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.