Beyond Chron: Is Fresno SEIU’s Vietnam?

NewsJune 22, 2009

by Randy Shaw

SEIU defeated NUHW by 233 votes in their bitter election over Fresno’s 10,000 home care workers, but now faces a situation analogous to the United States in Vietnam. It took nearly one thousand staffers and an estimated $10 million for SEIU to eke out a victory in Fresno, the labor equivalent of carpet-bombing. But just as the massive bombing of North Vietnam failed to bring the United States an ultimate victory, SEIU’s Fresno campaign left its opposition unvanquished, and likely better positioned than SEIU to win future elections.

SEIU’s Fresno campaign leader Dave Regan echoed Air Force leader General Curtis LeMay’s “total war” strategy toward the Vietnamese when he promised “to drive a stake through heart of the thing that is NUHW,” and “put them in the ground and bury them.” Regan insisted, “this is not an election that we want to win 52 to 48, or by a few hundred votes. We want them to believe when we are done here that it is hopeless. We got to give them a butt whipping they will never forget … And a year from now or three years from now or five years from now we are all gonna sit back and say, ‘I was there when we kicked those SOBs in Fresno County.’” But Fresno is more likely to be recalled as the place where NUHW survived SEIU’s “total war” strategy, leaving SEIU in a Vietnam-like quagmire.

The Numbers

SEIU won 2938 to 2705, with 90 challenged ballots. While NUHW is challenging the outcome, it accomplished its larger goal of leaving Fresno with wind at its back. And with NUHW well positioned to win decertification elections for over 35,000 SEIU home care workers in San Francisco and Sacramento later this year, NUHW could soon have sufficient resources to challenge SEIU throughout California.

The election was closer than I (and no doubt SEIU) anticipated because turnout was less than expected. Although I had confirmed from sources connected to both unions that 6500 ballots had been submitted prior to the last weekend of balloting, the actual number did not reach 5800. Clearly, some workers were so tired of being contacted that they said they had voted when they had not.

SEIU had announced a week prior to the end of balloting that it had 5000 supporters. Either workers lied to SEIU staff, or some crew members submitted higher than real numbers to show superiors they were doing a great job.

A Blow to SEIU’s Model

NUHW and others have criticized SEIU for allegedly creating large bargaining units that do not train, educate or empower workers. Fresno appears to confirm that SEIU’s rush to get more workers under union contracts as the key strategy for gaining greater clout over national policies has come at a cost. Nearly half of SEIU’s Fresno homecare workers voted to leave their union, and just as the United States learned in Vietnam, you can have a huge edge in ground troops, money and technology and still fail to win the hearts and minds of your audience.

This is the message that NUHW is taking from Fresno. As spokesperson Paul Kumar told me, “the election demonstrates that SEIU is a hollowed shell of a union. It spent $10 million, and still could barely win a majority of worker support.” Kumar asks how SEIU will find the resources to contest with NUHW in future elections, arguing that its model in Fresno is financially “unsustainable.”

One does not have to share Kumar’s overall assessment to acknowledge that if SEIU barely prevailed among an electorate where NUHW’s base was weak, and whose physical isolation made it more susceptible to SEIU’s massive advertising and outreach campaign, than SEIU faces major challenges elsewhere. Specifically, there may be nothing SEIU can feasibly do to keep its Bay Area homecare workers, and hospital workers throughout much of the state, from leaving for NUHW.

SEIU’s California Problem

Just as Vietnam revealed the United States’ inability to impose its will on other nations, Fresno has exposed SEIU’s vulnerability in California. The fact that SEIU had to parachute in so many top staffers from outside California to run its Fresno campaign raises serious questions about the union’s hold on the state – which includes a full third of its entire membership.

Two years ago, Sal Rosselli and Tyrone Freeman were SEIU’s two most powerful California leaders; today, Rosselli heads NUHW and Freeman has departed from SEIU after resigning in disgrace. Tracy Zeloff, SEIU’s longtime State Council leader in California, announced during the Fresno campaign that she was resigning to pursue other interests.

Eliseo Medina and Dave Regan were brought in to run SEIU-UHW after Rosselli’s departure, but Medina has far too many other important responsibilities to focus exclusively on California, and Regan has little if any experience west of Ohio. And after Regan’s widely publicized and embarrassing pre-election call on SEIU organizers to “administer an old-school ass-whipping” to workers who support NUHW, one senses that he should have awaited the Fresno outcome before relocating his family to California.

SEIU is fighting NUHW on the latter’s home turf, and without strong indigenous leadership. That’s why SEIU’s massive effort to break the spirit of NUHW in Fresno made sense – SEIU clearly understood that if NUHW came out of Fresno with a win, or with only a narrow defeat, it was only a matter of time before much of SEIU’s health care and hospital workers voted to leave as well.

And like the United States in Vietnam, SEIU lacks the local leadership to forestall future defeats.

SEIU’s Quagmire

In September, SEIU bargaining units of around 35,000 home care workers in Sacramento and San Francisco will file for decertification elections. If SEIU could not win easily in Fresno, it is unlikely to prevail in NUHW’s strongest base. The next year will see decertification elections throughout the state’s major hospitals, an arena where NUHW is particularly strong.

As NUHW starts winning elections, SEIU is faced with throwing more money and staff into many unwinnable campaigns. This California fight could drain SEIU’s treasury and morale for years.

Just as the United States wasted billions of dollars and thousands of lives in Vietnam after generals knew we could not prevail, SEIU President Andy Stern is unlikely to now seek peace with Rosselli and NUHW. SEIU will instead vigorously fight the next wave of decertification elections, even if it means diverting staff from organizing the millions of non-union health care workers across the nation.

What a tragedy.

Just as Lyndon Johnson allowed Vietnam to undermine the War on Poverty, SEIU has chosen the pivotal first year of the Obama Administration – with the Employee Free Choice Act already at risk – to battle NUHW in California and UNITE HERE throughout North America. None of these fights add to the ranks of unionized workers, while breaking the spirit of many union members caught in the crossfire.

And in both cases, these battles will not end on SEIU’s chosen terms, despite the resources expended.

Applying the Lessons of Vietnam

Andy Stern and other SEIU leaders were among the 1960’s activists who protested the ongoing quagmire of Vietnam and urged President Johnson to withdraw U.S. troops. But just as Johnson feared to be seen as “leaving” a fight, SEIU will likely continue battling NUHW regardless of the financial and organizational costs.

Imagine, however, if Andy Stern decided to make peace with both NUHW and UNITE HERE. He would announce that labor movement unity must take precedence during a time of battles over EFCA, universal health care, state budget cuts, and other critical issues facing working people.

Sound crazy? Well, earlier this year SEIU reached an accord with its longtime opponent, the California Nurses Association, not long after Stern and his allies vowed to essentially drive their adversary into the sea. Stern did not build SEIU into the nation’s largest union without street smarts, and if he reached agreement with NUHW and UNITE HERE his popularity and stature would go through the roof.

SEIU was correct: Fresno was a game-changer. But the game did not change in SEIU’s favor. Now SEIU will either stay on a path leading to quagmire, or chart a new course toward a stronger, unified labor movement.

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