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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 Massachusetts.

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 democratic local:

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 union.

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 president.

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!

More resources on Change to Win and SEIU:
See Benson's Union Democracy Blog for several articles
Stern Employees International Union
Reflections on the SEIU Convention in Puerto Rico
Andy Stern is slipping off the pedestal
SEIU needs a public review board
On the eve of the SEIU Convention
Opposition wins most delegates from big SEIU local
Fight in Ohio between SEIU and California Nurses revives old issue: When employers welcome unions at the NLRB
On "democratic" centralism: Stern's illusion and democracy's nightmare
Healthcare leader raps Stern; quits SEIU board
SEIU rearranges 600,000 into mega locals
Debate on Union Democracy and Change to Win
If you can't woo 'em, sue 'em! An ingenious twist in punishing dissent in the SEIU
SEIU's Unite to Win blog reviewed.
Local 509 asks questions about democracy in the SEIU
New Unity Partnership:Sweeney Critics would bureaucratize to organize.
Service Employees: Mass. merger in Local 888.
Benson's Union Democracy blog.
Student Labor Activists support union democracy.
Articles on the Labor Notes site on NUP from various sources.
See UDR articles on the Carpenters (UBCJA) for case studies in merger and bureaucratization.
Several articles on the New Unity Partnership are available on the BC Carpenters website.
Find articles on the consolidation of power in the Carpenters union on the main UDR page.
An exchange on union democracy between Herman Benson and Steve Fraser, on the website (click on Fraser's name for a link to his article)
Links to rank-and-file websites in the NUP unions: Carpenters, Hotel and Restaurant Employees, Laborers, Needle Trades (UNITE), Service Employees (building services, public employees).


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