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A Victory for Union Democracy in Oregon

Union democracy triumphed in Oregon February 1 when rank-and-file members of Service Employees Local 503 organized to reject a top-down merger with SEIU Local 49. The merger would have created a two-state, 65,000-member mega-local in the Pacific Northwest.

Union leaders—the upper echelon of elected leaders taking their marching orders from the staff—had strongly pushed a “yes” vote for nearly a year. They used union resources and staff organizers to promote a pro-merger vote to the union’s General Council, a governing body that consisted of 198 elected delegates.

But several “sub-local” presidents and other officers organized to educate delegates and advocate a “no” vote. We used Facebook, emails, leafleting, and phonebanking to get our message out.

At the vote meeting, “no” speakers outnumbered “yes” speakers three to one. And opposition organizers were ecstatic when the tally was announced: 120 no, 75 yes, and three abstentions.

Is Bigger Better?

Each of the two locals already encompasses several different industries. SEIU 503, the larger by far, includes workers in homecare, state and local government, and private nonprofits. Most members of SEIU 49 are health care workers or janitors.

Merger supporters’ main arguments were that bigger is better, bigger means more political power, and merging would help fend off the attacks unions are facing.

Initially they stressed the threat of a “right-to-work” ballot measure coming to Oregon. But once word got out that the measure probably wouldn’t make it to the ballot, the emphasis changed to the anti-union climate.

Why did we organize against the merger plan?

For one, the rushed process was undemocratic. The appointed committees responsible for shaping the merged union met in private. Members weren’t even allowed to hear the committee’s discussions.

Suddenly in December, proposed bylaws were released with no opportunity to amend. The only options were “yes” or “no”—and delegates were under heavy pressure to vote “yes.”

The proposed bylaws were less democratic than those now in place at 503. The merged union would have restricted the General Council, the union’s top decision-making body, to meeting every three years, versus every two years now.

The General Council functions much like the state AFL-CIO convention: it’s the site of lively debate over resolutions that cover a wide span of union issues. For instance, at the last General Council I submitted a resolution for our union’s representatives to the public employee benefits board to be elected by the membership (it failed); a resolution endorsing Obama for President garnered significant opposition. Any delegate can speak on the resolutions.

The board of directors, which governs in between these meetings, would have grown from 40 to a bloated 80-plus members, and met only four times a year (down from six). The rest of the year, a tiny executive board of 12 would have governed the union.

The merger would have essentially gone with SEIU 49’s governance and dues structure—even though 49, with 10,000 members, is much smaller than 503, with 55,000.

Many SEIU 503 members simply wanted to keep their union intact, with the bylaws they had shaped and defended. Members had voted down the leadership’s previous attempts to change General Council from every two years to three, and to extend officer term limits from two to three years.

Others distrusted the rationale behind the merger, assuming the International union was the real motivating force—the assumption being that the International wanted 503 and 49 to resemble mega-locals elsewhere.

Strategy and Tactics

Merger opponents organized through the Committee for a Strong Union (CFSU), begun three years ago as a Facebook group for members to discuss and organize against a concessionary contract bargained by the union’s state worker arm. Afterward, some CFSU members ran for various union offices, with the group’s support.

These mostly-failed efforts taught the group valuable lessons in organizing—though many of CFSU’s members grew discouraged, finding it “impossible” to successfully organize anything not supported by the union leadership with its immense resources.

The retirees sub-local of SEIU 503 was especially outspoken against the merger. CFSU worked with retirees to release a statement signed by two 503 past presidents and by the current retirees local officers:

“We [retirees] spent years writing, amending and voting on our Constitution and By-Laws that protect and define us as a member run union. This is our legacy to future union members. Vote NO for this proposal [merger] to make our union strong!”

A crucial point in the campaign came when the local’s immediate past president, Linda Burgin, came out fiercely against merger.

Burgin had participated in some of the appointed committees planning the merger. She told the board of directors:

“When [merger] committee members raised issues, we were told to trust our leaders, who would ‘fix things later…’ The [new] constitution and bylaws were written not by our General Council, but by Locals 49 and 503 staff. Committee members suggested changes, but they were clearly not welcome suggestions, and most were not incorporated in the document. The Unified Constitution and Bylaws totally changed our union structure.”

Dueling Email Blasts

As the vote neared, CFSU sent an email blast to all delegates, incorporating Burgin’s and the retirees’ statements along with others co-authored by officers who had participated in the merger process. It also included “10 Reasons to Vote No,” such as “bigger unions are not always better”:

When a union gets too big democracy faces new challenges. Most members already feel alienated from their governing body, the Board of Directors. A bigger Board of Directors will create most distance between members and the Board of Directors. A less Democratic governing structure—with less frequent General Councils—will result in a less engaged membership, which will make for a weaker union.

The email blast received an immediate positive response from many General Council delegates, who were not even aware anyone was opposed to the merger. Some of these delegates joined in CFSU’s efforts and helped organize on the day of the vote.

The union leadership responded immediately by mimicking our email blast: they sent out their own email with “10 Reasons to Vote Yes.”

CFSU also organized a phonebank to delegates that won some additional votes.

Day of the Vote

On the day of General Council, CFSU brought a packet of the above-mentioned documents and another called “Four Myths of Unification.”

[Myth #2] We need to create a new union in order to fight political attacks: This myth ignores the fact that, when it comes to politics, SEIU 503 and 49 have been unified for years. The two unions already coordinate closely on political campaigns, and share a unified process for screening and endorsing political candidates. When it comes to fighting anti-union ballot measures, the unions also share resources, in coordination with the International. Creating an entirely new union adds zero value to the existing political dynamic.

We handed these packets to delegates as they registered and engaged them in conversation. Many said they were changing their votes to “no” after these discussions.

When the meeting began, CFSU joined forces with other “no” voters to craft and pass a motion to amend the agenda to allow Burgin equal time: after the current president spoke in favor of the merger, Burgin was allowed 20 minutes to speak against it.

For the discussion, CFSU had organized many “no” speakers, so that a diversity of arguments was expressed.

After the victory, everyone involved felt fired up with the power of rank-and-file organizing. We are now inspired to organize for the upcoming General Council in August, where members can submit new resolutions. We want to use this opportunity to steer the union’s policies in a more progressive direction and extend democracy further.

Shamus Cooke is an elected officer of SEIU 503. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com.

This essay originally appeared in Labor Notes

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Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com

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