On the Conflicts in SEIU: Take a stand for class struggle unionism, union democracy and solidarity

By the Labor Commission of Freedom Road Socialist Organization

Over the past months, two conflicts have been heating up involving one of the most important unions in the U.S. – the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). It is important to understand the issues at stake. These are our thoughts on what the key issues are and what approach we think workers should take toward these conflicts.

One conflict is internal to SEIU, in which SEIU’s 150,000-member United Health Workers-West has spearheaded a rank-and-file movement within SEIU against the increasingly business-unionist direction of the national union; the second is fighting for more internal democracy in the union. They say they will bring proposals to SEIU’s national convention this summer for ‘one person, one vote’ for offices in the international union, including the presidency.

The other conflict is between SEIU and the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA/NNOC), with the flashpoint being a deal SEIU reached with the management of the Catholic Healthcare Partners hospital system in Ohio.

SEIU and CNA/NNOC have had conflicts in other states too, such as Nevada. In Ohio, SEIU had reached a deal with the management of the Catholic Healthcare Partners hospital for nurses to have a quick election under unusual rules where the employer petitions for the union that it wants to be voted in (in this case SEIU), without requiring any workers to actually sign cards saying they want that union. In the face of this agreement between SEIU and hospital management, CNA/NNOC actively encouraged the nurses there to vote against SEIU, which caused SEIU to back out of the elections. Now both unions are actively and publicly denouncing each other in the sharpest terms while actively working to undermine each other.

This conflict came to a head on Saturday, April 12 at the Labor Notes conference in Dearborn, Michigan, a gathering where over 1000 progressive, rank-and-file union activists from hundreds of unions around the country met at a conference to ‘put the movement back in the labor movement.’

In an incident on Saturday night of the conference, during the dinner banquet, hundreds of SEIU staff and members came in buses and crashed the conference to protest the presence of CNA president Rose Anne DeMoro – though she had actually canceled her appearance there and just sent a message to the conference via video.

The SEIU protesters came in to intimidate and disrupt the most important conference for progressive rank-and-file labor fighters in the country. They engaged in pushing and shoving anyone in their way, forcing their way into the hotel where the conference took place and then trying to muscle their way in to disrupt the packed dinner reception. At least one union sister was dealt with a head injury.

SEIU’s action at Labor Notes was beyond the pale. The escalation to attempted mass intimidation and physical confrontation against hundreds of rank-and-file progressive union activists must be condemned.

These points put forward our basic orientation on the struggle within SEIU and the conflict between SEIU and CNA/NNOC. We encourage comments and dialogue on how honest fighters in the labor movement can make sense of these conflicts and push the unions forward to fight for workers’ interests.

1. We support the reform movement in SEIU. We support their call for ‘one person one vote’ on contracts, bargaining committees, local officers and international officers, including the president.

2. SEIU has been moving more and more toward business unionism. For example, in their deals with the nursing homes, in which they signed no-strike pledges, allowed the owners to choose which homes would be unionized and pledged that the union wouldn’t criticize the treatment of workers. Andy Stern says that class struggle unionism is a thing of the past – we don’t agree.

3. Regarding Ohio: We don’t support what CNA did in their ‘vote no’ campaign at the Catholic Healthcare Partners hospitals. On the other hand, what SEIU did there – using an employer petition to the Labor Board for an election without the involvement of workers, and in which the employer identifies their preferred union – is a terrible direction for the labor movement.

4. SEIU and CNA have gone to war with each other. This is destructive and we don’t support the actions by either side that weaken the labor movement.

5. A mob of staff and workers forced their way into the Labor Notes conference in order to disrupt the speech by Rose Anne DeMoro, head of the CNA. Their pushing and shoving resulted in at least one person having to be taken to the hospital after falling and hitting her head. Also, an SEIU member was seen lying on the sidewalk with blood from a head wound. DeMoro had already canceled her speech in order to avoid provoking SEIU; SEIU knew she had canceled and they carried out this physical assault on the conference anyway. Labor Notes is the largest gathering of progressives in the labor movemen, and everyone knows it. What SEIU did at the conference has to be condemned.

6. Workers need to organize and fight against the attacks from the capitalists. Unions that help do that are doing the right thing. Unions that don’t fight against the attacks on workers need to be challenged by their members and changed. Leaders that won’t change should be replaced. Class conscious workers don’t want their unions to fight each other in these scorched-earth turf battles.