A Horse to Beat A Horse

Ideas and Issues Labor Organizing

New Orleans     In the war of the knives going on within SEIU, one of the more insidious tactics is the leaking of all manner of internal documents. Today’s Wall Street Journal featured a front page story on a 2005 agreement with Compass and Sodexho to allow organizing neutrality rights at their operations with the usual finger pointing at SEIU International President Andy Stern insinuating that he is too close to companies (a funny charge to be leveled on the front page of the WSJ!).

The agreement has many features, the central of which involved a concession from Sodexho that 11,000 of their workers could be organized in the union and one from Compass agreeing that 20,000 of their workers could be unionized. Aramark had been part of this agreement originally but in typical Aramark fashion they had reneged, but that’s another story. In order to get a guarantee of 31,000 new members the unions, SEIU and Unite HERE, also agreed that they would not disparage the companies, would not strike, and so forth, but many of these concessions were not of huge import given how rare strikes are in this sector anyway and the common requirement after a “corporate campaign” that the trashing has to stop. Compass and Sodexho have a lot of subcontracts to provide housekeeping, janitorial, and foodservice t public and private institutions around the country in colleges, hospitals, industrial plans, and downtown office buildings through the US and the world.

The agreements were controversial in my view for two reasons. First, they involved the creation of a new “national” local called the United Service Workers that was jointly affiliated to SEIU and Unite HERE operating to bargain and service these workers throughout the country. Most of these units are smallish (less than 100 workers), so it was always challenging to understand how a New York-based “local” union of this size could really get the job done and build a real union. This is an issue that organizers would care about but perhaps not many others.

The more controversial provision in this agreement was that the primary contractor — the company or outfit that had hired Compass or Sodexho in the first place — would get to decide whether or not they were ok with their workers being union. If yes, then the unions could organize. If no, then no go.

I’m not going to lie. This provision is tough! In New Orleans Local 100 organized a unit of 50 subcontracted cafeteria workers at the Algiers Charter Schools in 2006. Within the space of an hour one afternoon I had a call from an organizer with USW, Larry Englestein, the lawyer for SEIU Local 32BJ, and a message to call Mike Fishman, the President of 32BJ…all informing me that the company we had organized was a subsidiary of Compass and was in the “no fly” zone because the employer was adamant that he did not want a union. I told my old companero, Larry Englestein, that the employer had already been on the front page of the Times-Picayune twice saying (as a former Principal in the Orleans Parish public schools) how committed he was to operate these schools non-union. [We did successfully organize the janitors in this “district,” and he has now been fired, so there is justice!] I fumed, but we also walked away.

Why? The gains for my 50 workers in New Orleans would never have offset the guarantees and gains for 31,000 workers. I had to believe that someday their day would come, and in the meantime the greater good had to be served. These are the choices organizers and leaders of membership organizations are forced to make every day and whatever benefits the most members has to drive the decision. Period!

I wasn’t at the table on this deal — far from it! But, I can imagine the argument. The companies are subcontractors. They are essentially agreeing that they are ok with being union if it doesn’t cost them the contract, which is their business. If it cost them the contract, then they have to fight or walk the contract. This is tough, but this is the way this world works. I lobbied poor Larry that there needed to be a way to resolve situations where there was anti-union animus, and he agreed, but this is part of what it takes to make the deal and bring it home.

Andy Stern is a big boy running a big union. He doesn’t need me to defend him. Maybe he’s too close to companies. Maybe he isn’t. We can argue about that.

Here’s what I think is beyond argument: you have to have a horse to beat a horse. It is not enough to be pissing and moaning about these “secret” agreements to unionize firms and the kind of deals it takes to get it done, unless you have a better plan and program to organize 30,000 or 50,000 or however many workers will be unionized on this program.

I have argued for such a plan with Stern’s support, regardless of the fact that it has not prevailed in every instance, and will keep doing so from whatever vantage I have to do so. Majority unionism — that’s my horse in the race — and with Wal-Mart I had the opportunity and took it to prove it would work.

But, if you don’t have a horse to run against this program or the programs that have added one million members in SEIU over the last dozen years, then get on the stick or shut your pie hole or at least have the decency and solidarity to make your case, win, lose or draw, inside the labor movement, rather than on the pages of the flipping Wall Street Journal.

Andy Stern