Monday, April 14, 2008

Just Taking Care of Business


In a press release issued via Fox Business News, the SEIU union leadership has applauded its own actions over the weekend, without going into too much detail about what happened. It seems that several hundred members of the SEIU union (America's biggest organiser of healthcare workers) stormed a Labor Notes conference and attacked participants. According to a press release from the California Nurses Association (CNA), several conference participants were punched and kicked and one woman injured as a result. Some of what happened is described by Labor Notes. What's going on? Several things, apparently. The SEIU leadership is increasingly bent on a model of business unionism, cutting sweet-heart deals with employers that rule out strike action and promise to increase the bottom line. It means imposing such templates from the centre and expecting local affiliates to comply. It also includes loyalty oaths being imposed on members by the leadership. Though anti-democratic and disempowering local workers, it seems to be a vision that inspires some admiration at Business Week. This has produced a rift in the organisation with a layer of workers demanding a more militant and democratic approach. So, it seems that several SEIU members were present at this conference, whose purpose was to establish a viable strategy for effective unionism. Also present were members of the CNA, who have long been in a dispute with the SEIU over its timid politics and strategy, with complaints summarised here. The SEIU, including the dissident faction led by Sal Rosseli, charges that the CNA aggressively undermines SEIU recruitment and organising efforts. Following a negotiated truce in which the two unions agreed to keep to respective geographical areas of strength, the war of attrition has continued, and the SEIU is now engaged in an aggressive campaign against the CNA and its national off-shoot, the NNOC. The SEIU dissidents are refusing to have anything to do with it, considering their tactics a form of union-busting. The SEIU leaders, and several hundred loyal members, clearly saw this weekend's efforts as a defense of the union's interests and long-term strategy. The current SEIU leader, Andy Stern, is adored in much of the media ("charismatic", "firebrand"), but doesn't appear to have much to recommend him. Promises of explosive growth thanks to a brilliant new strategy to one side, he seems to be a leader very much in the mould of his predecessor John Sweeney, and not a great deal different from past advocates of business unionism such as George Meany or Lane Kirkland. A former Shachtmanite of sorts (a much abused term, I admit), he is one of these assholes that talks about the 'American Dream', and getting the country 'back on track', while cuddling the Democratic Party hierarchy. He and his coterie are hardened political fighters, so they know what they're doing when they hammer internal dissent, abolish democratic structures built by the grassroots, and lead aggressive campaigns against other unions. The technical term is 'taking care of business'.