From the May-June 2009 issue
of Union Democracy Review #179
Quest for democracy persists inside SEIU
While attention is riveted on the
bitter battle in California between the Service Employees International
Union and the new National Union of Healthcare Workers, many SEIU members
who are not involved in that conflict are convinced that their road to
union reform remains inside the SEIU in a continuing campaign to democratize
the union. And they can report some successes, notably in Massachusetts
Local 888 and in California Local 521. At the SEIU convention in June
last year, rank and filers from several locals came together in a reform
caucus, SMART --- for SEIU Members Active for Reform Today. The caucus
organized as a permanent body after the convention.
In Massachusetts Local 888
By Ferd Wulkan
In an election last year, an insurgent caucus defeated
the local administration that had originally been appointed by International
President Andy Stern. Author Ferd Wulkan was an SEIU field rep for 13
years, serving non-faculty professional personnel at the University of
SEIU Local 888 was created in 2003 in a wholesale
reorganization of SEIU's Massachusetts locals. In reducing the number
of locals, a new public sector local was created, one that would be unquestionably
loyal to the International. Susana Segat, a longtime employee of the International
was appointed president. When a new local is created, the appointed leadership
can stay in office for three years before an election must be held.
The best organized and most militantly democratic
portion of the local were workers at the University of Massachusetts.
Fiercely trying to preserve their democratic heritage and practices, and
frustrated by the divisive and controlling administration, over 2,000
of them ultimately left SEIU and joined the Massachusetts Teachers Association/NEA.
[The 2008 insurgent victory is especially impressive, coming after so
many natural opposition supporters had left the local. Ed.]
With all the advantages of incumbency, and with the
potential core of the opposition out of the local, the Segat slate easily
won in the 2006 election. Her opponent, Bruce Boccardy, ran a pro-democracy
campaign, but one that was over-confident, under-financed, and too short.
In 2008, however, he defeated Segat by a large majority. [Of the local's
9,000 members, 1,815 voted. Boccardy defeated Segat by 1,025-730. His
slate carried all contested positions by similar majorities. Ed.] Ironically,
Tony Koumantzelis, his candidate for the #2 spot, is a member of the only
UMass bargaining unit that had voted to remain in the SEIU when all the
others left. This time, Boccardy and Koumantzelis started their campaign
early, hired an experienced campaign manager, used their time effectively,
recruited a broad group of supporters, and ran a member-to-member campaign.
They heard member complaints all across the state,
many about minimal servicing by the local. This was not surprising, since
Segat had eliminated most of the service rep positions. Ironically, this
meant she lacked the traditional incumbent-beholden staff to promote her
campaign. While democratic-minded unionists are celebrating, the new leadership
must overcome some potential barriers to turning Local 888 into a powerful
1. The economy. Most Local 888 members work for cities
and towns; with the Massachusetts budget crumbling, the local will have
its hands full fighting layoffs and cutbacks.
2. Local finances. Units have decertified. Under Segat,
the local ran a deficit every year. It is difficult to run a local efficiently
when it has 9,000 members scattered in 200 bargaining units.
SMART first surfaced on the eve of the SEIU international
convention in 2008, announcing its aim to "preserve union democracy
and member-driven decision-making and involvement." Larry Bradshaw,
elected as a delegate from his paramedic chapter of San Francisco Local
1021, writes of how these "previously unknown and politically unconnected
rank-and-file workers" got together at the convention. "For
most of us aligned with SMART," he wrote, "it was our first
SEIU international convention. Consequently 'we' were rag-tag, clumsy,
and easily outmaneuvered." Yet, when the delegates elected officers,
SMART candidates "garnered between 4% and 16% of the vote."
In the year since the convention, they remain active, better organized,
and with their own website. They saturate their own e-mail boxes and yours
with exchanges of information and comments on day-to-day events in the
At the convention and after, SMART supported Rosselli's
UHW-W in its defensive battles, but they were not swallowed up by it.
In an Open Letter, SMART denounced Stern's trusteeship over UHW. When
the Rosselli forces were impelled to leave the SEIU and found their own
National Union of Healthcare Workers, independent and rival to the SEIU,
SMART remained in the SEIU to continue its campaign for democracy within
it. That position was made clear in April in a statement submitted by
the SMART committee for vote by its membership:
"SMART takes an officially neutral position
on whether SEIU members who belong to UHW-W should fight for reform
by staying inside SEIU," it reads, "or by leaving SEIU and
fighting for reform from the outside. We recognize the extreme and unusual
circumstances members of UHW-W now face....We regret that the rank-and-file
are leaving SEIU, and we blame the SEIU administration for that loss."
The statement goes on to criticize the forcible merger
of locals to suppress dissent. While recognizing that "many of our
new locals are bureaucratic monoliths," it reaffirms that "SMART
is about reforming SEIU in order to build a strong, democratic, and effective
union.... Secession, by itself, does not build member power. While a particular
group or local might solve its problems by leaving, it does not address
the needs of all other SEIU members." It asks the new NUHW "to
refrain from undermining the efforts of SMART reform activists inside
SEIU" and calls for "greater dialog between reform activists
within SEIU and reform activists who have left SEIU...."
On "raiding," the statement projects a position,
or a hope, that is admirable in principle but difficult to sustain in
practice. It asks NUHW "to cease from raiding SEIU locals or chapters
where UHW-W has never represented any of the members...." And it
"calls upon the SEIU International to stop raiding UNITE/HERE or
any other unions." Unfortunately, embattled unionists often decide
that the best defense is offense.
In Local 521
With its 55,000 members, Local 521 was one of those
California mega locals created by Andy Stern (521= five locals into one).
As in a new local, he appointed all its officers. Candidates for appointment
were required to sign a loyalty oath. Despite all the advantages of their
imposed incumbency, the appointed administration ran into trouble. In
December this year, after disputes over democracy-related issues in local
contests that were unrelated to the big battle between the SEIU and the
NUHW, insurgent groups defeated administration candidates in two of the
local's county chapters: in Monterey and Santa Clara counties.
In Santa Clara, a chapter of 11,000 public workers,
incumbents had held office for eight years. But in December an insurgent
Reform Slate, running under the slogan "It's our union," elected
Vincent Reyna president and Wren Bradley deputy chair and carried most
of the 19 contested spots with about 52% of the votes. In the Monterey
Chapter, where 22% of the chapter's 3,500 members voted, insurgents won
most of the 18 contests by a comfortable majority. Ben Franklin was elected
So far, encouragement for those who look for reform
inside the SEIU. But the plot thickened in April when an NUHW release
reported that 2,800 Monterey County workers had signed a petition with
the county Public Employment Relations Board seeking to oust SEIU Local
521 as their bargaining agent and replace it with the new NUHW. In an
ironic twist, according to the victorious SEIU Monterey insurgents, the
old guard, who they had just defeated in their chapter, changed course,
switched over to the NUHW, and are backing the decert effort!
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