(Note: the Labor Notes Conference is a biennial gathering of activists seeking to build a more democratic and more effective labor movement. It takes place in Detroit Mich.)
In the aftermath of the disruption and violence by SEIU at last weekend’s Labor Notes conference, there have been a flurry of analyses, finger-pointing, hindsight, and criticisms. This issue is too important to drop…in recent days SEIU’s campaign against CNA/NNOC (California Nurses Assn/National Nurses Organizing Committee) has veered from harassment into violence-which has absolutely no place in the labor movement.
I think it’s important to listen to a few of the voices coming out of this melee with first-hand experience of the incident. I’ll warn you that this has grown rather long, as I have found more voices it seemed important to include. Note that two of the folks whose words I include are connected to CNA/NNOC. The others are not.
I think it is also important to say that clearly many of the SEIU folks bussed in had no intention to involve themselves in violence and as you will read below, quite likely, many had no idea what they were really there for. Where I or my union have differences with SEIU, it is with the top leadership and a few of the staff, not with the rank and file members who are too often being sold out by their own union. And it’s even fair to say that, like any big event where things happen in a hurry, the same event can look very different to different people and from different angles. I have no doubt that some of the SEIU people who stayed back in the middle of the crowd experienced a peaceful, though boisterous demonstration. I also have no doubt that those at the front line attempting to break into the banquet room committed a violent assault.
First I want to focus on Bonnie Castillo, RN. Like most RNs, Bonnie is a not easily daunted-but even she was overwhelmed by the extreme behavior she witnessed:
“At every single healthcare workshop on Saturday, SEIU staff would rudely interrupt and heckle. By the end of the sessions, it was clear that SEIU’s inside team was overwhelmingly composed of professional staff thugs.
When the seven buses arrived at the evening banquet and people began pounding on the outside doors, it was all very surreal. I remember looking at our board members, our staff, and our RNs from all over the country. I first heard the word “bus” over the radio our security staff was using and got up to see what was going on. The next word was “move” and that’s exactly what happened in a matter of seconds.
Once our board members were out I still thought somehow we might not all have to evacuate. Then I saw one of our security staff rushing towards me, saying “NO, Out!” I looked behind him and saw the doors shaking, the thugs yelling, drums and windows pounding, and we quickly ushered our last two tables out. I looked behind me and saw the hotel kitchen staff running as well.”
Labor Notes staff were equally baffled by the sheer aggression of SEIU. As a neutral platform for all organizations and activities that serve to promote and protect the working women and men of the world, Labor Notes employees should not find themselves thrust into the roles of referee or security guard when misguided zealots take advantage of, and ruin, the spirit of equality in a communal gathering. The people at Labor Notes were so affected by the unexpected belligerence that they issued the following statement:
“…debate [between two unions] must take place with respect and free from intimidation. Despite being welcomed to the conference earlier in the day-and given space to debate supporters of the CNA/NNOC about neutrality organizing agreements-SEIU staff and members shouted down speakers at workshops and panels throughout the event.
At our Saturday night banquet hundreds of SEIU protesters stormed into our conference and confronted our volunteers and supporters. In 29 years we have never had a group of protesters attack our conference or the brothers and sisters who attend it. Violence has no place within our labor movement, and we call on the national leadership of SEIU, including President Andy Stern, to repudiate it.”
In response to the negative publicity they have received, SEIU organizers maintain that they did not incite the violence, pointing to the fact that among their busloads of members bombarding the Labor Notes conference there were many women, children, and retirees. To those that were there, however, the presence of such diverse and, one might say, vulnerable, elements of society is not evidence to support SEIU’s purported nonviolence. Instead, they are a shocking indictment of just how callously SEIU pursues the scent of blood.
Interestingly, while the initial SEIU press release mentioned only a peaceful domonstration, that position seems to be gradually “evolving”. Here’s an excerpt from the BNA Daily Labor Report (an e-mailed newsletter of labor affairs)
SEIU, however, issued a statement April 14 contending that its members, led by hospital workers from Ohio, led a peaceful protest to voice their disapproval of CNA’s “anti-union campaign in Ohio.”
SEIU spokeswoman Joyce Moscato told BNA April 14 that there was some pushing and shoving as SEIU members tried to get into the banquet and other conference attendees tried to keep them out, but added, “it didn’t last long.” She acknowledged that several people got hurt, including some SEIU members, but added that it was “not intentional.” She also confirmed that an SEIU member died from a heart attack as he was boarding the bus after the incident.
Next some thoughts from Michelle Mahon. Michelle is a RN in Ohio who works as a nurse legal consultant and on a “lost time” basis for CNA/NNOC. She both describes what she saw in Ohio and offers some thoughts on the broader context:
Some from SEIU claim that the intent was a peaceful demonstration and for most this may in fact be true. SEIU staffers have claimed that they were attacked by beefed up security and CNA/NNOC sympathizers as the inciting event that turned the demonstration to violence. As an eyewitness, I can tell you this is not the case. However, even if we give SEIU the benefit of the doubt we must examine their behavior and how it could lead to such a response.
Imagine that you are standing witness to a mob of people yelling, screaming, carrying large sticks and pounding violently against doors demanding entry. Now imagine them suddenly rushing toward you by the hundreds. How would you respond? Well documented psychology states you will respond in one of two ways- fight or flight. This response is part of every person’s human programming so deep within our nervous system that often one cannot control it. Individual previous personal experiences will cause great variability to the threshold of tolerance before this response sets in. I am certain the responses of a Vietnam vet, abused woman, immigrant who has had to flee from a war torn country and others that have traumatic incidents in their past might vary greatly from others. Factor those types of psychological responses with others and you can see the danger of these intimidation tactics. While SEIU may believe they can toe the line between intimidation and violence they are not in control of the situation when they confront society.
Dearborn is not an isolated incident of collective intimidation as a tactic employed by SEIU. In Springfield, Ohio as I participated in leafleting hospital workers to expose a rushed and unfair election between SEIU & CHP. I witnessed the more common variety of SEIU thuggery. Almost immediately upon my arrival I found myself surrounded by SEIU staff organizers, approximately 10, mostly men. They surrounded me and two other women yelling obscenities standing within inches of us. SEIU followed us around town and followed us into stores continuing to engage in aggressive behavior that fell just short of assault. This continued for days and was obviously planned, coordinated intimidation. As we walked to our cars on the icy streets in a blizzard they used their vehicles to “push” us off the road. A dangerous move, especially considering the road conditions, that could have had unforeseen and unintended consequences had one of us slipped or the car skid on the ice. Again, SEIU forgets that they do not have control of the situation.
Many who have had interactions with SEIU staff can repeat similar experiences on more than one occasion. In fact, it seems that whenever SEIU engages CNA/NNOC this is their approach. The LA Times article that tells of a CNA organizer slapping someone from SEIU leaves out the fact that she was encircled by many men who were yelling at her and preventing her from walking away. Her response was the natural one of fight or flight.
The consistency of this aggression demonstrates that the response it elicits is intended and taught to the staff of SEIU. Considering that the primary target on most occasions is CNA/NNOC an organization primarily comprised of women I do not believe their choice of tactics is a coincidence.
Glenn Greenwald, an attorney who has studied collective acts of intimidation in the context of the radical right states ” it is not only those who engage in the tactics themselves who bear responsibility for the consequences, but also those who offer coldly bureaucratic indifference towards these tactics, or even an implicit defense of them”. It is important to recognize SEIU behavior as more than a tactic. Collective intimidation is dangerous and can illicit unforeseeable responses. SEIU’s strategic aggression is in fact widespread abuse that should not be tolerated in our society.
As Michael Carano (a blogger and labor activist from Ohio) writes,
“it should be said, by some of the comments heard from attendees, it appears many of the SEIU members brought into disrupt the conference may have been unwitting participants to what was planned for them. More news will be forthcoming, I am sure. If so, one must wonder at what level this trickery descends through the ranks to use their members in such a way.”
The next words are those of Ken Paff, a Teamster and longtime activist for union democracy attending the Labor Notes conference, who has, sadly, seen this kind of radical violence before, when dealing with the Teamster ‘BLAST’ goon squad in the 1980s. For Paff, the SEIU invasion of Labor Notes was an unwelcome throwback to a dark era in labor history. This is quoted from a private e-mail from him, forwarded to me.
“My reports below are based on hearing from careful observers on the spot; where they conflict with press releases, consider the source. At least 3 buses of SEIU officials and members arrived, either all or mostly from 1199 Ohio. Some SEIU reps and organizers were recognized by participants. A few in the advance line, at the point of confrontation, wore bandana masks to avoid ID or pictures, but in at least one case, an LN participant pulled the mask off the SEIU official.
They arrived at exterior glass hotel doors near the banquet hall. They beat on the glass and chanted while hotel staff eyed them from inside, a bit removed from Labor Notes participants, who were in the banquet room or still streaming into it.
One of their inside people slipped past the hotel staff and opened the door from the inside, and they flooded in.
The delay there gave some participants time to organize a thin line of defense across the three sets of double doors leading into the banquet hall. The doors were closed and volunteer participants stood guard at them, some with locked arms.
The advance line of SEIU staffers led the chanting group forward and pushed and punched and tried to break in, and almost did. My friend Dan Campbell had his glasses broken from a glancing punch.
It was led by officials, but many behind them were rank and file members who had been “mobilized.” A friend talked to some of them and found out they didn’t know that they were brought to invade a national (and international) labor event. One said they were told it was a meeting of union busters. A few had children with them, so they were hardly prepared for a confrontation.
Their press release was headed ‘SEIU Members Stand Up for the Future of the Labor Movement.’ Doesn’t seem like a future that I’m interested in. I saw it in the past, and would like to keep it there.”
Finally, I will quote this morning’s statement on the events as issued by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney:
Statement by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney
On Developments in the SEIU-CNA Dispute
April 15, 2008
For several weeks I have been working to bring the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) and the California Nurses Association/NNOC (CNA) together to resolve their escalating dispute over representation of nurses. Unfortunately, the deplorable events of the weekend set back the progress we hoped to make.
There is no justification – none – for the violent attack orchestrated by SEIU at the Labor Notes conference in Detroit. While there may well be multiple sides to any dispute, violence in any form is reprehensible. Violence in attacking freedom of speech must be strongly condemned. Any attempt to deny the right of free speech threatens the foundation of our movement and the future of working people.
No union should understand the corrosive effect of violence better than SEIU, which was founded by courageous janitors in the face of employer violence in the 1920s and 1930s. I call on the leaders of SEIU to condemn what happened in Detroit.
Likewise, I call on the leaders of SEIU to withdraw their recent appeal to their local unions across the country to withhold dues from AFL-CIO state federations and central labor councils as a pressure tactic in their dispute with CNA. These organizations are not involved in the controversy in any way, and withholding resources at a time when we face the greatest political challenges in our history is a damaging affront to the determined, united efforts of the entire labor movement.
It is time for the escalation to stop. Our responsibilities as leaders demand that we rise above our differences and disagreements for the greater good. Last week the leaders of CNA agreed to meet with SEIU to discuss these issues.
Today I am renewing the call for both parties to come together and resolve the issues that divide them.
I thought the above would end the piece, but just minutes ago I received this weeks issue of “Week in Review” by Bill Onasch. Bill is a respected blogger and labor activist who publishes a weekly e-newsletter on labor issues. Here are his thoughts – and that really will be the last of it!
Stern Crosses the Line
The first sign of trouble I saw, as I was finishing my salad, was the frantic signal from the waiter captain to the waitpersons to stop serving and go to the kitchen. The prudence of this surprising action soon became apparent. A woman rushed up to the vacant podium and started denouncing CNA “union busters.” She was promptly removed but then we could hear great commotion outside the doors to the Grand Ballroom.
At least two bus loads-some say more-of SEIU staffers were determined to invade the banquet and take it over. Some wore masks. Many wielded anti-CNA picket signs. Dianne Feeley, a retired UAW officer from an Axle local now on strike, who I have known for more years than either of us would care to admit, was injured in the scuffling as the good guys and gals kept the barbarians out of the hall. Eventually, after hotel security called the cops, the thugs retreated shouting “we’ll be back.”
Perhaps not coincidently, the windows of Ellis Boal’s car were also smashed about the same time. Boal, a labor attorney currently advising the Freightliner Five, has earned the wrath of many union bureaucrats as well as bosses. It’s hard to believe his car damage was a random act of vandalism.
Andy Stern was not present. But nothing on this scale in SEIU gets done without his approval, if not suggestion. Violent intimidation is, of course, not unknown in the American labor movement. Usually this has been the result of mob infiltration in the unions, sometimes even using murder as a way of settling disputes, as we have seen in the past in the Teamsters, ILA, and Mine Workers.
SEIU is not mobbed up. Stern is a one-time campus radical who discovered that being a union bureaucrat could be a rewarding career. Setting the pace in degeneration of the bureaucracy he has already borrowed some time honored practices of gangster unions such as sweetheart contracts and raiding legitimate unions on strike. Now he has taken a tentative step in using the union staff to physically attack challengers within his union and rival unions–and not very concerned about any collateral damage.
The entire labor movement should denounce this reintroduction of gangster methods and take whatever steps are needed to stop it cold now.