Union Blues Lift in Chicago | The Nation


Union Blues Lift in Chicago

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Out on the streets of Chicago, organizers from the two sides--boosted with staff from outside the state--became increasingly confrontational, and tires of AFSCME organizers were even slashed. SEIU, which had nearly 500 organizers of its own from around the country, brought in nearly 200 organizers for a weekend from several of its allies in the contest within the AFL-CIO--UNITE HERE, Teamsters, Laborers and United Food and Commercial Workers.

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David Moberg
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, writes frequently for The Nation on labor issues.

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After the election had already started, SEIU filed charges with the AFL-CIO against AFSCME and quickly won a decision that it had the exclusive right to organize based on its having started a substantial campaign with a good chance of winning far earlier than AFSCME, which then withdrew. In the end, 16,756 workers voted, 13,484 of them for SEIU. Despite bruising pressures on the state budget, head organizer Kelleher is confident, based on successes in 2003 with home healthcare workers, that the union can win at least some of its demands for rate hikes, health insurance and better training. The union also hopes to negotiate a contract that will collect union dues or a "fair share" representation fee from home childcare workers. Based on home healthcare experience, that would mean that roughly 70 percent of the 49,000 workers will actually join the union.

The confrontation between AFSCME and SEIU is rooted in a recent history of conflicts in Illinois, but it also reflects difficult issues in the debate about labor movement restructuring, and there's a good chance that the two big unions could confront each other again in other states unless their leaders can work out some understanding. At one level, the complex feud in Illinois between two of the biggest, most progressive and once fairly cooperative unions was triggered by the defection of one SEIU local from a hospital contract coalition in 2002, undercutting AFSCME's bargaining. But it escalated through a series of incidents in which each union blames the other for misconduct or sabotaging the other.

In 2003 it erupted in a battle over AFSCME's decision to try to organize home healthcare workers, where Local 880 had long established a presence. AFSCME criticized the governor's executive order and eventual legislation, which made home healthcare workers (and eventually, in a separate order, daycare workers) a distinct type of employee of the state rather than of an independent commission, as in many other states. "With the homecare workers, we feel that SEIU lowered the standards of state employees," AFSCME District Council 31 director Henry Bayer said. "They're the only state employees without health insurance or pensions," and were excluded from state responsibility for workers' compensation. SEIU responds that with collective bargaining rights, SEIU was able to raise the pre-existing low standards and that now the union is fighting to expand on its gains to win insurance and other protections. There was no way, the SEIU's Balanoff argued, that the state was politically willing at a time of extreme budget pressures to make these tens of thousands of low-wage workers full-fledged state employees immediately.

SEIU leaders say that the union delayed filing charges with the AFL-CIO for a variety of reasons: They were surprised by AFSCME's success in signing petitions; they counted on Sweeney to act without formal charges; they worried that filing charges might delay the election. But the decision reflects complexities of the current national debate. Despite denigrating the effectiveness of the AFL-CIO and the procedures giving organizing rights, SEIU quickly won a favorable decision after it filed its protest.

At the same time, the decision was made on the basis of SEIU's being present first, and both AFSCME and SEIU have argued that the criteria should include other considerations, such as whether the workers in question are part of a union's core jurisdiction (which both SEIU and AFSCME now claim for childcare workers). Also, SEIU and its allies have argued that the AFL-CIO should prevent contracts that bring down standards for an industry, but the SEIU and AFSCME debate over standards in Illinois reveals how complex that decision can be.

While there has been a debate over how much money to devote to organizing and politics, AFSCME has argued most forcefully that political action to neutralize employer opposition is the most solidly proven route to organizing success. SEIU in Illinois demonstrated how that political strategy can work.

By calling in organizers from its labor movement allies, SEIU's campaign also demonstrated how unions can come together to help each other win large-scale organizing victories. It's the kind of solidarity that is essential but nearly nonexistent, last having shown up nearly a decade ago in support of an only partly successful United Farm Workers campaign to organize strawberry workers. Unfortunately, it took a fight between two unions, not a fight with an employer, to revive such solidarity this time.

The Illinois victory was a great triumph for unions in hard times, a reflection of long and hard organizing work and a critical political victory. It opens a door to future victories but also, unfortunately, to the potential of future conflict between at least SEIU and AFSCME over childcare workers in other states unless top union leaders can figure out a way to work together. "I hope these issues can get resolved," says Balanoff, "and we can all be working toward building the labor movement and working together."

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