Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Spring Fund Drive: Keep CounterPunch Afloat
CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Dialing 1-800-Unionism is Not the Answer

When the history of public sector de-unionization in the American mid-west is written, its sad chroniclers will begin their story in Indiana. That’s where Governor Mitch Daniels paved the way, six years ago, for more recent attacks on workers’ rights in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan.

Daniels, a right-wing Republican, was elected in 2004. He got plenty of help from the Republican Governors Association, which that year received $500,000 from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as part of then-president Andy Stern’s misbegotten but Obama-like embrace of bi-partisanship. (In his 2006 book, A Country That Works, Stern boasted about being the RGA’s largest contributor.”).

Daniels gave SEIU its reward, in early 2005. Via executive order he began cutting jobs and revoking bargaining rights granted by his Democratic predecessor, Evan Bayh. In the period since then, the number of state employees has dropped from 35,000 to 28,700.  In 2005, 16, 408 of them were paying union dues; today, only 1,490 still belong.

For state workers in Indiana, the end of collective bargaining led to a pay freeze in 2009 and 2010, introduction of a new merit pay system, loss of seniority rights, and health care cost shifting. Several workers interviewed by The Times in February reported paying $5,200 a year in premiums–$3,400 more than when Daniels took over.

According to The Times’ Steven Greenhouse, the resulting drop in union membership was due “to workers deciding it was no longer worth paying dues to newly-toothless unions.” Jim Mills, a welfare worker in New Castle, Indiana offered a different explanation of why his union branch shrunk from 260 to 12 members. According to Mills, workers were scared of management retaliation for union activity in workplaces no longer covered by union contracts.

Midwestern Copy Cats

GOP governors elected last Fall?like Walker in Wisconsin, Kasich in Ohio, and Snyder in Michigan–have seen their own preferred labor future in Indiana?and, for them, it works. For unions like SEIU, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the two national teacher organizations, NEA and AFT, unionized firefighters and police, the Mitch Daniels scenario is a disaster in the making.

If current legal challenges fail in Wisconsin or Ohio’s new law banning collective bargaining is not repealed by referendum this Fall, hundreds of thousands of public employees will be working under the same open shop conditions as their counterparts in Indiana. And if a gubernatorial veto of state “right-to-work” legislation is over-ridden by Republicans in New Hampshire, automatic deduction of dues or fees for union representation in the public and private sector will cease there as well (even though unions will still be legally obligated to represent members and non-members alike).

Within organized labor, there’s some internal discussion about how to survive in this challenging new environment. Unions long dependent on a guaranteed stream of dues income– which financed lawyers, lobbyists, full-time negotiators and field staff, not to mention political action funds?now find themselves contemplating a much bigger workplace world in which union membership is voluntary. Any combination of rank-and-file fear, anger, or dissatisfaction over past representation (including recent concession bargaining) could send dues receipts plummeting to Indiana levels.

Public sector unionists with long experience in open shop states like Tennessee, Mississippi, or Texas argue that all is not lost.  They’ve been hand collecting dues or signing up co-workers on bank drafts for years. As Tom Smith, a member of Communications Workers of America Local 3865 in Tennessee, told Labor Notes in April, “in the right to work South, where public employees have never had the right to bargain collectively, we struggle with self-sustainability every day?[W]hile having dues check-off helps, not having it isn’t fatal.”

William Rogers, who works for the CWA-backed Texas State Employees Union (TSEU), reports on his blog (Left Labor Reporter) that 12,000-member TSEU “has managed to win some victories even though it has very few legal rights.” Says TSEU lead organizer Jim Branson: “Even though we don’t have any collective bargaining agreement, the union can represent workers in grievance hearings, which means that individual workers don’t have to be on their own when faced with some kind of adverse personnel action?We have a voice on the job because we are an active and growing movement that puts a lot of emphasis on organizing and bringing new members into the union.”

Workplace Representation at Risk

Amid the impending turn toward TSEU-style functioning as a union survival strategy in the Midwest, the union that helped elect Mitch Daniels is, per usual, headed in a different direction. Instead of re-building workplace structures, based on strong steward networks, Andy Stern’s old union has decided that “labor law now effectively precludes workplace representation,” according to Harold Meyerson,  a longtime SEIU booster.

In the Washington Post last month, Meyerson hailed a frantic new wave of SEIU staff door-knocking in minority neighborhoods as part of a 17-city “Fight for a Fair Economy” (FFE) campaign. “They are going outside the workplace. They have no place else to turn,” Meyerson breathlessly informed us. “The goal isn’t to enroll the people behind those doors in a conventional union but, rather a mass organization of the unemployed and the underpaid that can turn out votes in 2012?.”

SEIU’s wrong turn–away from the workplace?was actually launched three years ago this weekend. Over the objection of some delegates, SEIU persuaded its national convention in Puerto Rico to embrace a greatly expanded system of call center servicing of its members. Now teaching at Georgetown and serving on the board of SIGA Technologies, a drug company, Stern insisted that union resources be diverted from traditional forms of shop-floor representation and into what SEIU calls “member engagement”?staff-directed political action and organizing activity like FFE. Stern criticized union contract enforcement as being out of touch with “the 21st century world.” What labor needs, he said, is  “a new model less focused on individual grievances, more focused on industry needs.”

More than 800,000 SEIUers are now covered by industry-style Member Resource Centers, and many are not happy campers (or satisfied customers). Instead of turning to a co-worker, serving as a shop steward in their own workplace, or an experienced full-time union rep, janitors in Boston found themselves talking to newly hired call center staffers in Redford, Michigan, outside Detroit. “They didn’t know how to interpret contracts, grievances weren’t getting filed on time, or they were filed when they shouldn’t have been,” an official at SEIU Local 615 told Labor Notes. “The bottom line is members were getting bad advice.”

Another local union rep, who insisted on anonymity, accused Michigan call center employees of providing east coast SEIU members with inaccurate information about their entitlement to contract benefits and coverage under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Problems like these discouraged many SEIU affiliates from ever utilizing the Redford “mega-center,” forcing the national union to close it after squandering $14 million in dues money and failing to create the 225 jobs it promised the state of Michigan when it got a $2 million tax credit to open the place.

In an internal memo last Fall, SEIU’s own “Member Strength Review Committee,” headed by secretary-treasurer Eliseo Medina, found that the Michigan call center experiment “has been all consuming at the expense of a well-developed and executed member engagement program.” Even where they function better, MRCs operating within one local or regionally haven’t saved money either, allowing dues money now “spent on representation and administrative tasks” to be shifted to “member engagement programs” instead. Reported Medina:

“None of the locals spoken to or surveyed [by his committee] said that creating the MRC in their local has freed up more resources. Several locals with longer experience report spending more?not less?on operating their        MRC. Similarly, locals in California who are participating in a collective        MRC (the Pasadena Member Action Center) don’t report savings.”

The captive SEIU members who were soaked for this scheme may soon have new ways of expressing rank-and-file dissatisfaction with their union’s cavalier treatment of its “customers.” In the open shop America that’s looming ahead,  unions will not survive without membership consent, active participation, and voluntary financial buy-in. Call center servicing has already produced an internal political backlash, costing several incumbent SEIU board members their jobs, when they had to stand for election locally.

Public employees in a number of unions will be heading for the exits, just as they did in Indiana, if public sector unions don’t have an internal organizing game plan that utilizes worker-to-worker relationships, rank-and-file leadership development, and collective action on the job. None of which happens over the phone.

Steve Early is a labor journalist, lawyer, and former national union representative for the Communications Workers of America, based in Boston. For more on SEIU’s  call center servicing experiment, see Early’s latest book,  The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, available at www.civilwarsinlabor.org. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.

 

 

 

More articles by:

Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

May 23, 2018
Nick Pemberton
Maduro’s Win: A Bright Spot in Dark Times
Ben Debney
A Faustian Bargain with the Climate Crisis
Deepak Tripathi
A Bloody Hot Summer in Gaza: Parallels With Sharpeville, Soweto and Jallianwala Bagh
Farhang Jahanpour
Pompeo’s Outrageous Speech on Iran
Josh White
Strange Recollections of Old Labour
CJ Hopkins
The Simulation of Democracy
Lawrence Davidson
In Our Age of State Crimes
Dave Lindorff
The Trump White House is a Chaotic Clown Car Filled with Bozos Who Think They’re Brilliant
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Domination of West Virginia
Ty Salandy
The British Royal Wedding, Empire and Colonialism
Laura Flanders
Life or Death to the FCC?
Gary Leupp
Dawn of an Era of Mutual Indignation?
Katalina Khoury
The Notion of Patriarchal White Supremacy Vs. Womanhood
Nicole Rosmarino
The Grassroots Environmental Activist of the Year: Christine Canaly
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
“Michael Inside:” The Prison System in Ireland 
May 22, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Broken Dreams and Lost Lives: Israel, Gaza and the Hamas Card
Kathy Kelly
Scourging Yemen
Andrew Levine
November’s “Revolution” Will Not Be Televised
Ted Rall
#MeToo is a Cultural Workaround to a Legal Failure
Gary Leupp
Question for Discussion: Is Russia an Adversary Nation?
Binoy Kampmark
Unsettling the Summits: John Bolton’s Libya Solution
Doug Johnson
As Andrea Horwath Surges, Undecided Voters Threaten to Upend Doug Ford’s Hopes in Canada’s Most Populated Province
Kenneth Surin
Malaysia’s Surprising Election Results
Dana Cook
Canada’s ‘Superwoman’: Margot Kidder
Dean Baker
The Trade Deficit With China: Up Sharply, for Those Who Care
John Feffer
Playing Trump for Peace How the Korean Peninsula Could Become a Bright Spot in a World Gone Mad
Peter Gelderloos
Decades in Prison for Protesting Trump?
Thomas Knapp
Yes, Virginia, There is a Deep State
Andrew Stewart
What the Providence Teachers’ Union Needs for a Win
Jimmy Centeno
Mexico’s First Presidential Debate: All against One
May 21, 2018
Ron Jacobs
Gina Haspell: She’s Certainly Qualified for the Job
Uri Avnery
The Day of Shame
Amitai Ben-Abba
Israel’s New Ideology of Genocide
Patrick Cockburn
Israel is at the Height of Its Power, But the Palestinians are Still There
Frank Stricker
Can We Finally Stop Worrying About Unemployment?
Binoy Kampmark
Royal Wedding Madness
Roy Morrison
Middle East War Clouds Gather
Edward Curtin
Gina Haspel and Pinocchio From Rome
Juana Carrasco Martin
The United States is a Country Addicted to Violence
Dean Baker
Wealth Inequality: It’s Not Clear What It Means
Robert Dodge
At the Brink of Nuclear War, Who Will Lead?
Vern Loomis
If I’m Lying, I’m Dying
Valerie Reynoso
How LBJ initiated the Military Coup in the Dominican Republic
Weekend Edition
May 18, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Donald, Vlad, and Bibi
Robert Fisk
How Long Will We Pretend Palestinians Aren’t People?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail