The SEIU Andy Stern Leaves Behind
All told, SEIU today finds itself in a precarious situation. By 2009 the union was facing dire economic straits as it struggled under the rising costs of political campaigns, which were paying diminishing returns, and interunion wars, which had sapped its material reserves. The union spent much of Stern's final full year in office cutting back on expenditures wherever it could. The deepest cuts, ironically, were made to SEIU's representational expenses, which are associated with a union's organizing operations. By the end of the year, the union Stern had promised to turn into the engine of growth for a revitalized labor movement was spending less per member on representational costs than at any time since 2002. As Stern exits, SEIU is left with more questions than answers about how the labor movement can once again become a dynamic force in the political and economic life of the country.
Stern's successor, Mary Kay Henry, in an interview days after the SEIU executive board named her the union's first female president, talked about how much work still remains undone since she joined the union in 1979. She was discussing a recent action at the Maryland headquarters of Sodexo, a subcontractor that provides on-site food, janitorial and other services for large employers like hospitals and universities. With 120,000 North American employees, Sodexo has been an important SEIU target for some years, and the union was in Gaithersburg in mid-April to protest the company's low wages, unpaid sick days and outright hostility to employees' efforts to form a union, which has included threats and even firings.
"It infuriates me that in 2010 we are still fighting for frickin' sick days," Henry fumed, showing some of the exasperation that comes from many years of fighting a losing battle. "It's a testament to how bad things have become. When I hear that nursing home workers are still bringing in towels from home to cut up to make their own washcloths—that's what they were doing in 1983, when I first started organizing nursing home workers! The promise of change with a union is great enough that these workers are willing to walk through fire to make it happen, and we just haven't done enough for them to change things."
How much of a change Henry represents remains to be seen. She promises to redouble the union's commitment to growth, especially among security guards, multiservice workers, and hospital and nursing home employees, while continuing to expand its presence in homecare and other public sector work. She talks about empowering rank-and-file members to play a larger role in the union's organizing program, and is setting aside $4 million for a research and development fund designed to nurture new ideas about how to fuel private sector organizing. She speaks highly of creative strategies like Local 1199's Heart of Baltimore campaign, which is using the Justice for Janitors model for organizing an entire industry in a single city—where one in five Baltimore jobs is in healthcare—rather than picking off employers one by one. This fall the union will send its member volunteers and other campaign resources to forty-four states, to beat back a Republican resurgence during the midterm elections and, in Henry's words, "be the drumbeat for working people during the economic crisis." And recognizing that it will be hard for SEIU to do all that on its own, she sounds committed to doing "everything we can" to settle the dispute with UNITE HERE (if not NUHW), and is otherwise eager to "restore our relationships with the rest of the American labor movement."
SEIU's critics remain unconvinced. They note that Henry has been part of Stern's inner circle for many years, as a union vice president, executive committee member and director of the union's healthcare division, and signed off on the more controversial decisions of Stern's presidency. NUHW's Rosselli spent thirty years working with Henry in SEIU's healthcare division, during which "there were times of absolute collaboration and then times of absolute betrayal," he says. In one case, a national bargaining team Henry oversaw during negotiations with the Tenet hospital chain in 2007 agreed to concessionary contract terms without clearing them with members in California, in what would become a critical point of contention in the ensuing battle between Rosselli's local and the national union. Henry disputes Rosselli's claim about the role she played in the Tenet bargaining, describing it as a temporary misunderstanding caused by a "rogue bargainer," which she quickly corrected. And for her part, Henry says she will consider "no settlement with Sal Rosselli that falls short of him pulling out of all elections" to win back his old members. But Rosselli has made it clear that he has no intention of doing so, and already nearly 4,300 members in eleven bargaining units have voted to leave SEIU for the breakaway union. In the next few weeks the two sides will fight what could be a decisive battle in the Kaiser Permanente system. SEIU has nearly 50,000 members in Kaiser—enough to make or break Rosselli's goal of becoming a viable challenger to SEIU in the California healthcare industry and eventually nationwide.
More generally, Henry has to decide the extent to which she is willing to acknowledge the failures of the Stern years and learn from them. For Wilhelm, who describes Stern as a "brilliant man of enormous ability," reckoning with the shortcomings of his approach to organizing is one of the key challenges facing Henry, SEIU and the rest of a labor movement still fighting for its very survival. "Andy got captured by the notion that by being part of the inner circle of discussions in Washington and rubbing shoulders with people with power that he himself was powerful," Wilhelm says. "I know that I have zero power if I'm disconnected from my members. And that's what happened to Andy—he couldn't have gotten more disconnected. That's the kiss of death."
With private sector union membership at 7 percent of the workforce and shrinking, the urgency of Stern's original call to arms to restore union growth has never been so great. But in his obsessive focus on increasing SEIU's ranks, Stern forgot the lessons of the last significant period of growth for American unions, during the birth of industrial unionism in the 1930s, when the shop-floor militancy of the great sit-down strikes electrified a movement of workers like never before. If such a movement is possible again today, it will require a more ambitious growth agenda than Stern ever envisioned—one of workers, by workers and for workers.