Monday, October 26, 2009

UniteHere write to UNISON about the SEIU

My half-term activities have been briefly interrupted by an interesting letter from John Wilhelm, President of US trade union Unite Here to our General Secretary Dave Prentis concerning our cooperation with the Service Employees International Union (the SEIU) on the Three Companies Project.

Mr Wilhelm warns of "the SEIU’s unprecedented attack on our union, which has isolated SEIU within the US labor movement and alienated many of its community allies".

He goes on as follows;

"Beginning last fall, if not earlier, Andy Stern and other top SEIU officers helped coordinate a plan to split UNITE HERE members, remove assets and later announced their intention to organize “competitively” in UNITE HERE’s core hotel, gaming and food service sectors. SEIU officers, including Tom Woodruff and Mike Fishman, have been involved in various stages of this effort, including advocating secession at UNITE HERE membership meetings earlier this year.

Their tactics, the likes of which we would expect only from anti-union employers, include sending
mailers to our members throughout North America suggesting that we are neglecting our membership while we defend our union from SEIU’s attacks, directing robo-calls and live calls to our members’ homes, and attacking our union and its leadership through front groups and attack websites. Worse, SEIU has attempted to raid our current membership through attempts to raid existing UNITE HERE units as they are currently doing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where we have long represented 2,300 school cafeteria workers. This summer, SEIU even stooped to disrupting new hotel organizing campaigns in Arizona and Texas".

Whilst I have made clear previously that I can see no principled objection to UNISON working with SEIU in order to learn from their organising tactics, this significant approach from another trade union poses important new questions which need to be answered.

For example Mr Wihelm suggests that SEIU currently organise relatively few workers in the three companies who are the subject of the joint organising project with UNISON - and makes concrete and alarming allegations about how the SEIU have gone about organising in those companies in what he describes as a failed partnership with Unite Here (Service Workers United - SWU);

"The Big 3 companies were allowed to determine sites the unions could organize – making it impossible to build significant union density in any particular city or region or position workers to fight for better standards.
Boilerplate contracts locked workers into substandard agreements – and created situations where workers organized under the SWU agreement, earning low wages with minimal benefits, are working side-by-side with other union members who had won significantly higher contractual standards from the same employer.
Woodruff designed SWU in part to bypass our existing strong food service locals (similar to your regional offices), which had the effect of limiting worker involvement in their union. Instead, SWU members are directed to a New York-based call center for help with grievances and problems on the job. This is hardly a way to build strong local leadership or high standards.
SWU abandoned the system of “lined-up” or coordinated collective bargaining agreement expirations, which had been a major source of leverage for workers in this industry in cities with significant union density. (In North America, collective agreements re-open every few years and must be renegotiated with employers. For years prior to the partnership with SEIU, workers had
fought to line-up their contract expirations in New York City, New England and other areas, as a means of maximizing their bargaining leverage.)"

These criticisms have been widely voiced.

As an aside this system of organising in conjunction with private employers and of a top down union bypassing its own democratic structures is the sort of thing we have to beware of in our Union, where I can see its easy appeal to those whose priority is the union as an institution rather than an organisation to pursue workers' interests.

I have written to the Project Sponsor for the Three Companies project to ask about UNISON's response. I do not think we should walk away from joint work with the SEIU just because they may have done some dodgy things (allegedly). However I do think that UNISON could follow the lead of twenty six leaders of US trade unions who have signed a statement in support of Unite Here following the raids on that union by the SEIU.

This statement commits signatories as follows;
"We pledge to support Unite Here, both materially and morally, against a raid by any union against Unite Here members, or workers in Unite Here’s industry jurisdictions.
We further pledge our support for Unite Here if any employer seeks to take advantage of the current situation, especially if an employer forces a strike or lockout.
We urge an amicable, quick settlement of the current conflict".

Signatories include the President of another sister union of UNISON - AFSCME who was one of the first fifteen signatories.

Some similar statement (from UNISON) of support for Unite Here in the face of the conduct of the SEIU as described by Mr Wilhelm would now seem to be appropriate.

Details of the allegations against the SEIU are available online at a site hosted by Unite Here.

Update Tuesday morning - an alternative (pro SEIU and anti Unite Here) view is also online here.

Update Thursday evening. Dave Prentis replied to the letter yesterday to make the following points;

First he is concerned that the letter was sent directly to members of the NEC (who are, after all, only the governing body of the Union...)

Secondly, the "three companies" project is just an organising project under the auspices of the IUF catering group with which the SEIU are helping UNISON with expertise rather than resources.

Thirdly, the dispute between the SEIU and UNITE HERE is not a matter for UNISON and if our assistance is wanted an approach should be made by the AFL-CIO to the TUC.

Given the global aspirations of the SEIU - and that the principles of trade unionism are international - I think this may lead to further questions at our next NEC.

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