Talking Union: With new president will SEIU change?

NewsMay 3, 2010

By Paul Garver

For once, there is agreement between the Andy Stern/Anna Burger leadership team and their harshest critics on the left of the labor movement. In an interview with Washington Post writer Alec MacGillis, Stern referred to both Mary Key Henry and Anna Burger as his “lifelong partners,” either of whom would make a good president for SEIU. Either will “build on what’s happened here, not tear it down and change it.”

Anna Burger agrees. In a gracious letter withdrawing her candidacy, she referred to Mary Key as her ‘union sister,” with whom she will remain a close working colleague for the benefit of SEIU members and all working people. She wrote that “The media is just wrong when they suggest that this contest represents a shift in SEIU’s priorities or a rejection of the Stern/Burger agenda.”

Labor Notes editorialized that the contest was merely about “which successor to Stern’s throne would best carry on its mission to quickly expand the union by offering value to corporations.” Steve Early, in a detailed and informative posting on the Working In these Times blog, outlined Mary Kay Henry’s history as a loyal staff officer with no rank-and-file experience in SEIU who played over the years such a prominent role in the conflicts within SEIU’s healthcare unions in California that would make it especially difficult for her to resolve SEIU’s disastrous civil war with the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

But other commentators find reasons to believe that SEIU might undertake a modest course correction in the near future. I recently outlined a minimal reform program for SEIU on this blog.

Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect hoped that the electoral contest between Burger and Henry would “yield some serious discussion about new directions for American labor.” He cites SEIU International Executive Vice-President Gerry Hudson’s call for labor to build a larger more transformative social movement for change and to abandon its Washington insider strategy which has failed so spectacularly in winning passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. David Moberg and Stephan Franklin, both on Working In These Times, cite the possibility that Henry’s leadership style will be more collegial and permit more decentralized decision-making within SEIU, and that she would be more open to settling the toxic internal battles within labor that led to the formation of the now foundering Change to Win breakaway and the bitter battle between SEIU and Unite Here.

The withdrawal of Anna Burger’s candidacy diminishes the chances for the kind of forthright debate within SEIU that Meyerson hopes for. However the decision of United Healthcare Workers-East (SEIU’s largest local, better known as 1199) to endorse Henry after both candidates addressed its board may have indicated a serious desire for change in SEIU’s direction. Other large locals in New York, California and Canada quickly followed suit. Some key arguments were those outlined by the four SEIU International Executive Vice-Presidents Hudson, Medina, Woodruff and Regan in their letter endorsing Henry (consensus building, team effort, respect for diversity, and above all re-establishing SEIU’s relationships with the rest of the labor and progressive communities). The other motivation appears to have been to focus more on the priority of organizing, viewing the exercise of political influence primarily as a tool for building a stronger voice for union members.

So, is there momentum for real change within SEIU or isn’t there? Changing the course of “SEIU Titanic” is neither easy nor fast, even if some of its junior officers and crew sense icebergs looming ahead. But merely reshuffling the chairs on its deck will not avoid the bergs in SEIU’s trajectory. One is SEIU’s growing financial obligations, fueled by the costs of fighting two simultaneous wars against Unite Here and the NUHW and the arrears in dues payments from locals hit hard by state and local budget cuts. Another is the worsening climate for passing labor law reforms that would make it easier to organize new members. SEIU’s alienation from many in the labor and progressive communities will grow so long as it props up the moribund Change To Win coalition, feuds with Unite Here, and continues blocking representation elections that would enable California healthcare workers to choose between SEIU and NUHW (not the best advertisement for EFCA!).

I am not overly concerned that Mary Kay Henry and other SEIU leaders who support her are insiders who were loyal followers of Andy Stern. No one expects them to denounce his legacy, or abandon the more positive policies that have built SEIU into a formidable political and organizational force. But it is easier to rethink failed policies when leadership changes, and it is possible that more than cosmetic changes will emerge from SEIU’s International Executive Board in the coming months. These may well include more collegial leadership, greater decentralization, and respect for diverse opinions. We could also see a settlement of the conflict with Unite Here, and phasing out the remnant of Change To Win.

What I hope for, but do not dare expect, is a positive resolution of California’s civil war with the NUHW. As Steve Early points out, Mary Kay Henry and her supporters among the Executive Vice-Presidents may be too personally committed to that battle. The best hope for SEIU reform is a decisive NUHW victory in union representational elections against SEIU at Kaiser Permanente and other hospital chains. That could provide a salutary shock and unblock the path to deeper reforms within SEIU.

The membership of SEIU and the larger progressive movement need the resources and officers of the SEIU to be available for positive campaigning, and no longer committed to the sterile distractions of internecine warfare. Let’s have Eliseo Medina fully freed up to struggle for immigration law reform, Gerry Hudson embodying his vision of a broader movement for social justice, and all the other skilled and experienced organizers in SEIU fighting the good fights, and not the bad ones.

Source: Talking Union