Is SEIU Waving the White Flag for Workers?

Little Rock       The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is a great organization and with almost two-million members, the largest in the United States.  Its membership is diverse and anything but an entitled aristocracy of labor for the most part with somewhere between a third to forty percent of its membership home health care workers for example. SEIU’s role in prioritizing new organizing, higher wages for all workers, immigration reform, and healthcare protection for all have been critical for decades.  I’m biased, I confess.  Our local union was part of SEIU for twenty-five years, and I served on the International union’s executive board for eight of those years and was fortunate to run big organizing campaigns with their banner for public and lower-waged workers, Southern workers, Walmart workers, and hospitality workers along with living wage campaigns with their resources and support.

SEIU believes in welding politics to organizing.  It’s been a key to many of their greatest organizing victories.  SEIU’s president’s remarks were recently reported on the benchmarks they were outlining for candidates to receive their support.  When Mary Kay Henry speaks, it’s worth paying attention, and I listen carefully.  The article reported,

The Service Employees International Union says to win its endorsement, Democrats must pass a “litmus test” that includes supporting industry-wide bargaining and ending the National Labor Relations Act’s preemption of local and state laws. The union also says it will only back a candidate who includes collective bargaining rights in any major economic proposals and ensure that every job funded by a federal contract or grant provides a $15 minimum wage and union rights.

Affixing collective bargaining rights to “major economic proposals” and mandating – and funding – a $15 per hour minimum wage on federal contracts and grants:  right on!  Sign us up!!

Ending preemption of the NLRA of local and state laws?  What’s up with that?  On just the practical level, that seems a mountain to climb not only for the union but for any candidates.  It would mean amending the constitution, which is near the top of the current list of impossible political acts.

Article 6, Paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution states that the laws of the United Statesfederal laws — are the supreme law of the land and judges in every state are bound by them regardless of conflicting state laws.

So, no worries, this isn’t going to happen, so we shouldn’t lose sleep over it perhaps.  But, why is SEIU demanding this?

Sadly, I think it is a huge flashing neon light that SEIU, despite being the nation’s largest union, has decided at a fundamental level NOT to be a national union.  At the turn of this century, its ambition was not to be bicoastal, with the bulk of its membership clustered around the East and West Coasts and a pocket around the Great Lakes, but instead to organize broadly. This new stance seems to signal that it has resigned itself to hunkering down where it still has some power, especially political power, and can push through more favorable labor laws in places like California, New York, and a couple of other states, and let the tens of millions of workers elsewhere fend for themselves.  The number of states under hard-right Republican control, especially, in the South would seize the end of preemption like the Holy Grail and institute a regime for workers and everyone else the likes of which we have not seen since the Reconstruction.  And, not just the South as we know from rollbacks of workers’ rights in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio.  A call for an end to preemption is not simply SEIU raising a white flag in the fight for all workers, but fundamentally throwing in the towel.

The other sign of SEIU drawing its wagons in a tight circle around the members it wants to protect, rather than all the workers it once sought to represent, is also the call for industry-wide bargaining.  In and of itself that’s not a bad thing.  It guarantees all workers a better deal by narrowing the gap between the unionized and non-unionized by establishing minimum standards.  In some ways though its an organizing paradox.  It might be good for workers, but bad for their unions, because in bringing the bottom up, it also lowers some of the incentives and benefits of unionization for the members, justifying the risks.  There are good cases in Scandinavian countries where the social contract to some degree still exists and unions have been institutionalized in various triparty agreements including business and government, but union density in some of the European countries, or even Quebec where this is possible, is not necessarily greater.  It settles the fight, more than it delivers justice and reward.  Again, this seems to be a survival strategy for SEIU and not an organizing strategy.  SEIU seems to be signaling that it wants to make a deal while it still has some strength in some industrial pockets and attempt to leverage something industry-wide.  In other sectors, like healthcare, where it has a lot of members in some markets, but fewer in others, SEIU seems to be saying it doesn’t believe it can organize the industry and therefore hold on to its position without industry-wide bargaining and agreements that put concrete on the floor with governmental guarantees.

SEIU is not the canary in the American organizing coal mine, it’s the Big Bad John of labor to take the refrain from the old song and “a mountain of a man.”  If this is the litmus test its issuing to politicians about the state of labor at the top, it’s also a bulletin expressing the fears of all institutional labor.

Unions are membership organizations.  They have a responsibility to protect these members.  No argument there, but we may be hearing in SEIU’s message the end of their belief that they can either organize the unorganized or will continue to seek to represent and advocate for all workers.  If so, we’re all on our own, and the devil will take the hindmost.

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Please enjoy  Milky Way from Neil Young.

Thanks to KABF.

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Worker Shortages Are Pushing Wages Up at the Bottom

New Orleans       With more than twenty candidates signed up for the Democratic primary, they are undoubtedly getting more advice than they want from all corners, friend and foe, including for many that they need to get out of the race, so who am I to throw water on their fire?  Regardless, I’ll say this one thing more than one year out, remember James Carville’s line, “it’s the economy, stupid!”  Once they do, they need to not take lower wage, service workers for granted in the race against Trump, nor should they mistakenly assume they will turn out in huge numbers to beat him despite the rising inequality, his tax cuts for the corporations and the rich, his anti-immigrant and anti-poor positions and policies, and the endless list of other infractions and embarrassments in the White House.

Why?  Because record unemployment is finally forcing wages up at the grassroots.  I’ll tell you from the frontlines of the battlefield how I know.

A chain of nursing homes where our union, Local 100, United Labor Unions, has a contract for a number of homes in Shreveport in north Louisiana, had changed hands over recent years.  One company in more of a real estate play got in trouble with a REIT and had to declare bankruptcy.  A new one has taken over and was bargaining the successor contract for the homes with us.  We made our proposal to improve wages, and they came back.  We are now going to have a starting wage there of $11 per hour, a significant jump in the land of $7.25 minimums, and there were seniority bumps and shift differentials.

Was this one off, you might ask?  No, another contract that came up in Napoleonville on the west side of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge at another nursing home a month ago.  There we also won record increases on starting wages and up and down the scale of almost a dollar an hour.

Did we just become stronger or better?  I wish!

The reality is that we are catching the wave of record, 50-year lows in unemployment rates close to statistical full employment.  Nursing homes require certified nurse aides, so it’s not simply hire-off-the-street, even though companies have not always valued the wages in the same way.

This wave of wage increases shows up in the Fight for $15 effort certainly and has spread to mass employers like McDonalds, Walmart, Amazon, and many others, who can’t get the workers they need.  I’m not pretending this is trickle-down and every boat will rise.  That won’t happen with the level of precariousness, gigging, and less than full-time work. Nonetheless, there are going to be a ton of lower wage workers who would normally be base voters, and still might be, but who are going to hit the polls with more money in their pockets, and less desperate to throw the bum out.  They won’t be focused on whether this employment run is a continuation of the Obama recovery and whether or not Trump’s claims are valid, but they will know their money is better.

Anyone taking these voters for granted will lose badly.  They aren’t Trump voters, but truth to tell, many of them are not chronic voters, so the message to our members and many millions more is going to have to be better than, “come out and vote for anybody but….”  They don’t like him, but they won’t break a leg to beat him, because they don’t like the elites any better than he does, and for all the sound and fury, they will know their money is better now, even if the rich are richer.

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