Squaring off over labor’s future

Nelson Lichtenstein is a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy.

When an internal fight at a trade union erupts into the news, American culture has a ready frame. It’s Marlon Brando versus Lee J. Cobb in “On the Waterfront” once again, perhaps updated by a recent episode of “The Wire,” set among the corrupt and gritty longshoremen of the Baltimore docks. Or it’s a modern-day retelling of the Jimmy Hoffa/Teamsters story, destined to end in another mysterious gangland murder.

But there are no shiny suits or pinkie rings in the conflict at the Service Employees International Union, the big, fast-growing organization of janitors, hospital workers and public employees that has more than 650,000 members in California alone. All the dramatis personae are idealists who came out of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and although turf battles and dues money are certainly on the agenda, the real question they are debating is the road forward for the American trade union movement.

Leading the cast is Andy Stern, the SEIU’s national president since 1996. A Pennsylvania SEIU activist in the 1970s, Stern was put in charge of union organizing efforts in the 1980s, just as President Reagan and other resurgent Republicans helped stiffen corporate management’s hostility to trade unionism. The SEIU was one of the few unions that continued to grow in those difficult times, sparked by militant organizing campaigns such as the Justice for Janitors movement, which had its epicenter in Los Angeles.


Stern, now 57, has been a bold, impatient leader, which has earned him a spot on the cover of almost every mass circulation magazine, including Business Week under the query “Can This Man Save Labor?”

Stern’s ambition is to transform and revive American unionism. In 2005, he led several big unions, including the SEIU, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers, out of the AFL-CIO. In their new coalition, known as Change to Win, Stern pushed each of the unions to devote a qualitatively large proportion of their resources to organizing, even if it meant reducing the number of staff who “serviced” existing members. He insisted that unless unions such as the SEIU achieved a far higher degree of “density” in specific industries, such as healthcare, they wouldn’t be strong enough to raise wages and working conditions for everyone.

Stern also has made it clear that he sees the U.S. economy as a single integrated system in which the status of labor is closely related to the structure of capitalism. This has led the SEIU to take great interest in issues that once would have been considered irrelevant to what went on at the bargaining table, such as how to regulate private equity firms, which now control companies that employ more than a million workers in industries the SEIU seeks to organize. Stern has sought to strike deals, or at least open negotiations, on a variety of employment-related issues with politicians and businessmen, including Wal-Mart’s H. Lee Scott and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who have often been hostile to unionism.

But Stern’s ambitions have not been universally applauded. For instance, the California Nurses Assn., the union representing 80,000 registered nurses across the country, has been a highly vocal critic of and competitor to the SEIU, denouncing what it sees as Stern’s willingness to trade away nurse staffing ratios and other labor standards for organizing agreements with hospital chains that are viewed as anti-union.

In recent months, the CNA and the SEIU have competed for the allegiance of nurses not only in California but in Las Vegas hospitals and in medical facilities throughout Ohio. The clash has been bitter, with the SEIU charging that the nurses organization is a “union buster” at the same time the CNA claims that SEIU organizing tactics pave the way for management-dominated “company unionism.”

Within the SEIU itself, Stern is facing a revolt by United Healthcare Workers West, the 150,000-member California local that is led by Sal Rosselli, a former nursing home worker who has been a union leader since 1988, when he won an insurgent campaign to rebuild what was then Local 250 in the Bay Area. In the years since, Rosselli has been a pioneering militant, organizing nursing homes, hospitals and home-care workers throughout California.


Rosselli once worked cooperatively with Stern, but tensions have arisen in recent years over what the UHW considers an SEIU effort to sideline local leaders in hospital and nursing home contract negotiations. Rosselli and others at the UHW are just as sophisticated as Stern, but they take a darker view of their business and political adversaries.

Thus Rosselli objected to Stern’s endorsement of Schwarzenegger’s proposed health insurance plan, which the UHW chief, like many other unionists in California, considered far too friendly to insurance company interests. The plan was never enacted.

Stern and Rosselli are playing familiar roles in our labor history. When American corporations became giant institutions more than a century ago, trade unions were soon forced to mirror their centralized structure in order to bargain for better wages and benefits. But centralizing union authority in Pittsburgh, Detroit or Washington came at a price. United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, for instance, who was every bit as ambitious and imaginative as Stern, faced a constant rumble of discontent from the big auto locals in Flint, Fremont and Dearborn. Local unionists insisted that regardless of the success Reuther enjoyed bargaining with Henry Ford II or planning the Great Society with LBJ, the union’s first and most essential duty was to make sure that dignity and safety did not vanish from their arduous, if well-compensated, life on the assembly line.

Similarly, Rosselli and his supporters (not all of whom are in the UHW) argue that the very meaning of unionism will be bleached out of the SEIU unless local voices are once again made potent. “I want a movement of workers governed by workers for workers,” said Rosselli, “to be in control of their relationship with their employer, to be in control of the political direction of their union.”

But Stern and his allies within the SEIU believe that with a Democratic Party landslide in the offing this November, unions are on the verge of an historic breakthrough. This is not the time for what they label “Just Us” unionism devoted to the advancement of the wages and working conditions of those already enrolled in a labor organization.

All this will be fought out next week at the SEIU national convention in Puerto Rico. Rosselli and his UHW supporters will put forward resolutions calling for more local control of contract negotiations, organizing and finances, as well as direct, union-wide election of national SEIU officers (rather than selection by convention action). They are unlikely to win any votes there, but if the issues they have raised become part of the general discussion within the labor movement and the larger progressive community, these rebels will have shown that union democracy and union growth are not incompatible.