This is our second post looking at the SEIU convention now underway in Detroit. Please see our previous post and our Facebook posts for some additional details.
Most union conventions are stage-managed affairs with outcomes determined by the leadership well in advance of the convention. Many years ago a prominent New York labor leader told me that its the conversations in the hallways that determine the outcome and not the parliamentary process inside the convention that matters.
There is a coincidence of events this year as the SEIU convention and other union conventions are held during the political campaigns and primaries. A few good unions have given support to Sanders and, perhaps more importantly, to Tim Canova as well. Canova did an excellent interview on NPR today and highlighted union support for his position. Labor is in a difficult position while treading in these waters and a generational and experiential gap is clearly evident among unions: an older generation of generally compliant union leaders helped construct the super delegate system and change the primaries system, short-circuiting democratic processes, while a younger generation of labor folks concentrated in the unions which are either growing or holding their own by fighting back against anti-union moves often reject the super delegate system and lean noticeably left. The Canova campaign and Oregon's Dave McTeague campaign both illustrate this in broad strokes. The weak point for labor is shown when union members ask why unions have an internal highly-structured form of the super delegate system at work which limits their options within their unions. It would seem that changing one logically leads to questions about changing the other.
Union conventions afford union leaders and staff to do several things which buttress their positions and insure their longevity in office. There are the obvious matters of governing, formally passing on rules and policies which give the bureaucracies their staying power. There is the planning mechanism; every viable organization needs a plan and the means to carry it out. There is the demonstration of political support; having Hilary Clinton or Kate Brown show up and validate union leadership works at least most of the time and tends to help flatten opposition. But beyond all of that are the perks that union leadership are able to provide to usually-favored members and what they get for their trouble.
Going to a union convention is a big deal, and anyone chosen to go should feel pride and take the responsibility seriously. From a leadership position, however, there is something transactional in all of this: we're sending you somewhere and we expect your gratitude and your vote, we know that some of your coworkers will express opposition or pessimism about your union work and we need to see how you handle this, we are assessing you and testing your leadership skills and the door to doing more work or getting more perks or getting a staff job is open to you if we're satisfied with you. Very few leaders and staff say this openly, but the message is sent. From a leadership perspective this is understood as internal union organizing. It can often be mistaken for self-preservation and building a wall. The parallels between this and what the Democratic Party super delegates are doing is obvious.
On the other hand, the SEIU Local 503 convention member delegates are not all "on program" and are not all respected or trusted by 503 leadership. They are good and courageous people with their feet on the ground and the most important matter here is that most of them have the deserved love and respect of their co-workers. They know the limits imposed on them by their situation: last year overall public sector 503 membership was at a healthy 75% and care provider membership stood at about 62% and, as a former 503 executive director said, there was little or no contact between the union and perhaps 80% of the represented workers. Perhaps 12% of 503 public sector members donated to the political program at that point, but something like 22% of the low-paid care providers also donated to the union's political program. The fix made was to change the opt-out process in order to block members from leaving and to send staff in to raise the number of people donating to CAPE and the amounts they give and to monitor the staff numbers and productivity. This wasn't organizing, but it did drive up the numbers and created an important change on paper.
Meanwhile, SEIU Local 503 Executive Director Heather Conroy was understood to say by some union staff that she favored taking "just cause" provisions out of the public sector contracts, and the contract covering homecare and personal support workers contained a phased-in advance to $15 an hour but also allowed for reconfigured paydays and came at a time when there were big cutbacks on the numbers of people working and the hours they are authorized to work underway. It is difficult to assess if the last rounds of contract negotiations were as successful as they were initially said to have been.
Prep work on the union's upcoming General Council began early, with staff getting two messages: the union will be restructured or "rebranded" in order to meet conditions imposed by right-to-work court cases, and public sector workers are now a minority within 503 and so there will be a turn towards care providers---and especially homecare workers---taking on more leadership. With the death of Justice Scalia union members were demobilized. The decentralized nature of homecare work,the lack of a base for accountable leadership from the homecare sub-local and the large CAPE donations coming from those workers makes a turn towards homecare workers especially attractive to union leadership and staff.
There is a push-pull between internal union statistics, union governance and democracy, union staff and leadership and the membership and the terms of the contracts which get negotiated at Local 503. The active members and progressive staff should be applauded for their work, resiliency and courage under these conditions. Local 503 remains a hopeful and liberal beacon in Oregon's labor movement.
This will be Heather Conroy's last SEIU convention and 503 General Council as Executive Director as she is moving on to a job at the International Union. Her position will no doubt be filled by Brian Rudiger, now the Public Services Director at Local 503. Rudiger has been at Local 503 for a few years and it has been generally assumed that he came to Oregon in order to eventually take the Executive Director position and assure continuity with SEIU's program as the union transitions from being a traditional union to something else. Not all union members seem thrilled with Rudiger's ascendancy and there is a bit of panic on staff about opposition to his candidacy, but he is certain to win and take charge. He and Jim Bakken, another appointed leader, do a great job of buddying-up with staff and keeping opposition to a minimum. If staff don't get the message from those interactions, they may be sensitized to the price of opposition after hearing that SEIU recently broke a staff union. And both Rudiger and Bakken took a strong lesson from the past and got family members into the union staff circles. When Huey Long was asked why he hired relatives to work in Louisiana state government he reportedly said, "You wouldn't want me to hire strangers, would you?"
A stage-managed union convention and General Council are not the worst things, of course. Both can make valuable decisions and contributions and serve as starting points for organizing. Conventions and General Councils are often quickly forgotten and many of their decisions are shelved in light of new developments and questions of workload and capacity in any case. The problem is that a union has a much harder climb if the members are not engaged in the union's daily life, and the hectic stop-and-start which comes with stage-managed conventions and their aftermaths burns energy and resources which should go into fighting the bosses.
With all of this going on---and much more---it would be helpful to hear more about the possibility of a merger of some kind between SEIU and AFSCME and the problems SEIU is having relating to the more progressive UNITE HERE union. An attempt in Oregon to merge SEIU locals 49 and 503 met hard resistance from public sector members in Local 503 for both positive and negative reasons and came as a blow to Conroy's leadership. That blow perhaps accounts in part for the growing attempt by Local 503 top leadership to sideline the public sector sub-locals. Union officials have long memories and it is difficult to imagine that Local 503 officials will be enthusiastic about a merger with AFSCME or any move which strengthens public sector sub-locals.
Some unions and labor groups practice democracy and provide working models for democracy, member leadership and forward movement. The United Electrical Workers, National Nurses United and a few others do great in these areas. The Labor Notes conferences show us that people want to participate, learn and act in exciting new ways. Labor for Bernie Sanders is keeping a dream alive. The Association for Union Democracy and Teamsters for a Democratic Union have both been keeping the flame of union democracy burning for many years and modeling best practices.