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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this blog!

This makes me wonder how many new "intermediary" levels of bureaucracy can be created within SEIU to ensure rigid control of resources (dues, staff, electoral campaign machinery, etc.). With layers of appointed salaried courtesans at the level of trusteed mega-local "leadership" AND at the regional level, what does rank and file organizing even look like?

SierraSpartan said...

Thanks for the excellent report.

Stern's organization is getting scarier and scarier by the day.

Anonymous said...

This was all actually laid out in rough form for the delegates in Puerto Rico to vote on. In the documents at the time these councils were called regional administration centers. No matter what you call it, it's clearly designed to siphon money out of locals into the International's strapped coffers. Not only that but more importantly by withholding a local's dues, the International can then trustee said local for not fulfilling its fiduciary duty by paying rent/mortgages, salaries, bills, etc. Nobobdy ever seems to notice this particular bit, but if one local on this council or regional administrative center or whatever gets uppity, you will get the UHW treatment and they won't have to invent a steaming pile of b.s. They'll just withhold the members' own money to legally take over.

Anonymous said...

Let me see..join the have no say, you cannot vote, your leadership is in for 4 years whether you like them or not, and by the way...your dues are now out of your control too. hmmm sounds like something everyone would want don't ya think?

Anonymous said...

The problem with this (and many of your other blogs on SEIU), is you completely ignore the unpleasant fact that labor unions are on the brink of extinction. Many of the bosses (corporations) are adept at making continuous changes to keep pace with the many changes in our society/environment. Union structures and tactics have remained virtually unchanged over the past few decades. Hence our near extinction. You (and all the other academics who write instead of doing) fail to acknowledge that we are getting our a$$e$ kicked by corporate America. Finally someone wants to attempt at making drastic changes in order to go head to head with corporate American, and you all cry boo hoo undemocratic. How democratic will your union be when it ceases to exist in a few years because you refused to change with the times. Wake up people... the labor movement is almost dead.

SMART Organizer said...

One of the Anonymous posters thinks Stern deserves support just for trying something new. But abuse of power is not new. And UHW-W, before the criminally insane trusteeship was imposed by Stern, was one of the most democratic unions in the U.S. and IT WAS growing, not shrinking.

We need new laws to criminalize the tactics Stern is using to destroy (not build) unions.

Anonymous said...

Amen to the anonymous poster who finally tried to add at least some sense of reality to this discussion!!! If we don't figure out how to do things differently we will all see the end of the labor movement in our lifetime - at least SEIU is willing to take risks, and hold themselves accountable to actually making a difference (real growth, a political program that delivers, division and local union structures that have the resources and power to improve the lives of their members).

And to the "SMART" Organizer, you've gotta be joking, the former UHW was one of the most staff driven local union's in the Country! Much closer to a cult than any kind of democratic organization. What is really criminal is how they spent 10's of millions of members hard earned dues money in their effort to hold on to their own personal power, and than when they got caught in their illegal schemes they even sabataged their own members organization and put 1,000's of members futures at risk attempting to build a dual union.

Anonymous said...

To the anonymoous poster from 6:33 pm. I worked at UHW and before that at Local 721. You're 180 degrees wrong about UHW. While Sal had his little cult, the local as a whole was not lost in mindless worship. That applies to Andy Stern so please stop projecting. I can also tell you from having worked in the 721 organizing department, that what counts most to the International is that you're with the program even though the bosses don't ever tell you what it is. The main thrust of it is clearly to do whatever you are told (which is usually to lie or get COPE money)and pursue incompetent strategies that the superiors then blame on organizers or reps so they can keep getting stroked by the likes of John Tanner. Just ask Grant Lindsey, coordinator, who's back at UHW. He blew a winning campaign at 721 to organize public defenders by sending a lying letter to them that offended the pd's so much that they walked away from SEIU even though 55% had signed cards. Not only is SEIU leadership corrupt, they are also so incompetent that they blow campaigns that are essentially won. This is your idea of improving the labor movement?

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous poster from 6:21 pm. SEIU is so "incompetent" at organizing that they have an organizing record that is more successful than that of any other union in the country!?

Anonymous said...

What I don't understand is this - if a group of private companies signed a contract with one of the local unions (they didn't sign it with USWW) isn't that contract dead when the local goes away?