Politics & Policy

The Strange Case of SEIU

Do unions prefer civil war to immigration reform?

If numbers were all that mattered, Andrew Stern would be America’s most successful labor leader, hands down. For over two decades, he’s led the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — first as president John Sweeney’s chief strategist, and since 1996 as Sweeney’s successor. Under Stern, SEIU’s membership has nearly doubled to around 1.9 million, a feat all the more remarkable given that most unions during that period shrank or held steady. Union members held nearly a third of all non-farm private-sector jobs between 1950 and 1965; now they hold about 12 percent, and a mere 7.5 percent of private-sector jobs.

SEIU’s dramatic increase has persuaded Stern that he’s found a model for organized labor to regain its clout at the bargaining table and in the corridors of power — what he calls a progressive business model, a rough hybrid of Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs. By working with rather than against employers, Stern believes, unions can regain their long-declining share of the U.S. workforce.

A focus on organizing rather than political activism is the key, Stern argues from his Washington, D.C., headquarters. Lobbying and public advocacy are mostly futile, as long as unions lack the numbers to cause fear at the ballot box. Stern’s strength-through-numbers evangelism led him to break, very publicly, with his former mentor Sweeney, now president of the AFL-CIO. He and a half-dozen other labor leaders, including James P. Hoffa of the Teamsters and Terence O’Sullivan of the Laborers, announced in the summer of 2005 that their unions would split from the AFL-CIO and form their own federation, Change to Win. At the group’s kickoff conference in St. Louis that September, Stern declared: “We pledge to devote the vast majority of our resources to uniting the strength in modern, growing, strong, powerful organizing unions.”

Stern has his critics, some within his own union. The most prominent is Sal Rosselli, leader of a major SEIU affiliate in California representing health-care workers. His battle with Stern and his allies has all the hallmarks of a looming civil war, one that could get ugly at the union’s annual convention in Puerto Rico later this spring. The conflict underscores the weakening of American unionism’s bargaining power created by Third World mass immigration, legal or otherwise.

To understand the Rosselli-Stern split, some context is necessary. The SEIU is not like Carpenters, Plumbers or other craft unions. Aside from a sizable contingent of nurses, the SEIU overwhelmingly represents unskilled workers — hospital attendants, security guards, janitors, hotel chamber maids and home-health-care workers. Squarely in the lower half of the modern service-economy labor force, these jobs offer relatively little in the way of wages, benefits or career advancement.

These are the jobs our current presidential candidates are fond of telling us that “Americans won’t do.” All things being equal, any employer would rather pay someone $10 rather than $15 an hour. And immigrant workers with low educational attainment and limited English ability are happy to take $10 an hour, at least in the short run — it beats what they’d be making back home doing the same thing. When such workers can’t easily be replaced, unions are in a position to negotiate effectively on their behalf. But today’s high levels of immigration, legal and otherwise, make it almost certain that these workers can be easily replaced — which makes Stern’s endorsement of illegal-immigrant amnesty seem, well, oblivious to economic reality.

Service-economy unions think they can turn open borders to their advantage. The SEIU is willing to cut sweetheart deals — lowering the labor costs even of employers whom they regard as exploiters — because doing so allows them to organize more recruits. SEIU owes much of its growth — in numbers more than in power — to Third World immigration, especially from Mexico. The SEIU estimates that one-quarter of its members are Hispanic immigrants, a proportion higher than any other union in this country, save perhaps the now nearly irrelevant United Farm Workers. And the SEIU is willing to do political grunt work for the Mexican government and U.S. ethnic-grievance groups like La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund: it was SEIU Local 1877 that provided security for L.A.’s massive pro-amnesty marches two years ago.

Who are the losers in all this? The American people, at least those paying taxes to support education, health, welfare, housing, and other programs used heavily by first- and second-generation immigrants. According to a report issued by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called “Breaking the Piggy Bank,” K-12 education for illegal immigrants alone cost the states a combined nearly $12 billion in 2004; including children born here to illegal parents raises the total to $28.6 billion. California accounted for $7.7 billion of the latter figure. Assuming this figure has risen over the ensuing four years– a safe bet — educating the children of illegals accounts for at least half of the state’s latest estimated budget deficit of $16 billion. Governor Schwarzenegger is finding out firsthand that there are fewer things as expensive as “cheap labor.”

The aforementioned Sal Rosselli, president of the Oakland, Calif.-based United Healthcare Workers West (UHW) might well be as clueless as Andrew Stern when it comes to immigration policy. But he has seen the consequences of the employer-union chumminess now driving health-care-worker contracts in his state, and he’s not happy with Stern.

The UHW, formed out of a merger between SEIU Locals 250 (Northern California) and 399 (Southern California), has 140,000 members. But those numbers haven’t translated into bargaining strength. In a secret 2003 agreement with California nursing-home chains — according to Bay Area alternative newspaper SF Weekly — the SEIU committed to: discouraging patients and their families from suing for negligence; and supporting a four-year, $2 billion increase in MediCal subsidies to nursing homes. In return for supporting these industry-backed measures, the union retained the right to organize other nursing homes. Some bargain.

UHW members may have fumed, but they saw a weak deal as better than none at all. Rosselli, less inhibited, saw a gigantic sellout. “California nursing homes are sweatshops, and a terrible place to live,” he told the website of Labor Notes magazine, decrying the agreement as “pre-negotiated contracts that severely limit workers’ bargaining rights and voice.” He resigned from the SEIU executive committee in protest, and wrote Andrew Stern a pungent letter explaining his action. “Over the past two years, a stark difference has evolved between SEIU’s projected image and its real-world practices,” noted Rosselli. “An overly zealous focus on growth — growth at any cost — apparently has eclipsed SEIU’s commitment to its members.” He appeared on the far-left TV program Democracy Now! to denounce SEIU’s “centralizing control and power.”

Stern ally Dave Regan — president of SEIU District 1199, which represents health care workers in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia — responded in kind on the same broadcast. “I thought Sal Rosselli was a trade unionist. This is the absolute most despicable kind of behavior. . . . Sal is willing, through his actions, on this program, in California and other places, to weaken the strength of members of my local union.”

It’s ironic that Andrew Stern is now cast as a shill for big business. The SEIU has long stood with the far Left. Some 20 years ago, it was Stern and Sweeney who hatched the SEIU’s ongoing street-agitprop movement, “Justice for Janitors,” to conduct aggressive, ear-splitting organizing demonstrations in cities across the country. And this February, the union formally endorsed the nation’s most liberal senator, Barack Obama, for president.

UHW West may wind up disaffiliating from the SEIU. Whether or not it does, the central dilemma remains: Mass immigration from Mexico and other developing nations undermines union bargaining power. More than ever, America’s immigrant-driven unskilled labor force consists of people with little formal education, poor command of English, and a lack of ability (and often willingness) to assimilate. Union membership will avail these workers little, so long as employers can draw heavily from the next wave of unskilled workers, underpay them, and send the rest of the bill to taxpayers. The consequences of unions obsessing over institutional growth at the expense of the national interest are that, in the end, they won’t be able to defend even their own interests.

– Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project at the National Legal and Policy Center in Falls Church, Virginia.

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