by Susan Rosenthal
(Updated at: War in the House of Labor )
The American medical system ruins people’s lives for profit. Fortunately, union organizing drives in the medical industry are enjoying a higher-than-average rate of success. Unfortunately, two major health workers’ unions, the California Nurses Association (CNA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are at war – a term used by both sides. CNA accuses SEIU of making deals with management that hurt workers, and SEIU accuses CNA of sabotaging its union drives.
This is a real battle. The CNA website posts a sign on its home page, "Had it with SEIU? Work for a REAL union." To protest the CNA, hundreds of SEIU members physically stormed the Labor Notes conference in Detroit on April 12.
Cynics view this war as reason to dismiss all unions. That’s a huge mistake. Workers need unions to counter the relentless greed of business. Employers, politicians and the mainstream media consistently attack unions because even the worst ones block bosses from having complete control of the workplace.
Statistics show that unionized workers are more likely to have medical coverage, pension benefits and protection from sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal. Areas with more unions enjoy higher wages, longer life spans, lower infant death rates, better education and less poverty.
American unions were so powerful in the 1930s that employers needed Washington’s help to crush them. Today, after decades of union busting, fewer than eight percent of private-sector workers are in unions, the lowest rate in over a century. Moreover, the remaining unions have been transformed from fighting organizations controlled by workers to bureaucratic organizations dominated by middle-class professionals. For most Americans, the result has been a steady decline in working and living standards.
The battle between SEIU and CNA arose in the context of renewed efforts to defend workers’ rights and centers on three disputes over how to organize:
Should medical facilities be organized wall-to-wall (SEIU includes all health workers) or by trade (nurses in one union and support staff in another)? Wall-to-wall or industrial unions have more power to fight management than craft-based unions. However, in practice, workers organize as best they can in the particular circumstances they face.
Another concern is whether management should be involved in the process of union certification. Labor-management collaboration is generally opposed because it favors management. However, every union contract is a form of labor-management collaboration. SEIU and CNA differ in where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable degrees of collaboration.
The third issue is the extent to which unions should be controlled from the top-down or the bottom-up. A rank-and-file rebellion inside SEIU, United Health Workers-West (UHW) is pushing for more democracy through one-member-one-vote. CNA is using this split to press its case that SEIU is a business union that doesn’t represent workers’ interests. However, UHW also condemns CNA for its top-down sabotage of SEIU union drives.
Instead of debating these issues in a way that would benefit all workers, the leaders of SEIU and CNA are conducting a divisive turf war that is harming the entire labor movement.
In any conflict, there is pressure to take sides. Supporters of CNA insist that it is a more progressive and democratic union than SEIU. The leaders of CNA talk left and have taken a public role in fighting for national medicare. However, in Ohio and on other occasions, CNA leaders have gone over the heads of SEIU rank-and-file workers to dictate what should happen in a particular workplace. That’s not democratic.
Those who favor SEIU point to its proud history of organizing immigrant workers (Janitors for Justice) and supporting social reforms. However, top leaders in SEIU have also functioned undemocratically. The split inside SEIU was provoked when head office moved to silence debate within the union.
Recent labor coverage has favored CNA, especially after busloads of SEIU members stormed the recent Labor Notes conference. A good example is Steve Early’s article in Counterpunch (http://www.counterpunch.org/early04152008.html ). Early begins by calling SEIU protestors a "rowdy, punch-throwing, rent-a-mob."
I was inside (and later outside) the Labor Notes banquet hall when SEIU members tried to break through the doors. Such tactics must be condemned. However, this was no "rent-a-mob." Most were ordinary union members, including families with small children, most looking poor and many of them Black. I am certain they boarded those buses to defend their union. If they knew they were going to be in a fight, they would have left the kids at home. One SEIU member died of a heart attack, and another union militant suffered a head wound.
This tragedy was created by the leaders of both unions, who are pitting their members against one another.
I attended several meetings at Labor Notes, where activists from SEIU and CNA expressed their grievances against each other’s unions. I concluded that both sides have legitimate concerns. At the end of his article, Early acknowledges the same, by favorably quoting a member of UHW,
Many participants, who can fairly be described as members of the labor left and generally suspicious of top union leaders, were actually very sympathetic to the SEIU’s grievance against CNA surrounding the events in Ohio.
Sadly, Early concludes by returning to his condemnation of SEIU as the moral loser of the latest round in a continuing battle. However, he never mentions why the Labor Notes conference was attacked.
Labor Notes invited the President of CNA to be the keynote speaker at its conference banquet. By promoting CNA, Labor Notes invited the rage of SEIU.
To preserve good relations with both unions, Labor Notes should have invited representatives from both unions to speak and encouraged organized debate on the issues that divide them. Instead, Labor Notes made the same mistake that most of the left is making – taking the liberal position of choosing between right and left bureaucrats.
In any union, leaders should be supported ONLY so far as they represent the interests of the rank-and-file. By this measure, the leaders of SEIU and CNA both fail because their ongoing battle has crippled organizing efforts at several sites, to the benefit of management.
Moreover, the polarization created by this conflict has undermined democratic forces in both unions who are accused of being "on the other side."
The only real alternative is to stand up for rank and file unity, for class solidarity.
Today's labor unions are cross-class organizations, being both working-class organizations of self-defense and part of the management system of capitalism. Most union members are working-class (the rank and file), while most union officials are salaried professionals who negotiate with employers to set the terms of exploitation. Turf wars for union recognition arise from this class conflict.
Because most unions are run like businesses, from the top down, more members means more money and more power for union bureaucrats. They want this power to gain more leverage at the negotiating table. That’s why leaders of different unions compete to represent a workplace or group of workers instead of pooling resources and cooperating. Inter-union rivalry is usually justified by claims that one union is better at representing workers than the other. However, divisions between unions only weaken the ability of all workers to stand up to management.
Over the past few decades, rank-and-file workers in different industries have pushed for more militant and democratic unions controlled by members, from the bottom up. Such worker self-organization is opposed by bureaucrats because their power to negotiate with management rests on their ability to control the ranks.
Struggles for rank-and-file control of unions offer a different kind of power, one that rests on the ability of workers to stop production. Because all workers have similar concerns, worker-controlled organizations have the potential to unite workers across divisions of union, workplace and industry and do what bureaucrats have never been able to achieve: build a labor movement strong enough to reverse decades of defeats and concessions.
During the Labor Notes conference, as accusations flew between CNA and SEIU, Patricia Campbell of the Independent Workers Union of Ireland (IWE) stated. "You must stop fighting among each other and unite. You need to kick out the bureaucrats in both your unions. That's the only way you can advance your struggle for patients’ and workers’ rights."
She is right. In each workplace, rank-and-file workers must decide how they organize: whether in wall-to-wall groupings or by trade; and the extent to which they collaborate with management and with other unions. Free and full debate must be encouraged, with votes binding on all. Such self-organization is critical to build workers’ confidence and create unions powerful enough to win real gains.
Of course, people make mistakes in any process. That is no reason to deny them the right to decide what happens at work and in their lives.
Right or wrong, and regardless of their intentions, no union official has the right to IMPOSE policy on rank-and-file workers without their consent. This is just as true for CNA as it is for SEIU. To move forward, workers in SEIU and CNA must build on-the-ground unity, based on common class concerns.
For a more detailed class analysis of unions, see POWER and Powerlessness, Chapter 13. "Decide Which Side You're On." Available at www.powerandpowerlessness.com