June 2011, Week 2


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Mon, 13 Jun 2011 21:22:57 -0400
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Labor's Revival Depends on Workplace Organizing, Not
Electoral Politics

by Randy Shaw



Organized labor is in crisis.
And some, including longtime labor commentator Harold
Meyerson and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, believe
unions should undertake a strategic shift and
prioritize electoral politics over workplace
organizing. Meyerson recently wrote in the Washington
Post that weak labor laws have "forced" unions to "go
outside the workplace," and touts SEIU's plan to
canvass door- to- door in 17 cities in order to build a
"mass organization for the unemployed and underpaid."
According to SEIU's Henry, "we realized we could
organize one million more people into the union and it
wouldn't in itself really change anything. We needed to
do something else -- something more." But after unions
invested over $300 million in the 2008 elections and
got little in return, prioritizing resources outside
the workplace is a doubtful strategy for building
worker power. And while SEIU has lost confidence in the
power of workplace organizing, UNITE HERE, the National
Nurses United, the ILWU, IBEW, NUHW, UFCW, CWA and many
other unions have not.

The decline in union membership to less than 7% of the
private-sector workforce has led to an important
rethinking of how unions can regain power. But SEIU's
assessment that the future lies in building some new
and amorphous "mass organization" that will help elect
and then pressure pro-union politicians reflects a
strategy that has already failed, and ignores that
union power is based much more on the success of
workplace organizing.

SEIU's Failed Strategy

Mary Kay Henry's belief that a million more members
wouldn't make much of a difference is a sharp departure
from SEIU's announcement at its 2008 convention that it
would change America by adding 500,000 to its ranks
between 2008 and 2012 (it has since added about 50,000
annually). It also appears to conflict with her
predecessor Andy Stern's recent assessments as to why
labor failed to win passage of the Employee Free Choice
Act or any meaningful labor law reforms in the past two

Interviewed by Leon Fink in the current issue of Labor,
Stern attributes this failure to overestimating labor's
ability to sway Democratic Senators when unions have
only 6.2% private-sector membership. Stern made similar
comments to Ezra Klein in the Washington Post on
February 24, when he explained the lack of legislative
success by noting that unions lack sufficient
"penetration in an industry to be disruptive," and that
this lack of density has contributed to the fact that
the "Democratic Party hasn't embraced unions in the
last 20 years."

In other words, Stern argues that unions failed to win
labor law reform not because they have not been
effective at electing Democrats, but rather because
they are unable to get Democrats to back such reforms
due to unions lack of membership density.

Stern makes a great case for unions prioritizing
workplace organizing. Yet SEIU began moving away from
such work and toward electoral outreach only months
after their 2008 convention ended, and now Mary Kay
Henry is investing even more SEIU resources away from
the membership gains that are key to boosting union
political clout.

SEIU's Undemocratic "Mass Organization"

Meyerson views SEIU as perhaps the "best-funded and
most strategically savvy of American unions," an
assessment - that if ever true - is long outdated.
SEIU's decision to place its third largest local,
SEIU-UHW, in trusteeship, and then attempt to takeover
UNITE HERE just as SEIU's resources and labor unity
were most needed for passing labor law reform hardly
qualifies as "strategically savvy."

Yet old perceptions die hard, particularly among
journalists and academics who hitched their wagons to
Andy Stern and SEIU's vision of a revived labor
movement (I once shared this admiration, and my book on
the ongoing legacy of the UFW has a chapter on how UFW
alums and SEIU leaders Eliseo Medina and Steven Lerner
engineered a brilliant University of Miami janitors
organizing campaign in 2007). These outdated
perceptions may explain Meyerson's lack of curiosity
about Mary Kay Henry's plan to enroll the unemployed
and underpaid in a mass organization (presumably under
SEIU's control) in which they will have no say in
decision making because they are not SEIU members.

It should be obvious to anyone who works in any of the
low-income minority communities that any door-to-door
canvass asking people to join an organization where
they have no decision-making power is a guaranteed

And I think SEIU understands this. That's why the
17-city effort that Meyerson sees as part of a
"strategic shift for American labor" is really only a
glorified voter outreach program, an activity that SEIU
increasingly prioritizes over workplace organizing.

Further, the AFL-CIO's Working America program has done
a door-to-door canvas for years. For all of its
benefits, it has not boosted its dues paying membership
or labor's national legislative clout.

Voter outreach is different from organizing. It builds
no membership base, does not empower those contacted,
and fails to address what even Andy Stern sees as
labor's biggest political obstacle: a lack of dues
paying members.

In 2005, Stern and SEIU sought to address this number
one priority through creating the Change To Win labor
coalition. But Change To Win - now down to SEIU, the
Teamsters, UFCW, and the UFW - seems to have no role in
this latest "strategic shift" by SEIU.

Workplace Organizing Still Going Strong

Contrary to Meyerson's conclusion that "unions are
going outside the workplace" because "they have no
place else to turn," workplace organizing remains the
priority of most American unions. In fact, the two
targets of SEIU attacks - the former SEIU-UHW
leadership now with NUHW, and UNITE HERE - both
prioritize new organizing, with the former winning an
organizing drive for union representation at Santa Rosa
Memorial Hospital, part of the St. Joseph's Health
System chain in California. SEIU built a statewide St.
Joseph's campaign for years before abandoning it in

In my own conversations with labor officials in many
unions, there appears almost a consensus that more
workplace organizing - not less - is key to labor's
future. Many feel that unions have invested far too
much time and money in electoral work that has not
produced promised results, at the expense of ongoing
worker organizing to build membership.

So SEIU's assessment that it should focus outside the
workplace is an outlier that conflicts with the lessons
other unions have learned from the Obama era. And it is
hardly a "new" union strategy. Cesar Chavez moved the
UFW away from organizing and toward electoral politics
in the 1980's, and the union has yet to recover.

I suspect SEIU's focus outside the workplace will not
extend much beyond the 2012 elections, and that its
convention next year will again vow to organize
hundreds of thousands of new members in the next four
years but with much less credibility than when it
passed the same resolution in San Juan, Puerto Rico in
June 2008.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar
Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the
21st Century. 


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