SEIU’s Good Obama Bet

Employee Free Choice Act Financial Justice Health Care Labor Organizing Organizing
Andy Stern, SEIU

New Orleans Recent press reports and a big story in the Wall Street Journal have been sniping at the huge $85M set of contributions that the Service Employees International Union made on the Obama campaign. On one hand they seem to be insinuating crass influence buying and on the other hand they are hinting at financial mismanagement. Poppycock! Pundits, pols, and others can throw a lot of brickbats at SEIU and its leadership, but not for these decisions that actually show real leadership, risk taking, and exactly what it should mean to accept the challenge in these hard times to run a union and try to organize the unorganized.

Unions are dying and bleeding members on a daily basis. SEIU under its president, Andy Stern, made a huge bet with Obama once they came into the Obama camp in the spring of 2008, and understood that their stewardship of membership dues only mattered if they could prove it really meant something in terms of real change, and that means a different set of labor laws and a chance at real health care reform for members whose wages can’t afford most policies now and members who work in that industry.

Stern is quoted as in the Journal reminding people that a union “is not a bank,” and it’s a point well made. Too many union leaders believe that the way to serve a membership is to present a big, fat balance sheet filled with investments, property, and conservative investments of the “members’ money,” and forget that the members are paying dues in the hopes of good representation on the job and the hope for a better life – not investment advice! My good comrade, Jonathan Tasini, has written pointedly and correctly about what he terms the “edifice complex” in too many unions that sunk the dues into real estate rather than organizing. In fact I would worry more about the strain of the huge $90 M building loans for the new headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue at DuPont Circle than for trying to change the political and business climate for workers! I can live with the building over time a lot more easily, since my dues money and the dues of my members also was leveraged on trying to make real change.

The Journal tries to insinuate that the appointment of Patrick Gaspard, as White House political director, and the pending appointment of Craig Becker to the NLRB are examples of early dividends on the investment. The dividend on $85 M better be a lot more than those two great friends of ours! In California there are constant editorials and reports in the press out there that SEIU has leveraged its “Obama cards” into a holdback on bailout funds to the state because they don’t want to see cutbacks to their hundreds of thousands of home health care members or layoffs of their state worker members. Hello, anybody home out there? A union is a NOT a public interest group or a policy advocate, but a membership organization that is supposed to use its good offices, resources, and, yes, even power, to stand for its members. If SEIU converted its leverage to the good of low waged home care members in Cali, that’s exactly what it is supposed to do!

Furthermore this is big time stuff not just petty backroom deals and the Obama administration is getting way more than a bang for its buck in the partnership as well. The big news this week at the centerpiece of saving the Obama health care reform initiative was the announcement by some of the big healthcare operators that they would deliver MEGA-SAVINGS to help make the health care reform happen. Not surprisingly Andy Stern was there along with Dennis Rivera, head of SEIU’s health care division, and they were the only labor leaders there for good reason. Buried in the story in the New York Times lead report that day was the following sentence: Dennis Rivera, coordinator of the health care campaign of the Service Employees International Union, led efforts to bring the industry groups together, with help from Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform.” Dennis delivered for SEIU and the White House in only the way that he can. Tell me that 1199’s former political director, Patrick Gaspard (EDIT: This line used to contain a reference to Patrick Gaspard working for NY ACORN.  This is untrue, he never worked for ACORN. To see Wade’s correction: didn’t reach out from the White House and help make that happen, and I’ll tell you to take some remedial classes in “politics 101.”

Payback is hell. My local has sent $100,000 almost from held in our strike reserves in the good cause as well as our per capita to SEIU, and we were the least of it. Stern was quoted saying that $10M of the $25M political loan had already been retired. The layoff of 40 managers and 80 organizers (for some reason the WSJ said about 40 organizers, but that understates other reports) is even more painful within the organization. God only knows who they might have all been in a huge organization like SEIU and some may have been good to go and get, but there were also some great organizers I have been honored to work with for decades that were caught in this bureaucratic and financial bind. My best friends have managed to land on their feet elsewhere in the organization where their skills will be more appreciated, but still it is painful to see a bet on more organizing lead to less organizing and that is happening throughout the union now it seems.

Everything being equal though, win, lose, or draw, I’m proud to have voted in San Juan almost a year ago to give the union the capacity to make just this kind of bet, and for a change I feel pretty darned good about my dues dollar having been spent for exactly the right kind of risk to gain a just reward for my members and all other workers.