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July 26, 2021

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Unplugged: The SEIU chief on the labor movement and the card check

He’s signaling a truce with Culinary but has harsh words for its parent, Unite Here

SEIU President Andy Stern

Tiffany Brown

Andy Stern, Service Employees International Union president, poses for pictures with organizer Melissa Brown from the local SEIU offices on Thursday, May 7, 2009.

SEIU President Andy Stern

Andy Stern, Service Employees International Union president, is pictured during an interview with the Sun from the local SEIU offices on Thursday, May 7, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

In Andy Stern’s world view, bigger is better.

And better still if the center of that world is his 2-million-member Service Employees International Union.

To hear him tell it, two of the nation’s most progressive unions would not now be at war had they only listened to his advice five years ago. Back then, as Unite, the garment and apparel workers union, and Here, the hotel and casino workers union, considered merging, Stern suggested an alternative: join SEIU, which was surging forward as the country’s largest and fastest-growing union.

Unite President Bruce Raynor and Here leader John Wilhelm declined.

Instead they formed Unite Here, parent of the Culinary Union, promising to organize large numbers of workers nationally. The honeymoon was short-lived, and long-simmering tensions between the two leaders erupted into public view this year, with Raynor calling for a divorce and Wilhelm struggling to keep the merger intact.

Enter Stern. The SEIU president revived his old proposal that they join him. Raynor has accepted, effectively leading a secession. His former Unite allies took 150,000 members and formed a new SEIU affiliate, Workers United. The move outraged Wilhelm, who accused Stern of raiding Unite Here and engineering a hostile takeover of the union’s hotel and casino jurisdictions.

By now, Stern is accustomed to criticism.

Under his leadership SEIU became one of the country’s most dynamic unions. Over the past year, however, Stern has attracted criticism for taking over locals, ousting elected leaders and making contract concessions with employers in return for organizing rights.

Now Wilhelm argues that Stern’s Unite “takeover” could leave Unite Here devastated.

We sat down with Stern last week for a conversation at the offices of his Nevada local, which had just organized 800 home care workers, a first in the state.

While Stern is now signaling a truce with the Culinary, he sent a different message to Wilhelm and Unite Here: Told you so.

The following is a condensed version of his remarks, edited for clarity and space.

You’ve taken a lot of heat for interfering in the Unite Here civil war.

Unite Here is a marriage that has gone bad. Unite had a right to reconstitute itself as Workers United, and affiliate with SEIU.

This reorganization should have happened five years ago. Unite and Here should have joined with SEIU because we both represented workers with the same employers. We were already representing janitors and security guards in some of the same properties where they had members too.

We said it was nuts to have three unions overlapping in the same industries. We even proposed different ways for Unite and Here to join with SEIU but still operate their own organizations. Their leaders decided differently. These workers should all be in the same union.

One of John Wilhelm’s biggest complaints is that he won’t be viable as a union with 200,000 members nationally (after the separation from Unite). That’s probably true. But he would be a powerhouse as part of SEIU, with our geographic reach and political power. He could have the autonomy to create a hotel division or food service division, something that would be run by the locals, not the international union. It makes all the sense in the world.

But I appreciate that people like to be presidents, and not necessarily vice presidents or executive vice presidents. It’s been a historical failure of the labor movement, that egos get in the way of what’s best for the membership.

This deal has created major turf fights between Unite Here and SEIU. Workers United, your new affiliate, sent letters to Unite Here employers across the country — including casino operators in Las Vegas and Atlantic City — asking for equal organizing rights. Doesn’t that set up direct competition for new members?

Let me say that if there is a settlement between SEIU/Workers United and Unite Here, I don’t think there’s much dispute about gaming.

The Culinary is a terrific union. It is going through really tough economic times, and we should not be disrupting their efforts to bargain their next contract (in Atlantic City) and to do their best to keep people employed.

We have decided that we would no longer interfere where Unite Here membership is uncontested, which means all of Las Vegas.

Still, the problem in gaming is that there are 600,000 tribal gaming workers, virtually none of them organized. Unite Here hasn’t spent time on them. They have spent much more time in Mississippi and other places where gaming is expanding. And I think people believe that, given the work they have done in the gaming industry in general, that should be part of their mission as well.

But SEIU and its new affiliate are challenging Unite Here on the hotel front.

There is a turf question in the hotel industry, as well as food service.

Both Unite and Here have had involvement in those industries. There is a logical discussion about who’s strong where and who already has members in what union. It would make no sense for SEIU and Workers United to organize in Nevada, Los Angeles, Boston or New York City, where Unite Here is strong. On the other hand, workers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and upstate New York are now part of Workers United.

Like John Wilhelm says, SEIU has an obligation to organize in our core areas. That means hospital and home-care workers. But we now have an affiliate, Workers United, that has strong hotel locals as well.

If there is going to be disagreement over who should represent which workers, let’s narrow it to those places around America where both SEIU and Unite Here can each make a case for themselves. And then, in places like Texas or South Carolina where there is no union, it becomes a question of what we’re going to do. It’s not as if there aren’t enough workers to organize in this country.

This will not be resolved by a public debate about who’s right and who’s wrong any more than most marriages that go astray will ever be resolved by the two parties. Let’s take this to arbitration.

Unite Here leaders say SEIU is after money — that your assets are half what they were four years ago and your liabilities have doubled. They say you want Workers United because it claims ownership of a bank with $500 million in assets.

We have an affiliation agreement that is crystal clear. Workers United wasn’t going to let us anywhere near their Amalgamated Bank and we didn’t want to be near that bank. This is an asset that’s been in Unite’s control for 50, 60 years. Workers United’s assets are not SEIU’s assets. They brought it to the relationship and it’s theirs.

As for SEIU, every four years, two things happen: our union’s convention and our country’s presidential election. For four years we save our money and then on the fourth year we spend it all. If we were trying to be a bank and not an advocate for our members’ interests, our members would be really disappointed. We are not a savings institution.

We spent a fortune to elect Barack Obama — $60.7 million to be exact — and we’re proud of it.

This infighting within labor can’t help the labor movement’s drive to reunify.

When you are as high profile and in the public eye as much as we are, everybody writes about your disputes. But it’s just not part of our private conversations. The truth is there are many disputes that go on in the labor movement. I could tell you about the disputes between the Machinists and the Teamsters or the Teamsters and the mass transit workers.

How has labor fared in President Obama’s first 100 days?

There were some pretty significant problems on the agenda when Barack Obama arrived. We had an economy that was tanking. Had he not stepped in and did the stimulus plan, our state workers, our health care workers would be dramatically less employed and have far less opportunity.

But clearly there have been a number of appointments that have been enormously important to labor and more are coming. Patrick Gaspard, for one, is White House political director. He comes from SEIU.

In the long run, setting up the health care debate to where it is, dealing with fair pay, and having a president who says unions are part of the solution, are huge things.

But labor’s No. 1 priority, legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize, seems to be sidelined.

The only reason we’re still in the game with the Employee Free Choice Act — despite the onslaught from corporate America — is because we have a president and vice president and leaders like Harry Reid who believe in it. They do know it’s part of the economic recovery plan and they do want to get it done.

Card check is alive and well. But 60 votes are required to open and close debate. Without Al Franken, one vote is getting to mean a lot more. Arlen Specter switching parties is a positive trend. And with Congressman Joe Sestak considering a Democratic primary challenge, there’s a lot of incentive for Specter to worry about where his labor endorsement is coming from. He has to deal with the party’s progressive left. And if he’s red on card check, I couldn’t get my members to vote for him. That’s like being against universal health care.

The president continues to send signals to every senator who asks that he’s not walking away from this bill. But he, like everybody else, would like to find a compromise that works for everybody.

What’s an acceptable compromise?

There are issues about majority sign-up, including possible worker confusion over union cards serving in lieu of an election. Senators also worry about unions coercing people and ask if workers could instead mail in the cards, so there’s not an issue of someone standing over them.

Regardless of whether there is card check, we all agree this election process is broken and workers shouldn’t have to wait months to get an election. Employers shouldn’t have better access to workers than unions have. We’ve also looked at public and state statutes where arbitration has existing for 50 years to ensure arbitrators can’t make some huge decision outside the realm of economic realities.

We organize workers more than anybody else so we’re going to know whether this bill is a hoax or an opportunity and we’re going to judge it when it comes out.

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