Global Handles are Proving Good Tactics, Even if not Huge Leverage

Jay Leno joins a demonstration Monday calling for a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel over the human-rights record of the government of Brunei, which owns the hotel. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Jay Leno joins a demonstration Monday calling for a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel over the human-rights record of the government of Brunei, which owns the hotel. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

New Orleans   Talking to Steve Early, labor journalist and activist, recently on Wade’s World about the debate over the value of global leverage in organizing drives by the UAW at Volkswagen and CWA at T-Mobile, got me looking around for other examples of organizations grabbing global handles to increase the pressure in their campaigns.  

One that is getting a surprising amount of traction from an unlikely source is SNAP, the Survivors’ Network of Abuse by Priests, which has been waging a relentless effort to hold the Catholic Church accountable for sexual abuse for decades now.  Even in the feel good embrace of the new administration of the Vatican by Pope Francis from Argentina, SNAP with the legal assistance of the New York based Center for Constitutional Rights has managed to give the Vatican huge headaches and public relations nightmares by appealing to the United Nations, more specifically the UN Committee on Torture.  Thus far they have already succeeded in getting this UN committee to classify sexual abuse as equivalent to some forms of torture, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, and, frankly, not so far-fetched.    Moreover they seem to have scored a coup as well by recently prevailing on the UN committee to see the Vatican’s responsibility as the entire holy Catholic church worldwide, surprising the Archbishop trying to do damage control before the UN committee and narrowing the inquiry to only the couple of hundred employees and church staff. 

SNAP has clearly been the bulldog attached to the robes of the church in the United States for years and critical in winning multi-million dollar judgments for its members, but has been exasperated at the continued unwillingness of the church to accept full accountability.  For example SNAP even viewed the recent committee appointed by Pope Francis skeptically as too limited and another evasion.  Recent reports by committee members indicate that they believe they are making progress in coming up with real protocols within the church for dealing with sexual abuse, but given the long history of this campaign, SNAP is not wrong to be worried.   Their gambit with the United Nations may finally put them within reach of the top-to-bottom acceptance of responsibility and full accountability they have sought for so long.  Talk about finding friends in strange places!

In another case of a horrendous issue searching for a handle, the Gill Action Fund, an LGBT group, has triggered a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel, home of the Hollywood favorite, Polo Club, because its owner, an investment vehicle of the Sultan of Brunei, is implementing more provisions of sharia law in that country including stoning for adultery and any kind of hanky-panky by same sex couples.  Big name, headliner groups run by the likes of Jay Leno and his wife, have already pulled out, and other properties owned by the Sultan in London and Paris, are increasingly persona non grata for the elite and one-percenters not wanting to look all “Donald Sterling” on this issue.  Brunei is a long, long way from Hollywood out there in the South China Sea on the tip of Borneo calling Indonesia and Malaysia its neighbors, so it’s a cinch not many A-listers had every set foot on its soil or had any plans to do so, but thanks to an evolving sophistication in global campaigning, even long distance no matter how remote cannot protect evil forever.

Smart tactics and persistent campaigns are finding pressure points, so let’s hope they can build the leverage to bring home the victories.

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Reading the Tea Leaves on Huge SEIU-NUHW Decert in California

New Orleans  First come the disclaimers.   I have no stomach for this 5 year saga in California that has created a huge rift in the labor movement as folks picked sides between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the National Union of Healthcare Workers’  (NUHW).  Depending on how you line up, NUHW is either a principled group of dissidents trying to reform SEIU and the whole labor movement and bring it back to its roots or a band of renegades who broke when they didn’t get everything on their Christmas list from SEIU. 

Regardless the ballots are now out to the workers of the huge 45,000 member bargaining unit at Kaiser Hospitals on the question of whether or not to decertify the existing bargaining unit, SEIU, or to certify NUHW.  Starting May 1st the ballots are due and the counting will begin, perhaps to put an end to all of this or maybe to simply open another chapter in his horrible mess.  This is a re-run election.  SEIU won the first round by a large margin, but the election was overturned by the NLRB based on findings of unfair labor practices in the way that Kaiser favored SEIU before the vote.

Stomach or no, I finally manned up and spent some time looking at how the campaign was going to see if there were reasons to handicap the election differently than I have done in the past.  Over recent years were I to have been asked, and believe me I was not asked, I would have advised NUHW to find a stronger path for its organizing future and let this Kaiser thing go, even knowing that if lightning might strike, it would be a whole different world for them.  I just saw the odds as too long and the strengths of SEIU’s incumbency as the bargaining agent, resources, and commitment to the fight as too strong to be overcome.   Regardless, I thought I should look to see if I should revise my prediction or reassess the odds and the outcome.

The folks at NUHW are no fools that’s for sure.  They did their best to even the odds and hooked up with the California Nurses’ Association part of the national nurses’ union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.  The union severed its no-raiding agreement with SEIU which could rekindle organizing wars in hospitals around the country.  Nurses pay big time union dues, so this tie-up gave NUHW a partner with deep pockets assuring that they wouldn’t get blown out of the water during the election.   Reading the reports of folks a little closer to the ground like NUHW supporter, former CWA representative, and labor journalist (and Social Policy contributing editor) Steve Early, these resources have allowed them to try and match the SEIU ground campaign of several years ago so that currently they have 125 organizers, mass mailings, and a contracted canvass crew to help with voter turnout. 

Nonetheless, reading the back-and-forth on the websites, it all looked “same ol’ same ol’” and that’s not enough to change the final outcome.  SEIU is making a big deal of the failure of NUHW units to get a contract with Kaiser and using the classic argument to workers that the “devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”  SEIU isn’t silent either on the lost court appeal of the NUHW officers on the multi-million dollar claim against them for diverting members’ dues in order to finance their schism and split.  SEIU is calling CNA and its leadership strike happy.   Theirs is a conservative, hold-the-line incumbent’s campaign.  NUHW is also still fighting the last war and arguing that SEIU is too close to management and that the labor/management partnership, now 16 years old, is hurting the workers.   On either side there didn’t seem like any real breakthrough, new issues.    If this is all there is, my guess is that it’s not enough.  My bet would still be that for NUHW to win there would need to be something more.   Something bigger.  Something much better.

Hospital workers facing the brave new world of the Affordable Care Act and the depressing recent world of the worst economy since the Great Depression are not going to be wide eyed radicals looking for a new future.  The status quo for better or worse might not look great, but will look good enough, returning SEIU as the bargaining agent with perhaps a smaller plurality than they had last time.

There can no longer be any winners in California, and at this point I would bet money that the workers are all sighing and saying under their breath, “a pox on both of their houses.”  

I could be way wrong from thousands of miles away, but as an organizer, I would be surprised if the 2nd verse of this song was any different than the first.

SEIU-NUHW Decert Audio Blog

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