The SEIU Andy Stern Leaves Behind
By 2007 doubts began to emerge inside SEIU about the transparency and strategic effectiveness of these arrangements with employers. The most vocal came from Sal Rosselli—the leader of a large, Oakland-based local, United Healthcare Workers West—who entered into a take-no-prisoners battle with Stern and the national union that quickly went public. UHW had been involved in a number of such agreements with nursing homes and hospitals in California, and in Rosselli's eyes the sacrifices involved had come to outweigh the benefits for the union. "This transactional exchange of members' rights and standards for greater numbers contradicts the core mission of SEIU," he charged in a February 2008 resignation letter to the union's executive committee. "An overly zealous focus on growth—growth at any cost, apparently," was distorting the promise of Stern's ambitious agenda and leaving workers with little control over their union, he argued. Despite considerable support for Rosselli's position inside and out of the union, Stern put the local under trusteeship in 2009. Rosselli and the UHW leadership in turn defected from SEIU and formed a rival union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).
Also controversial was SEIU's pursuit of growth through strategic mergers. Sometimes these marriages were entered into willingly, like the 1998 melding of New York City's 120,000-member healthcare union, Local 1199, with SEIU. But when SEIU couldn't make these mergers happen peaceably, it often resorted to more predatory tactics. Between 2002 and 2009, SEIU led what amounted to a series of hostile takeover campaigns against smaller unions in the service sector, pushing members to switch their affiliation to SEIU and in some cases filing decertification measures against rival unions. SEIU wasn't always successful, but a pattern of behavior was clearly being established.
"SEIU became an acquisition machine," says John Wilhelm, president of UNITE HERE, which has been locked in a battle with SEIU over members and financial assets for the past year. When an earlier merger between UNITE and HERE began to fall apart in 2008, Stern initially invited the whole union to merge with SEIU; but then, when that idea fell flat, he encouraged the UNITE side to split off and join SEIU under the guise of a new grouping called Workers United. Stern argues that it makes strategic sense for SEIU to represent workers in hotels and office buildings that are owned by the same firms that employ the union's janitors or security guards. But Wilhelm attributes Stern's involvement in another union's internal affairs to a naked grab for power and members, and accuses SEIU of trying to home in on HERE's traditional organizing jurisdictions while seizing a share of UNITE HERE's substantial financial assets. SEIU has spent the past year mounting decertification campaigns in UNITE HERE–represented hotels and casinos in Puerto Rico, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Toronto and elsewhere, earning the ire of a labor movement that historically has had little tolerance for such interunion raiding. At a meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council in March, even John Sweeney, the former AFL-CIO and SEIU president who brought Stern into the union some thirty years ago, described his onetime protégé's recent actions as "despicable."
These ongoing fights have taken their toll on SEIU, draining millions of dollars from the union's operating budget and, by a number of accounts, leaving the union's staff increasingly frustrated with the leadership's priorities. They have also distracted attention from the fact that SEIU's actual organizing record never lived up to Stern's expectations. In SEIU's core private-sector jurisdictions of healthcare and property services, growth has been sluggish at best. Over the past ten years, SEIU added on average just 6,000 nursing home members annually, and in hospitals, as the union has acknowledged, "organizing didn't match industry growth" for much of that period. Even some of the more encouraging recent victories, like a 2006 campaign that brought union recognition to janitors in Houston and was hailed as a major breakthrough in the largely nonunion South, did not translate into the kind of membership gains the union had hoped for. By 2008 SEIU still represented less than 10 percent of hospital workers in the country, just under 11 percent of nursing home employees and less than 8 percent of the property services industry.
What headway SEIU did make during the Stern years came largely among public employees, particularly nurses and health aides in state-funded, home-based healthcare systems. By using its electoral clout to coax, cajole and bully governors and state legislators into granting collective bargaining rights to homecare workers or childcare providers, SEIU added hundreds of thousands of members over the past two decades, while expanding its footprint in low-membership states between the coasts like Wisconsin, Nevada and Missouri. Close to half of SEIU's organizing growth between 1996 and 2006 was a direct result of these kinds of political campaigns, and today homecare accounts for fully a quarter of SEIU's total membership.
But growth of this kind has depended to a great extent on the fiscal stability of SEIU's public sector employers, and as Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein point out in their forthcoming book on homecare workers and organized labor, "the current recession and the fiscal crisis of the states now expose the Achilles heel of welfare state political unionism." In California, for example, where SEIU has more homecare members than in any other state, Governor Schwarzenegger has included deep cuts to the state's homecare system as part of his latest budget proposal, and it's unclear whether the union will be able to find many other willing partners in state capitals in the years ahead.
Not only does a reliance on public sector growth make unions vulnerable to fiscal belt-tightening, but with five private sector workers for every one in the public sector, the labor movement needs a private sector base to retain any significant social relevance. And without its recent gains in the public sector, SEIU would be hard-pressed to uphold its status as the country's fastest-growing union. As Wilhelm argues, "SEIU's success in organizing public and quasi-public employees has created a mythology that has obscured the reality in the private sector, which is that they have failed." The collapse of the Employee Free Choice Act, which Stern poured more time and energy into than anyone else, dashed SEIU's best hope for resolving labor's continuing private sector organizing difficulties.