The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the most important union in the country and one of the largest, is a pretty big deal, but it would be an even bigger deal if the American labor movement were not itself in such a tenuous state. From its mid-20th-century peak, in which about 35 percent of workers were in a union, organized labor has seen its numbers shrink to about 11 percent of all workers and around 6 percent in the private sector—the lowest figures since the early 20th century, before industrial labor took off in the United States.
There have been plenty of factors—complacent union leadership, a ferocious business assault, the collapse of many industrial-labor sectors—at the root of this dramatic transformation. But despite these challenges, the SEIU, an amalgam of health-care, building-service, and government workers, has been “leading the way,” as it likes to say about itself. Despite the decline in union density, the SEIU’s membership numbers have increased. Even under Republican administrations, it has found ways to exert its influence. All things considered, it is the most powerful liberal-left organization in the country—“liberal” if you ask its many leftist critics, “left” if you ask, say, Glenn Beck. A central part of the Democratic Party’s electoral strategies, the SEIU is embedded in the new working-class economy that has emerged in the United States since the 1970s, and emblematic of the 21st century’s cosmopolitan egalitarianism and the working class that comes with it. Andy Stern, its controversial former president, used to inveigh against the union becoming too “male, pale, and stale.” Today, the SEIU has resisted this description: The union’s rank and file and current leadership are filled with women and people of color. In fact, its current president, Mary Kay Henry, is the first woman to lead the union.
The union’s politics has also followed suit. Along with UNITE HERE, the hotel and gaming union, the SEIU has forged a strong coalition with Latino communities in California, Nevada, and even Texas. Unlike some of its peers, it has also put issues related to gender, reproductive rights, and racial justice at the center of its program. (Cecile Richards, who worked as an SEIU organizer as a young woman, is now president of Planned Parenthood.) The union has also become the primary strategic and financial resource behind the “Fight for $15” campaign, which has led to increases in the minimum wage in a number of cities (as well as in states like California and New York, which together account for about 20 percent of the US population).
The rise of the modern SEIU and its particular brand of unionism can be dated back to the election of John Sweeney as its president in 1980. Sweeney changed what had been a sleepy, sometimes corrupt bureaucracy into an ambitious player in organized labor. With his penchant for Dwight D. Eisenhower–style mumbling, Sweeney was nobody’s idea of a charismatic leader, but he had a gift for imposing a larger vision on the union and hiring often brilliant and relentlessly determined organizers and researchers. These included Stern and Henry as well as Jono Shaffer, David Chu, Kirk Adams, and Stephen Lerner, perhaps the most acclaimed union organizer (and organic labor intellectual) of this era.