Union’s Latest Idea: Organize a Contest

Times Staff Writer

Nora T. from Pennsylvania thinks the nation needs a law capping chief executive pay and mandating profit sharing for ordinary workers.

Deirdre D. in Georgia wants RVs equipped as mobile computer labs in shopping center parking lots to help low-wage store employees improve their skills -- and job prospects.

And Rick F. from California wants the country to set minimum age limits for credit applications, contending that “too many young people go into debt because of credit cards.”


These people and more than 15,000 others around the country have entered an unusual contest launched by a labor union at to find “common sense” solutions to the nation’s most pressing problems.

Along the way, some observers say, the Service Employees International Union has found a clever way to promote itself.

A bipartisan panel of judges will award prizes of as much as $100,000 for the best ideas received through Monday, when the contest ends.

The union also has pledged to back the winning idea with a campaign that could include supporting legislative change.

Some suggestions are -- to put it charitably -- wacky. But the deluge of entries suggests that Americans are especially worried about taxes, jobs and affordable healthcare.

The SEIU represents 1.8 million mostly low-wage employees and is known for its aggressive and unorthodox organizing tactics.


In recent days, for example, the union announced that it had won the right to organize nearly 5,000 Houston-area janitors, many of whom are immigrants, in part by enlisting support from local religious leaders, pension funds and the city’s mayor.

The contest reflects that penchant for unconventional strategies, said Peter Dreier, who teaches politics at Occidental College. The competition allows the SEIU to “reach out beyond the usual suspects” to spark “a conversation about public policy” and possibly mobilize new members in the process, Dreier said.

The contest has created “a sort of underground think tank” for the union, he said.

SEIU President Andrew Stern said the competition was born of frustration last summer “when a bunch of us sat around complaining about the lack of ideas in Washington that actually value and reward the work of Americans.”

They decided the answer was to ask “for suggestions from people, not experts.” The search for solutions to national problems, Stern said, “has nothing to do with Democrats and Republicans and left and right, but rather with what Americans think is right and wrong.”

The SEIU invited 23 judges -- Republicans and Democrats from business, labor, academia and nonprofit organizations -- to pick ideas that have the most practical potential to create or preserve jobs and improve the lives of workers.

GOP strategist Ed Rollins said he agreed to participate because “we need more bipartisan approaches to problems.”


Rollins, who worked for presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, said “extreme partisanship” had gridlocked Congress and he worried that “the country will be turned off to the political process.”

“This is an opportunity for policies to emerge from the ground up,” agreed another former White House official serving as a judge, Clinton-era Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner.

The outpouring of entries on the contest website reveals a lot about what worries Americans and how they might improve their lives.

Creating and sustaining good-paying jobs are top concerns for many.

Many other suggestions center on improving public schools and encouraging more high school graduates to go on to college.

A Massachusetts man, for example, would reward parents who volunteer as school tutors with tuition help when their own children attend college.

A Colorado resident weighed in with a “sure-fire” fix for failing public schools: “Double the salaries for public educators and [halve] their class sizes.”


There are plenty of goofy ideas as well, such as from the Washington state woman who would require purses to be redesigned so that a light would go on each time the pocketbook is opened.

The light would cut the time women spend searching for keys and other items, she wrote, and would “benefit working families as they will now get to work on time ... lipsticks will no longer be lost, more jobs will be created and innovative new business can be created.”



Public’s policies

Some ideas posted at

“We have to bite the bullet and institute an energy consumption tax.”

-- Scott B. in California

“There should be a policy of tax incentives to keep businesses in the United States to provide work here.”

-- Nora T. in Pennsylvania

“Employees could have a role in the appointment of senior management and have a say in management proposals, including bonuses.”

-- Anonymous in New Hampshire

“Mandate that merchants who accept credit cards allow a discount for paying cash.”

-- Dale B. in Washington, D.C.

“Every employee of a school system should have to teach a class or classes. No more bureaucrats who don’t teach.”

-- Jason G. in New York


Los Angeles Times


Deep thoughts

The Service Employees International Union has received 15,000 ideas in its suggestion box. Here’s the breakdown by topic.



Jobs and wages:18%


Transportation and energy:14%

Savings and debt:13%



Source: SEIUTaxes