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SEIU and Antiglobalization Protesters

How Labor Bureaucrats Exploited the Antiglobalization Movement & How To Not Get Fooled Again This Year - Monday, February 17, 2003, by an Anonymous SEIU Staffer

In 2002, an important event happened in the history of the antiglobalization movement. The threat of a Seattle-style mass action by radical and student activist groups lead cleaning companies in Boston to settle with its contract fight with Service Employees International Union and ended a several week strike. However, this victory proved to be problematic. The action allowed a antidemocratic union beauracracy to force a weak contract down the throats of a demobilized membership. The administration's desire to control the reins and reluctance to fight lead to a strike in which only a portion of the membership participated in a strike that won very little.

The Building Service Division of SEIU does a good job of selling itself as the progressive union that organizes, and it has brought progress in certain ways. SEIU has lead the AFL-CIO in putting more resources into organizing than unions have in years. SEIU has also succeeded in throwing out the corrupt, right-wing "old guard" leadership out of many of its locals. The slogan "Justice For Janitors" and the movie Bread & Roses have helped create the SEIU brand name that is well known throughout the left and progressive community. However, what SEIU organizes workers for and who they replace the old guard with often shortchange the workers that the union claims to be fighting for.

SEIU is very committed to getting the organizing done. They hire lots of organizers and put lots of money into training them and flying them around the country. They have regional organizing plans and full color pamphlets. SEIU wants industry density and will get it at any cost. The current leadership wants to be able to sign national agreements for entire industries does not care what sweetheart deal they have to make nor who they have to get rid of to get there.

Industry density and the strategy to get there are very important, but SEIU sacrifices too much in search of it. The union has been entering suburban markets by prenegotiating master agreements before the first worker is spoken too. These regional master agreements often give paltry wage and benefit increases that are sometimes less than what nonunion companies are giving. The union then creates campaigns that are not based on making workers powerful, butstead based on winning pity from community groups, clergy, and politicians. When an SEIU local begins to show signs of engaging in aggressive and militant struggle, the International will usually reign them in, telling the local to rely instead on relationships with management.

In its internal politics, a curious scenario has repeated itself in every major local: A rank and file movement mobilizes to get rid of an old and corrupt local administration; a conflict between the two sides explodes; the International trustees the local in order to "restore order"; the International gets rid of both the old guard and the rank and file opposition and attempts to install its own people into the leadership. This model results in conflicts around the country in which all the old guard, the rank and file opposition, and the International all end up in conflict using the same rhetoric about each other.

Whenever any group of members question the heavy handed method of the International, they are demonized as "right wing forces within the union." The corrupt old guard tries to present itself as the real voice of the membership. And the rank and file fight for their own self determination. The SEIU leadership is very reminiscent of the "corporatist" leaders who took over the CIO before its merger with the AFL. Corporatist labor leaders see themselves not as adversaries of the bosses, but as "labor statesmen" who in a coalition with management and the state will someday be the directors of a well ordered society in which we'll all do what we're told. The first step towards this vision for division leader Steven Lerner and his lieutenants is complete control of the Building Services Industry.

Boston was a dress rehearsal for this year's contract fights. In its first step toward having national contracts, SEIU set it up that the major contract fight for each of its biggest locals would take place in 2003, most of them in the summer. The International is going to do everything it can to control every aspect of the fight with a minimum of rank and file input. In some locals, the weakness of the Boston Strike and the increased cost of healthcare are going to lead the local to negotiate early under the radar of the membership.

As in Boston, SEIU will probably start recruiting student activist groups, anarchists, and antiglobilization protesters to get involved in actions in support of its plans. SEIU sees the new protest movement as an army of naïve young kids who are controllable, hungry for relevancy, and easy to manipulate.

If you are an activist in New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or other cities with large SEIU building service locals,you will probably be recruited to help fight for "justice for janitors." So what's a well-intentioned activist to do? We need to continue to stay involved with SEIU and the labor movement in general, because it is on this stage that working people in this country have a chance to build power over their everyday lives through direct action. Here are four steps toward making our participation relevant and empowering for those we come out in solidarity with:

  • 1) Build a strong relationship with workers not bureaucrats. Try to build a relationship with at least one rank and file member that you meet on your own in every building you can. If most of the office buildings in your city are in one geographic area, perhaps your affinity group could divide up the list of buildings so that one of you can make contacts in each of the prime group of buildings.
  • 2) Involve workers as much as possible in every action that you do. You might not be able to do the romantic "night work" you would like, but workers' ownership of your action is more important. Include the members in planning the strategy and encourage their participation in it.
  • 3) Look for janitors that are not being organized by your town's SEIU local and push them to organize themselves. SEIU often fails to organize workers who call up the union, because the workers' lives are unimportant in the face of the union's strategic plan. If you are going to have influence in your town's local, it is important that you build a base of workers who you have helped win improvements in their conditions.
  • 4) Talk to rank and file workers about what is going on in their local and how they feel about it. Talk to as broad range of workers as possible. Identify the groups and factions within your town's local, and make a political decision about who you want to align yourself with.

This article and its contents are the product of the publisher, and their opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the IWW. It's included here for information purposes only.