfect model of an unblemished union democracy, but in offering a democratized alternative to the superbureaucratization favored by Stern in the SEIU (and already imposed by the Carpenters union on its affiliated locals.)

The old UNITE HERE constitution, like many other union constitutions, centralized power in the hands of an authoritarian president. The new constitution leaves the president with enough authority to do the job, but it reassigns certain basic powers to a broad international executive committee. The executive committee itself is now open to minority and independent views; it is composed, not only of the top officers and others elected at-large by convention delegates, but also of vice presidents elected by separate representative assemblies of locals.

In the SEIU, Andy Stern would have the whole union leadership, top to bottom, local and international, elective and appointive, acting as one monolithic bloc, speaking to the membership with one united voice in favor of the official line. The new UNITE HERE constitution rejects that concept of militarized leadership. "Executive Committee members, " it reads, "shall have the right to inform any affiliate of any decisions or discussions which occur at Executive Committee meetings." At international conventions every committee "shall present any majority report(s) and/or dissenting report(s) prior to the opening business on the second day...." The section "Bill of Rights," assures that "No officer, affiliate, or member may be discriminated or retaliated against, or in any way disadvantaged" for criticizing any union actions or policies.

Under the old constitution, a local could face trusteeship whenever it was justified "in the opinion of the Presidents" (before Raynor split off, the union had a dual presidency). On trusteeships, the new constitution begins, "Trusteeships may be imposed and the democratically elected affiliate officers removed only as a last resort." Its text makes that declaration much more than an empty homiletic; it specifies conditions under which a trusteeship may not be imposed and it protects locals from arbitrary acts of union officials. Upon demand of a local facing trusteeship, the trial hearing will be conducted before an outside impartial arbitrator selected from a panel supplied by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. A local has the right to retain an attorney to represent it at any trusteeship hearing.

Article 23, which protects local autonomy, begins, "UNITE HERE pledges to respect local autonomy and to refrain from interfering with the affiliate's representation of its members and organization of new members." And that pledge is spelled out in extensive detail including a pledge not to "reduce or alter the jurisdiction of an affiliate without [its consent.]"

The right to trial before an impartial outside arbitrator goes beyond locals facing trusteeship. The new constitution provides, "At the option of an accused elected officer of UNITE HERE or any affiliate charged with a violation of this Constitution, the hearing shall be conducted before an impartial arbitrator...." There is more packed in this simple provision than meets the eye. It is the first time in more than fifty years that any major union has voluntarily ceded any measure of disciplinary control over its own affiliates to any agency outside the union's own power structure.

In 1957, the UAW created its Public Review Board, a body of eminent public leaders, independent of the union officialdom, to act as an appeals body, a kind of supreme court, that offers recourse to members against decisions of the union's own highest tribunals, including president and international executive board. Despite suggestions from the ACLU, no other major union has been willing to follow suit. If the UAW in 1957 swung the door widely to impartial outside recourse, UNITE HERE has opened it at least a crack. The UAW PRB is a continuing body available to members without cost and (apart from collective bargaining) is authorized to act on appeals on the whole range of internal union issues, including elections and free speech.

The UNITE HERE arbitrator-remedy seems limited to elected officers and affiliates who face charges and who must pay half the costs of arbitration. Compared to the UAW, UNITE HERE's move may seem modest. But compared to the practice in all the other unions which permit no outside recourse, it is a giant step. It is an overdue recognition of the principle that in disciplinary matters unions must provide appeals recourse to an impartial body independent of the union establishment.

Up to now, the drive toward restructuring the unions has been led by Stern in the SEIU and McCarron in the Carpenters. Unions that have been conventionally bureaucratic or reasonably democratic have remained so, without evolving either way, except when forced to comply with the LMRDA. The main movement, up to now, has been that relentless drive toward an increasingly authoritarian labor movement in which the rights of members and independent minded leaders are drastically limited. But now, after battles provoked mostly by Stern and Raynor, there is a strong countermovement. That, apart from any specific verbiage, is the encouraging significance of the new NUHW and UNITE HERE constitutions.

Of course constitutions are only printed words on pieces of paper. It remains to be seen how they will be applied in the rough and tumble life on the job and in the union halls. But, as a first step, these are welcome constitutions.

Redistributing presidential powers:

A striking transformation in spirit effected by the new UNITE HERE constitution is revealed in the multiplicity of presidential powers now limited or shifted away from the President, in most instances to the broadly elected Executive Board or General Executive Board. A 124-page version of the new UNITE HERE constitution includes so many examples that we list only some here. The president loses unilateral decision powers over the following:

  • determining jurisdiction of locals,

  • approving local bylaws,

  • expenditures over $25,000,

  • issuing local charters,

  • trusteeing and supervising locals,

  • ruling on appeals,

  • appointing international convention committees,

  • setting convention agendas, calling special conventions,

  • appointing union committees,

  • decisions on auditing, bonding, investments,

  • distribution from strike funds.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

When hailing Trumka, remember Yablonski!

Rich Trumka, now AFL-CIO president, had a fine reputation when he was president of the United Mine Workers; and he has been a good militant voice for the AFL-CIO as secretary treasurer; and he will surely be a good workers' representative as AFL-CIO president. In any event, it is hard to think of a better choice.

But as Rich ascends, it is a proper time to remember where he came from and how he got there. If not for Jock Yablonski, Trumka would probably be forgotten, if ever even noticed.

In 1969, Joseph (Jock) Yablonski, announced that he was insurgent candidate for president of the United Mine Workers. Incumbent Tony Boyle, successor to John L. Lewis, continued Lewis's autocratic regime, with the added ingredients of incompetence and corruption. "Union Democracy," Yablonski declared, "is the single most important issue in the campaign for election of a new UMW president." By the year's end, Yablonski had been murdered, along with his wife and daughter. (A few years later, Boyle was convicted of ordering the murders and died in prison.)

After the murder, the Miners for Democracy was formed to continue Yablonski's reform battle. Led by Joseph Rauh, Yablonski's attorney, a team of volunteer attorneys was recruited to back the MFD. At the time, Richard Trumka, by then a young attorney and obviously on his way out of the mines, became one of that team. The MFD defeated Boyle and democratized the union. It was Yablonski's battle to the death and the MFD's courageous continuation of the cause that opened the way for Trumka to the UMW presidency, from there to AFL-CIO secretary, and up to the presidency.

This summer, the United Steelworkers endorsed Trumka in a two-page declaration in its magazine. They tell us that he became a miner at 19, went to law school, became a lawyer, and served as staff attorney for the United Mine Workers in 1974. They neglect to mention that he could become a UMW attorney only because Yablonski led the movement that ousted the UMW old regime led by the crooked and murderous Tony Boyle and that as a young lawyer Trumka served the insurgent Miners for Democracy.

In the course of new events and with the burden of new responsibilities, Rich may disremember. But this generation of labor activists must remember Jock Yablonski. Trumka can be where he is today only because Jock Yablonski, at the cost of his life, inspired an insurgent reform movement in the United Mine Workers. Trumka's rise and Yablonski's martyrdom reminds us of those union activists who fight for union democracy today because they understand its important to the future of the labor movement. The labor establishment ignores Yablonski's sacrifice for democracy in the UMW because they distrust insurgent democracy in their own unions.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

SEIU raw power is replacing falling moral authority

by Herman Benson

How things have changed for Andy Stern in five years!

In 2004, he was the hottest labor celebrity in town. He was about to lead a coalition of major unions out of the AFL-CIO into the rival Change to Win, reorganize and galvanize his own SEIU, organize low-paid immigrants and minorities, and revive a declining labor movement. Labor activists , some out of the civil rights movement, some with honorable resumes in battles for union democracy, some students looking for a worthy cause, found a place with Stern. Pro-labor intellectuals ---writers, academics, researchers --- hailed the Stern-inspired movement as the greatest thing since the CIO left the AFL. The mainstream media, including even the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, featured him as the rising star of labor leadership.

In five years, he solidified his power in the SEIU by merging old locals into new mammoth units with leaders who are appointed by him, often after pledging uncritical loyalty to the administration. The SEIU convention in June last year, overwhelmingly endorsed all he has done and proposed to do. The union has amassed a huge treasury for organizing and political action. He can afford to mobilize a paid staff and some supporters for mass demonstrations against rivals in the labor movement. His power is respected ....and feared.

But he has created a problem for himself: Entrenched at the height of organizational authority, he is losing the moral high ground he once occupied so prominently. Change to Win, the union coalition he led, is falling apart.

Back in May 2005, in the celebratory spirit of the day, Sal Rosselli contributed a long piece to Labor Notes, the bottom-up troublemakers' newsletter, welcoming Stern's call for a new way. “At our international convention in June 2004,” he wrote, “we authorized our officers to put forward a set of proposals top pproduct fundamental change in the AFL-CIO. If that change were not possible, we authorized our officers to withdraw from thje AFL-CIO to build something stronger….[T]he AFL-CIO needs a new leader…It is just ommon sense that a new-industry based strategy nd structure could only be led by someone who fought for ---and not against--- that change….”

Years before, Rosselli, as an insurgent, won office as president of SEIU Local 250. As part of the Stern team, he became president of United Healthcare Workers-West in California, one of the largest SEIU locals, president of the SEIU California Council, and a member of the SEIU executive committee. But by 2007, Rosselli learned that everything had changed. After he criticized one healthcare agreement negotiated by Stern as near-company union contract, Stern embarked on a relentless campaign to destroy him, ending in a trusteeship imposed over UHW-W and the removal of Rosselli and all the local’s officers.

Stern was able to use the power of the purse to retain Ray Marshall, a former respected Secretary of Labor and university professor, to conduct hearings and invest the trusteeship with the gloss of impartiality. But that power could not shield him from the public relations disaster that he inflicted upon himself.

When rumors of a pending trusteeship first surfaced, over a hundred writers and educators expressed dismay in a long letter to Stern. "Putting UHW under trusteeship," they wrote, "would send a very troubling message and be viewed by many as a sign that internal democracy is not valued or tolerated within SEIU." Such a statement was a startling event. An assemblage of intellectuals in moral support of dissidents facing repression inside a union: nothing like it in memory. (But for the SEIU, it soon became almost routine!) Some of the signers, unaware of its implications, imagined that the letter would remain an unheralded private complaint; but, when it was published as an ad in the New York Times; and Stern expressed his displeasure, a few got the nervous jitters and hastened to backtrack. But only a few.

On November 9, 2008, when trusteeship had been transformed from rumor to imminent reality, a second group of 51 academics, writers, and labor educators, joined by the presidents of two Teacher locals ---all from California --- spoke out. "We in California have a great deal at stake... [An unjustified] take over of the 150,000-member UHW would be a disaster....We urge you to avoid such a tragedy by respecting the autonomy and constructive dissent of UHW." This time, none got nervous; they all held firm.

A week later, opposition to the pending trusteeship had spread beyond the narrow circle of intellectuals to representatives in California of community, ethnic, and religious organizations and local and state political leaders. On November 17, 2008, the San Francisco Business Times reported: "More than 240 lawmakers, community leaders, urge SEIU to hold off on UHW takeover." Signers of their letter included state senators, assembly reps, and country supervisors. "We ask," they wrote Stern, "that you accept [a] mediator's recommendation... rather than precipitate a crippling war inside SEIU." The San Francisco Board of Supervisors presented a "Certificate of Honor" to "Sal Rosselli and the 150,000 members of UHW-West for their continued fight for real democracy in the American Labor Movement and their commitment to building real power for healthcare workers."

Meanwhile, Stern's Change to Win coalition was coming apart, plunging him into a second front in his war inside the labor movement. (The first is against the National Union of Healthcare Workers, the new independent union founded by Rosselli's team.) Two of Stern's major allies in founding Change to Win back in 2005 had been Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE the clothing union, and John Wilhelm, president of HERE, the hotel-restaurant workers union. The two unions,. UNITE and HERE, had merged into the unified UNITE-HERE, with Raynor as its president. But when it seemed obvious that he would be defeated for reelection by the Wilhelm forces, Raynor split away, formed a rival union, Workers United, and turned it into an affiliate of Stern's SEIU. Welcoming Raynor, Stern loaned the new union a million dollars. Now, backed by Stern, Raynor is at war with Wilhelm's UNITE-HERE.

Who is right and who wrong, who are the good guys and who the bad in this battle between Raynor and Wilhelm? Whatever the answer to that question, it will not alter one obvious fact: Stern's PR stock has fallen so low, his public reputation has been so damaged that he is widely blamed for provoking the internecine war. In July this year, in a letter to SEIU Executive Board members, 228 scholars and educators from universities all over the country, and some in Canada, (even 3 in Britain, and one each in New Zealand, Japan, and Guatemala!) protested Stern's role. They wrote, "SEIU's concerted efforts to undermine UNITE-HERE belie the progressive ideals SEIU has upheld for decades.... We are concerned that these actions are undermining the principle of union democracy and dividing the progressive movement at a critical moment in history. We urge you to stop your interference in UNITE-HERE, refocus on organizing the millions of unorganized workers...."

If this array of public criticism from pro-labor intellectuals and public representatives is unprecedented, what follows is even more unusual. An unwritten gentlemen's agreement regulates relations among top labor leaders: "You can run your union as you see fit, even honestly, and I will never criticize you publicly. In return, you will never criticize me for running my union as I see fit." But that code was seriously breached in June when, in an obvious repudiation of Stern-Raynor, fourteen top labor leaders signed a statement of support for UNITE-HERE. The leaders of the presidents of all big Change to Win unions were among them.

Taken together, all these events pose a portentous question: What will shape the future role of the SEIU: the organizational power and resources at the disposal of Andy Stern or the power of social opinion expressed by intellectuals, political leaders, and laborites?

Friday, September 04, 2009

New stage in super bureaucratization of labor

Four locals in California, with a combined membership of 40,000 janitorial service workers, were ordered by SEIU President Andy Stern to join together in a new district council called United Service Workers-West. Here is something drastically new in the SEIU. Unlike the various mega locals created earlier by Stern by dissolving several locals into one, these four locals each retain a separate existence, but only as desiccated shells deprived of substance.

Because the council is a "new" labor organization, Stern is allowed by federal law to appoint all its officers; and because the council is not a local but an "intermediate" organization, they hold office for the next four years. Not a man to evade appointive opportunities, Stern has chosen the council's three top officers and the 23 additional executive board members. In decreeing the council's formation on March 11, Stern prescribes its authority by informing his appointees, "I hereby impose the attached provisional Bylaws for USWW." Provisional? But it's impossible to change these bylaws without Stern's O.K. Only the executive board can amend the bylaws and then only by a 75% vote at two consecutive meetings. In any event, the imposed bylaws read, "No amendments shall be valid or become effective until approved by the International Union." Under these bylaws, the council swallows up the locals.

Locals are instantly rendered powerless by one simple device: they are stripped of authority over their own treasuries. One listed basic "function" assigned to the council is "the collection of the dues paid to affiliated locals." Elsewhere the bylaws make clear what that means: "In consideration of the services being provided by the USWW to the affiliated Local Unions, all affiliated Local Unions shall pay to USWW any dues which it collects from its members or USWW collects on behalf of an affiliated Local Union."

The council grabs all the money and then it---not the locals--- adopts "a budget for each affiliated local union, covering the resources devoted to servicing the members of the local union." With total control over the collection and distribution of money, the council inevitably assumes control over every significant phase of local activity. Almost everything requires money, including all phases of collective bargaining. At first glance, one may not notice that locals will actually lose control over collective bargaining. But you must read the bylaw double talk with care:

Among the basic council functions are these: to "bargain [and] ...enforce collective bargaining agreements on behalf of affiliated local unions." That aim seems qualified by the words, "nothing in these Bylaws are intended to supplant or suspend the collective bargaining rights of any Local Union," a qualification that is reassuring only until you read on: "A Local Union may voluntarily transfer its collective bargaining rights to USWW."

Putting it together: Any local which "voluntarily" refuses to cede control over collective bargaining to the council, can be financially starved of the resources necessary to conduct its own effective collective bargaining and so forced into submission. It can't happen here, you will say? Then you don't know where Stern is taking the SEIU.

The locals have no right to their own money. The council president is endowed with sweeping financial powers. He or she is authorized to hire and fire and direct the whole council paid staff and set their rate of pay and to retain attorneys, accountants, and other consultants. The president is insulated from membership control.

Because the council is an intermediary body, not a local, the president, despite those enormous powers, is not elected by the membership but by a delegated body, in this case by the council executive board. After their four-year appointive term is up, executive board members will be elected by the locals, but that status does not give them a paid job. The president's power of the purse extends even to those who have the constitutional power to elect him or her. An executive board member depends upon the president for a paid staff job.

In the old style SEIU, the now-familiar mega locals remain formally autonomous; they collect and retain dues; their members elect local officers; they are responsible for organizing, collective bargaining, processing trials and charges --- all the authority and responsibility traditionally vested in local unions remains. With the new California janitors council, the role of locals is transformed. To sum it up:

The council takes over dues and assessments. As required by federal law, after the appointive term has ended local members will be permitted to elect local officers, but not necessarily to pay them. Money for all salaries, including for elected local officers, depends upon decision of the council. Who pays the piper calls the tune. Without independent access to money, local members lose control over their own locals. The handling of grievances and the processing of charges and trials are removed a greater distance away from the membership. The council dominates the locals; the international president, through his appointive power, dominates the council.

In all this, the SEIU draws upon an organizational form that has been perfected by its Change to Win partner, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. But there is this crucial difference: What the Carpenters have created impinges only upon the construction trades. But Andy Stern, SEIU president, has pretensions of emerging as the great new leader of American labor. What he has fabricated in California, therefore, has broad significance as a portent of how he would shape the emerging new labor movement.