Skip to content
By one measure, last Wednesday was that rarity of rarities for American labor: a good day. The measure was that of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which announced that union membership actually increased by 428,000 in 2008. After decades of decline, the uptick in union membership signaled that some unions, at least, have figured out how to organize, despite relentless employer opposition and toothless worker-protection laws.
By another measure, though, Wednesday wasn't a good day at all for American unions. In Oakland, the Service Employees International Union -- with nearly 2 million members, the nation's most vibrant union and California's largest -- took direct control of one of its stellar locals, the 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers West, ousting the elected local officers, who in turn announced that they would seek to form a rival union to the SEIU.
In New York, meanwhile, another of the nation's leading unions, Unite Here, is engaged in all-out civil war. The union was created in 2004 through a merger of UNITE, which represented workers in the dying domestic apparel and textile industries, and HERE, which represented hotel workers. The logic behind the merger was that UNITE had limited organizing opportunities, but significant financial resources. HERE had considerable organizing opportunities but not enough money to exploit them.
What the unions also had were incompatible cultures and officers. On Jan. 22, the executive committee members from the UNITE side of the union took the executive committee members from the HERE side to court for allegedly violating the union's constitution -- the same charge that the HERE leaders level at their UNITE counterparts. Unite Here -- in hindsight, the most poorly chosen name in union history -- may well split, heightening what is already a ferocious battle over the union's resources.
The juxtaposition of these two intra-union wars with the new figures on union growth couldn't be more ironic -- or heartbreaking, if you believe, as I do, that unions are the sine qua non of any effort to rebuild America as a land of broadly shared prosperity. The two unions involved have waged the most innovative, determined and successful campaigns of any labor groups in recent years. They've done it by organizing janitors and hotel maids, laundry workers and hospital orderlies: Workforces comprised disproportionately of immigrants, women and minorities.
It was UNITE's leaders -- the real-life models for the organizers in "Norma Rae" -- who organized such Southern textile giants as J.P. Stevens & Co. HERE's leaders turned Wild-West Las Vegas into a union town with a sizable middle class and led the successful battle to reverse the AFL-CIO's historic antipathy to immigrant labor. The SEIU's leaders orchestrated the Justice for Janitors campaign that galvanized immigrant America.
Not that you'd know this if all you knew about these leaders was what they were saying about each other right now. The same zealotry that infuses their campaigns against employers now powers their campaigns against each other. At a time when unions need to mobilize in support of healthcare legislation and the Employee Free Choice Act (a bill that would curtail management's ability to threaten workers seeking to unionize), these unions will be lining up staffers and members to battle other staffers and members.
There are, of course, real issues behind these battles. Unite Here was probably a mistake from the beginning, given the inability of the two sides to agree on just about anything. The SEIU wars present a more interesting case. For the better part of a decade, under the leadership of Andy Stern, the SEIU has been consolidating its locals into mega-locals, some of them stretching across many states, in an effort to build powerful entities that can organize entire industries. The process has not always been gentle; many local leaders have opposed the absorption of their locals into larger organizations.
None resisted this change more fiercely than Sal Rosselli, the leader, until a few days ago, of UHW, who resisted the international's move to transfer 65,000 of his members to a new statewide local of homecare workers. The international's case wasn't helped when the designated leader of that statewide local, Tyrone Freeman, whom Stern had appointed to run the L.A. homecare local, resigned in disgrace in the wake of allegations that he misappropriated union funds. The UHW also argued that it historically had won better contracts for its members than other SEIU locals, and that by joining the statewide local, its members might be leveling down.
Above all, Rosselli played the democracy card: UHW members were happy with their local. They didn't want to be absorbed. Who was this Stern character to tell them they had to be?
So who is Stern? For starters, he's the most articulate and heterodox union leader in American labor today, the union leader best able to establish a rapport with non-union liberals and intellectuals. His organization put considerably greater resources -- about $85 million -- into its efforts to elect Barack Obama than any other. It funds more progressive groups and causes than any other institution in liberal America.
But Stern also has a penchant for seeking solutions to labor's problems by blowing up labor's institutions. In 2005, for example, he withdrew the SEIU from the AFL-CIO, taking a number of other unions with it to form a new federation, Change to Win. Today, most of the leaders of the Change to Win unions consider labor's bifurcation a mistake, and reunification talks are proceeding.
Within the SEIU, Stern has pursued an ambitious and contentious restructuring program with the goal of fostering maximum growth. Since Stern became president in 1996, the SEIU has grown by 700,000 members -- far more than any other union. But at times, growing SEIU has meant subordinating the interests of the existing membership to the demands of organizing the potential membership, as John L. Lewis did when he emptied the treasury of his own union, the Mine Workers, to build the Steelworkers and the Auto Workers, and as Jimmy Hoffa did when he held down the demands of his largest locals in order to negotiate the Teamsters' first national freight contract.
Stern and his lieutenants have built the SEIU into the most successful army that the union movement has just now, but that transformation has come at the expense of some traditional elements of union democracy. Stern's lieutenants acknowledge the trade-offs involved in the model they are pursuing but argue that the benefits of organizing the unorganized outweigh those of a more traditional, autonomous local-oriented structure, particularly at a time when unions must grow to survive. The now-former UHW leaders counter that their local was a model of successful organizing and that the international's takeover had more to do with asserting control than it did with fostering growth.
Whatever the equities on all sides, one thing is clear and tragic: At a time when unions are battling for their lives in the fight over the Free Choice Act, two of America's best unions are busy battling themselves.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post.