New Orleans I was intrigued by a bill in the Louisiana legislature to allow congregants to carry guns in church to “protect the children” proponents claimed, because I had not realized that we needed to be really worried about “church invasions,” but I found myself rereading several times a piece that Steve Early, the labor journalist, critic, and former CWA stalwart, had sent to me and others from a recent posting on the In These Times “working life” blog, which might be worth more contemplation. Despite his thinly veiled contempt and animus towards SEIU and its leadership, Steve provided a service by working his sources and the internet to get copies of letters back-and-forth in the recent palace struggle within SEIU written by top leaders of the union.
He quotes a letter from Dennis Rivera, former head of SEIU’s largest local, the New York based 1199, which had called for “unity,” meaning a waiting ground for Mary Kay Henry as Secretary-Treasurer while Anna Burger became president. Having Dennis support her candidacy would normally have been seen as a coup for Burger, who had assiduously courted the mercurial and gifted Rivera during his years in New York and the years that Anna personally serviced and supported the local unions on the East Coast so that she would have a real base within the union outside of Stern himself. Dennis had never given much attention or time to the meetings of the International Executive Board, being frequently absent or otherwise engaged during meetings, and always making it inherently clear that he was simply the big dog running. No longer commanding and directing the several board votes of 1199 over the last several years, as he brilliantly worked the inside strategy for health care reform, Dennis would have been a presumptive candidate worth serious consideration as president of SEIU, but would hardly have been an effective lobbyist with tens of board members whose names he probably hardly remembered from his vantage point at the top of a 200,000 member local and big time player, would have scarcely cared about seriously. Strategically, Anna and the 8th floor had always seen Dennis as someone who needed to be checked and clutched to the breast tightly to make sure that he didn’t mount a direct challenge to Andy or to her ambitions when the time was right. The strategy seems to have worked, but to not have mattered in the end.
The other letter that Steve mentions is one signed by four of the Executive Vice-Presidents, Tom Woodruff, Gerry Hudson, Dave Regan, and Eliseo Medina, endorsing Mary Kay Henry and appealing to a different kind of unity with the rest of the labor and progressive movement:
“Many of you have expressed the need to return to organizing as our top priority…We’ve also heard many of you say it’s time to restore our relationships with the rest of the union movement and our progressive allies.”
I don’t know of course, since I’m no longer a dues paying SEIU member, but it would still be hard to ever convince me that Tom Woodruff is not only the architect of this leadership coalition, but with his journalism background, the author of this sentence and its sentiments. I would bet Tom feels very personally the splits with old friends and comrades like John Wilhelm, originally of HERE and now head of UNITE-HERE, who had been his ally and partner on many organizing campaigns in Las Vegas, New Haven, and elsewhere. Years later, I still wince at my conversations with Tom when I was forced to turn over units in New Orleans we had organized and won at the Convention Center and Loew’s Hotel to HERE or school bus drivers to the Teamsters to grease larger agreements and labor realpoliticks that Tom handled for SEIU before and after the creation of Change to Win.
Three of the letter signers were 1199 veterans with Gerry Hudson out of New York and Tom and Dave, the founder and successor in 1199 OH/WV/KY (Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky) and the fourth was Medina who came in from CWA and before that UFW many years before. This is not simply an 1199 thing, but it is not hard to understand how the events in California in recent years would not have welded them together even more tightly as both leaders and, more importantly perhaps, as organizers. Woodruff was an early proponent of trusteeship for Rosselli’s United Healthcare West out of the Bay Area, not because he’s a conflict junkie, but because he saw no choice and no grounds for a deal with Sal, and more than any other organizer he is unbending and inspired in his ability to weather and shape internal conflict, if he thinks there’s a reason for it. The UNITE-HERE wars would never have been causes for Woodruff and others. Most observers in the labor movement would still think the long term future of UNITE HERE is to merge all service sector organizing with SEIU. Mike Fishman and others within the building services division of SEIU, have long been attracted to merging with HERE and there have been discussions in the past that didn’t get there to merge the pieces. This would be a job that only time and new leadership on all sides can get done.
More than 700,000 of SEIU’s 2+ million members are in California, and the Bay Area health care wars have been painful for SEIU within the labor movement making SEIU virtually a pariah in the halls of the labor federation and many central bodies who have frequently passed motions condemning SEIU activity even while SEIU is often the largest union in and around their jurisdictions. Hudson as trustee in the Los Angeles home care local disaster would have heard this refrain incessantly, as would Medina who lives in LA and works the Southwest from California. Regan made the big bet on his future by moving from Columbus with his young family to take care of the Bay Area trusteeship. All of these brothers know that the UHW-SEIU fight is one that they cannot lose, but also one that they cannot afford.
All of them also know and are learning every day that once all of this is said and done, especially with the new healthcare legislation passed and whatever organizing opportunities will exist there, that SEIU, and perhaps no union, knows how to organize hospitals (or hotels) on any scale or without an inside or political edge. These big units and the skill to organize them, especially without any prospects in the future of labor law reform, are THE challenge for SEIU and any service sector union in the next decade. Mary Kay Henry also lives in California, and no matter the connections Brother Early has drawn to her past in the Bay Area disputes, she also would have understood their arguments for the future in a way that Anna Burger, despite her talents and skills, would have not had the geographical or organizing orientation to make her personal cause or passion. Never forget that Mary Kay may have become a labor politician, but her spurs have been won in organizing.
My analysis, which might be dead ass wrong of course, is that folks are missing the boat if they think that the coalition forming around Mary Kay is simply about tone and opportunity and not about substance and the real future of the organization. The 1199ers years ago deserted their independence as a union because they wanted to shoot with a bigger gun and realized that being big and independent was not enough if your union was still not big enough to do what had to be done. They still operate from that core analysis not a simple accounting of who is winning or losing within the bureaucracy at any given date and time. Eliseo’s legacy as an organizer from UFW through his time and service within SEIU is also based on whether or not the SEIU growth is transcending within the labor movement. In too many late night conversations at too many bars around America and the world, eventually the conversation would not have ended with the boasting and claims of being the biggest, but the reality of still only representing single digits in many SEIU jurisdictions that matter within the burgeoning service sector, and realizing that unless there was leadership attuned to the organizing problems (challenges?) of actually organizing and winning the huge units under one roof and organization in hospitals and hotels, then they are at the top of a mountain built on shifting sand. Rosselli would probably not be comforted to know that the giant fight to hold onto Kaiser is reverberating throughout the planning and thinking of even the question of Stern’s successor, but contests to keep and hold 40000 members in California can be terribly riveting and I bet have cast both light and shadow over the future of SEIU which Mary Kay Henry is promising to take seriously in a way that would not have been possible for Anna Burger.
This is all about a fight for the future, not about lessons in the past. Who knows what is being learned there.