All posts by SEIU-UHW-Noel

Union growth and standards must go hand-in-hand

(This has been an interesting discussion (when people are not flaming each other), so let’s keep it civil. – promoted by Julia Rosen)

Thanks to Brian for his post on the blogger discussion with SEIU's Andy Stern and for opening this discussion. I'm new to the Calitics community and the new UHW Online Communications Specialist.

As a first contribution to this discussion, I thought it would be helpful to share the broad background of our dispute with SEIU, and the outlines of a few of the lessons we've learned in the course of many campaigns to build our union. Through focused efforts to improve the lives of healthcare workers and the people we serve, UHW has developed a model of growth through strength that at the same time achieves the goal of growth for strength.

For the first two terms of Andy Stern's presidency, from 1996 to 2004 and beyond through the initial days of Change to Win, UHW and SEIU shared vision of increasing union membership and improving workers' lives based on building the capacity of strong local unions, maximizing member partcipation in organizing and politics, coordinating our strength across entire industries through democratic structures of accountability to rank and file union members.

However, in recent years, SEIU's priority of growth has lost its qualitative dimension.  It is now an act of blasphemy to question what kind of growth makes sense or what purpose growth should serve or what role the informed consent and active participation of workers should have in growth.  It is expected that local leaders accept the gospel of growth for growth's sake and accept the quickest short cuts possible to achieve it, even when that means putting employers agendas ahead of workers' aspirations, taking decisions out of workers' hands, and limiting workers' rights to advocate for themselves and for the public interest, both now and in the future.

In this climate, UHW's success at winning some of the nation's best contracts that significantly improve standards (wages, benefits, voice on the job to improve patient care, etc.) has actually been derided as “polishing the apple” – i.e. forgoing growth opportunities by using the union's money, staff and political capital to improve contracts that are already “good enough” instead of using those resources for more growth and for that alone.

The misguided notion at play here is that there's a one-to-one correspondence: the more resources spent on improving standards, especially when that involves struggle with employers, the less growth will be achieved.

This caricature does not stand up to scrutiny.

The fact is that UHW was the fastest growing local in SEIU from 2001-06 (excluding growth from mergers) and it's also the fact that most of SEIU's growth in recent years has come through the creation of quasi-public employers for independent homecare and childcare providers rather than from actually winning union recognition from corporate employers based on the kinds of “value added” arrangements that Stern touts in his book, “A Country That Works”.

But even putting aside these facts, we should question the fundamental logic of the Stern regime's premise that pursuing higher standards for organized workers is an impediment to achieving growth, an expenditure of limited resources in a zero-sum game.

Our members' experience is that improving standards and achieving growth generally go hand-in-hand because when workers win higher standards in one place, it inspires workers in other places to join the union.  Indeed, this is why most workers want to join the union.

The hidden and deeply troubling premises of the Stern regime's false choice between growth and standards are these: that no substantial growth can take place in the face of employer opposition and that workers themselves can't be trusted to make wise decisions that defer short-term gains for growth and the long-term power it builds.

The first premise is troubling because starting out, as the Stern regime does, with the PRIMARY purpose of currying favor with employers rather than addressing the issues of union member and consumers cheats workers of their power to achieve real change.

The second premise is troubling because it leads to the kind of autocratic leadership and abuses of power documented at  When you believe workers are incapable of making good choices, you take the choices out of their hands and entrust them to a closely held inner circle accountable only to itself and to it own agenda of growth at any cost.

These premises bring extremely big problems.

First, the structural tensions between the goals of workers and the goals of employers require that a good union be able to work constructively with employers when that's possible and to fight their initiatives when that's necessary.  When winning employers' approval is universally understood as a prerequisite for growth and growth is your only concern, you're operating from a position of weakness, as you've given up in advance on winning any objectives that employers might not prefer.  Literally, workers don't even have a fighting chance.

Second, it's wrong and undemocratic and fundamentally disempowering to cut members out of shaping their own destiny. You shouldn't make sacrifices for someone else without their informed consent, and you can't do so without building a hollow organization. Workers can and must take real ownership of their unions and make real choices for themselves to build power.

Moreover, counter to the Stern regime's elitist assumptions, workers have shown time and time again that they are capable of making decisions to postpone short-term gains in favor of long-term growth.  Such trade-offs are an integral part of what unions do, but workers themselves must decide to make them.  It is unacceptable for these decisions to be made Washington insiders who think they know better than the workers themselves what trade-offs are in their best interest.

In a future post, I'll lay out in greater detail some of UHW's concrete experiences of the corrupted culture within SEIU's current top leadership that we are fighting to put right.