Labor Leaders, Have You Lost Your Damn Mind?

The civil wars dividing two promising labor unions could not have happened at a worse time.

One thing you have to say about today’s labor movement — it is
not dull. And like a capricious lover, it will always break your

Civil wars have broken out in two unions — the SEIU and UNITE
HERE — which many consider to have the best chance to lead a
revival in the union movement. The Service Employees Union (SEIU)
battle involves its former affiliate, now known as the National United
Healthcare Workers (NUHW), while the UNITE HERE battle features the
former head of UNITE against his counterpart in HERE. Steven Greenhouse
of The New York Times has noted an interesting similarity
in the two struggles. In both, the leaders of one union accused their
opponents of focusing too much on “good wages and benefits” for current
members while paying too little attention to organizing nonunion
workers. Meanwhile, their critics accuse them of being “too willing to
trade gains for current union members” in exchange for concessions that
make it easier to organize nonunion employees.

These are important strategic considerations, and to the extent that
these two struggles actually revolve around these issues, they might
make some sense. But while the folks at Oakland’s NUHW fervently
believe their fight is about these issues, only the most committed can
believe that this is all that’s at stake in either battle. Ego and
unwillingness to compromise play too great a role.

Consider recent events. After months of loud posturing featuring
lawsuits, demonstrations, and open letters, the SEIU has placed in
trusteeship its local affiliate, the progressive and popular United
Health Care Workers West (UHW). Each side has articulate friends.
Writers Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Mike Davis weighed in for the
UHW in an open letter in The New York Times. SEIU
President Andy Stern countered by securing the services of two lions of
the labor movement, Leonard Page, a former General Counsel of the
National Labor Relations Board, and Ray Marshall, former Secretary of
Labor. These two men, both Democrats, conducted hearings for the SEIU
which in the end justified Stern’s trusteeship of UHW.

Meanwhile, Harold Meyerson of The American Prospect
wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Stern, the most well-known
of the protagonists, is “the most articulate and heterodox union leader
in American labor today, the union leader best able to establish a
rapport with non-union liberals and intellectuals. … Stern and his
lieutenants have built the SEIU into the most successful army that the
union movement has just now, but that transformation has come at the
expense of some traditional elements of union democracy.” In response,
labor journalist and former union official Steve Early excoriated
Stern’s boosters on the blog Talking Union, claiming they were
influenced by a desire to stay in Stern’s favor. Their “pink champagne
will always will be on ice,” he wrote, “as long they keep praising
their benefactor or, at the very least, don’t sign any ‘open letters’
in The New York Times criticizing SEIU trusteeships.”

In the wake of this trusteeship, the former leadership of the UHW is
trying to resurrect its old style and bargaining posture with a new
union, the National United Healthcare Workers. The new union faces
enormous obstacles. Its leaders will have to work with no money for
salaries or expenses unless they can find a rich angel to fund them.
While the NUHW prepared as well as it could for this battle by
enlisting allies and trying to sequester resources, labor law favors
the larger union, limiting the ability of NUHW to secure contracts for
workers who would like to join its ranks. The NUHW is now attempting to
help California’s unionized health care workers revoke their SEIU dues
— probably in the hope that the SEIU will not service these
workers and they will be forced to turn to the NUHW. Although this
battle will be with us for some time, the history of such splits has
seldom ended well for the smaller unit.

At the same time, the hotel and garment workers unions that merged
in 2004 to form UNITE HERE are involved in a civil war featuring
clashes and legal confrontations. Bruce Raynor, the leader of UNITE, is
pushing to undo the UNITE HERE merger and is resorting to all manner of
legal and procedural devices to do so. This union represents many Bay
Area workers, from laundry workers in Oakland to hotel workers in San
Francisco. It has a glorious history of fighting for the least
advantaged in our society, from Norma Rae to immigrant hotel maids.
UNITE, the former garment workers union, is short on members but has a
healthy financial position, while HERE is an opposite position. Each
side claims the leader of the other faction is a dictator.

Like any movement long in the wilderness — as the labor
movement has been since the Reagan years — structure, tactics,
and ideology can become somewhat skewed. For this reason alone, these
disputes should have been expected. What is sad and demoralizing,
however, is that despite the near-daily recitation of progressive ideas
to their members and the media, many of these union leaders have been
unable to practice what they preach in their daily work. While this
unfortunate posture is rampant in society as a whole, it is always
painful to see it in a movement trying to do good. Too much of these
two disputes revolve around ego, a shameful reality for a movement
based on solidarity. The result is that the potential for labor to be a
leading force for social good is being compromised. These events come
even as it was just announced that, for the first time in many years,
labor membership increased in the country, growing by 428,000 in 2008.
Surely this is the wrong time for factionalism.

On the year’s funniest new TV show, David Alan Grier’s Chocolate
on Comedy Central, Grier begins his show with a monologue
about some topical and over-the-top issue. His sign-off line —
presented with his eyes raised and face hilariously contorted —
is always, “_____ have you lost your damn mind?” Filling in that blank
with “Labor leadership,” would make sense today. Except it isn’t very

Jay Youngdahl is a distant cousin to SEIU political director Jon Youngdahl.


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