avatar
SEIU Buys its Own Version of History


In the last five years, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has gone from being a media darling to generating more bad press for itself than any other labor organization. Some of SEIU’s negative publicity is a product of right-wing union bashing. But a huge amount is self-inflicted – the result of conflicts with other unions, internal corruption scandals, and unseemly battles with its own members in California. 

 

To bolster its fading progressive brand, SEIU commissioned a documentary film in 2008 called "Labor Day." Several million dollars worth of members’ dues money later, "Labor Day" was dead on arrival. Now, SEIU has published a slick $25 coffee table book called Stronger Together: The Story of SEIU. Among its many questionable claims is that Andy Stern’s meddling in the UNITE HERE divorce led to “attacks on SEIU by other unions,” a unique perspective on that dispute, to say the least.

 

Among true believers at SEIU headquarters in Washington, hope springs eternal in the self-promotion department, just as it does in Hollywood. The fact that one narcissistic project has crashed and burned doesn’t mean the next one will be a dog too. If people don’t want to watch a movie about SEIU, maybe they’ll buy book a book about it – like a 276-page, largely wart-free organizational portrait penned by the husband of the union’s general counsel?

 

Thanks to a further expenditure of dues money (the full scale of which won’t be revealed until SEIU files its financial disclosure form with the Labor Department next year) and a Vermont publisher not previously known as a vanity press, we now have a fitting sequel to "Labor Day." Cobbled together, with lots of headquarters help, the book takes "Labor Day" director Glenn Silber’s heroic narrative (about how SEIU single-handedly elected Barack Obama “to change the direction of the economy and the country”) and adds 34 more chapters to round out the union’s history.

 

Unfortunately, too much of the new material is equally self-congratulatory or factually challenged. Even the fact that someone other than SEIU published the book is now in dispute. In the acknowledgements, author Don Stillman thanks "Chelsea Green Publishing, which published Stronger Together."  But, after this review was first posted, Chelsea Green president Margo Baldwin sent an email insisting that her press is only the "distributor"–despite its name being on the back cover, the spine, the copyright and title pages of the book, plus an accompanying press release about it.  

 

If Stronger Together was your only source of information about SEIU, it would certainly make any union-minded reader a big fan of what Andy Stern once called his “Purple Army.” There has been, in the past, much to admire about SEIU and, in some areas of organizing strategy, for others to emulate. (My own alma mater, CWA, certainly did, in at least one major campaign that I assisted.)

 

 Stillman highlights the kind of creative organizing, bargaining, political action, and community coalition-building that most distinguished SEIU, in a positive way, from the rest of the pack. Justice for Janitors, child-care and home care worker campaigns, support for immigrant rights, green jobs, jousting with Wal-Mart, protecting hospital workers from needle-stick injuries –it’s all there, along with a whole chapter on how SEIU came to embrace the color purple. (Not just any old shade, mind you, but Pantone 268c exclusively.)

 

Stillman argues that the union’s corporate-style branding campaign was critical to raising its public profile and creating a common union identity for a disparate membership composed of nearly 2 million health care workers, public employees, janitors, security guards, and others. It’s when his book deals with crucial matters of substance, rather than form – like the thorny controversies of today, not SEIU’s past glory – that Stronger Together begins to lose credibility fast.

 

The author once aspired to a higher calling in the field of labor journalism – and greater candor about union-related topics – than his current “work for hire” would indicate. As editor of the rank-and-file paper, The Miner’s Voice, Don Stillman helped union dissidents in Miners for Democracy (MFD) topple the murderous dictatorship of Tony Boyle in the United Mine Workers (UMW) four decades ago. After the MFD’s election victory in 1972, he headed an editorial team at the United Mine Workers Journal (that I was privileged to be part of and that, more prominently, included the renowned photo-journalist Earl Dotter and future SEIU and Teamsters communications director Matt Witt).

 

In 1975, the Journal managed to win a National Magazine Award for our investigative reporting on coal industry issues – a rare honor for a union rag (and a testament to Don’s close ties to the Columbia School of Journalism, which doles out those prestigious NMAs.) We tried, wherever possible, to cover internal controversies, member complaints, and union setbacks, instead of just touting what everyone knew, in real life, was not an endless stream of UMW “victories” (in an era when that union even had a few).

 

The fact that coal miners could find, in their Journal, more than just front-to-back pictures of the top officialdom, along with flattering transcriptions of their every word and deed, gave us some street cred and a more engaged readership than most labor publications enjoy. The always-looming gap between union rhetoric and workplace reality was actually narrowed a bit, at least for a while.

 

With its glossy paper, nice color photos, clean lay-out and many true-to-life SEIU war stories to retell, Stronger Together is definitely a cut above Labor Day, which The Village Voice dismissed as "a crappy infomercial" and" members-only viewing." (Even Andy Stern, who commissioned the film, was panning it recently in The Washington Post.) But given who is footing the bill for this official history, the author’s own lucrative past consulting work for Andy, and his other personal ties to SEIU (his wife Judy Scott, is the union’s top lawyer), it’s not surprising that Stronger Together so often reads like an extended SEIU press release.

 

Producing a book, for internal union consumption, with the look and feel of a labor “family album,” fully-airbrushed and leadership friendly, is no heavy lifting for a writer and editor of Stillman’s ability. Overcoming the skepticism, anger and concern that has been aroused, among so many SEIU members and friends, by its multi-faceted misbehavior in recent years, is quite another journalistic challenge. And the Don Stillman of today – now a comfortable Washington, D.C. labor insider and well-paid SEIU consultant – doesn’t even try to meet it.

 

Instead, he makes sure that the beatific visage of Mary Kay Henry, the union’s new president, appears more often than any other in the book, by far. Stillman also helps burnish her resume for the job she was held since May by providing Mary Kay-centric accounts of campaigns like the “Breakthrough At Catholic Healthcare West."

 

At CHW, a lot of the real work on the ground to win a “fair elections deal” and thousands of new members was done by folks now in the rival National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). But since Stern seized control over United Healthcare Workers (UHW) – an action taken to “expand accountability,” according to Stillman – these ex-UHW activists have been consigned to SEIU’s version of what George Orwell, in 1984, called “the memory hole.” In the chapter on Catholic Healthcare West, there’s even a picture of the organizing committee at Seton Medical Center that has former UHW leaders cropped out of it.

 

Some of Stronger Together’s shortcomings in the area of truth and memory are on display in chapters dealing with fellow unions, not just its own former organizers. Who knew, for example, that Change To Win was still doing so well as a robust alternative to the larger federation headed by Rich Trumka? Stillman’s chapter on Stern’s bid to “reform the AFL-CIO or build something stronger” reads like it was written during the 2005 labor movement split, a period of CTW euphoria that didn’t last long. The author fails to note that two of the seven Change To Win founding unions have quit since then, with one (UNITE HERE) returning to the AFL-CIO. Nor does his account acknowledge the general consensus that, despite all its PR sound and fury at the time, the split really hasn’t changed much – other than reducing the dues income of the national AFL-CIO and the per capita dues burden of the five unions still paying less to CTW.

 

In Stronger Together, we also get no sense of the rank-and-file backlash against SEIU’s own “transformative “ restructuring – imposed via forced mergers of local unions, dysfunctional trusteeships, and related suppression of membership rights. If any group of workers ever tries to flee SEIU, it’s not because they’re unhappy about such things; they’ve just been misled, by external or internal evildoers engaged in a “brazen raid.”

 

For example, Stillman informs us that the Canadian Auto Workers tried to distract SEIU from its “growth course” north of the border with a “fracas” that left it “with fewer members.” 14,000 fewer members, to be exact. And they only turned to a new union when Stern, against their wishes, tried to merge multiple locals in Ontario and imposed an unpopular trusteeship to achieve his goal. Elsewhere in Stronger Together, we learn that the current and much larger potential exodus from SEIU – in California health care – is basically the work of an equally pernicious pied piper named Sal Rosselli. After Rosselli’s “secret” anti-SEIU plotting was exposed and he was ousted from UHW through another Stern trusteeship in 2009, “the local quickly shifted to a member-focused union that was winning major gains for its members.”

 

SEIU better ship copies of Stronger Together out to California right away, in bulk, because thousands of care-givers at Kaiser have just decided that the way to make “major gains” there is by holding the biggest NLRB election since the 1940s (covering 45,000 workers) and switching to NUHW.

 

Among Stillman’s more glaring omissions is any mention of SEIU’s own widespread and much-condemned “raiding.” There’s a whole chapter on its “successful organizing” in Puerto Rico, but nothing about its failed attempt to replace the 40,000-member FMPR, the island’s largest union. This squalid adventure was much touted at SEIU’s 2008 convention in San Juan, which featured a keynote address by the governor, who had tried to crush the left-led teachers’ organization after a militant strike. FMPR’s defeat of SEIU—in balloting that it was excluded from–ended up costing members on the mainland many millions of dollars and further tarnished the union’s reputation, here and there.

 

Stillman’s account of the implosion of SEIU’s alliance with UNITE HERE in the “multiservices sector” makes you wonder why he didn’t just give John Wilhelm’s union the FMPR treatment. Clearly, pouring millions of dues dollars down the drain, in an inter-union battle that wreaked havoc within the progressive wing of labor, is better explained not at all. But here’s Don’s take on the UNITE HERE divorce and SEIU’s completely innocent role in it:

 

"The merger of UNITE HERE collapsed in 2009. About 100,000 members largely, from the former UNITE, then joined SEIU as ‘Workers United.’ The break-up UNITE HERE came about because of difficulties within that union. The move of Workers United to SEIU proved very contentious and led to attacks on SEIU by other unions. SEIU repeatedly sought a negotiated settlement… but no agreement had been reached as this book went to press."

 

Attacks on SEIU by other unions? Perhaps Don is losing track of his time frame here and describing (what SEIU used to call, in 2007-8) “attacks” by the always-menacing California Nurses Association, a union 25 times smaller than SEIU? Of course, that odd couple kissed and made up a year ago, and began coordinating their organizing at Healthcare Corporation of America in Texas and other states. Their so-far successful joint venture is never mentioned in the book –perhaps because the truce between them is fraying in Florida or an equally torturous re-writing of CNA-SEIU history would be required to explain it all?

 

One thing that is impressive about Stronger Together is its solicitation of feedback from readers who spot an inaccuracy or other problem.” In the book’s preface, they are urged to send any comments or corrections to seiu.book@gmail.com [2]. My query, already sent to that address but with no reply yet, raises the question of money – as in how much the author was paid for SEIU’s latest publishing venture?

 

Thanks to L.A. Times reporter Paul Pringle, we know that SEIU or an associated non-profit paid Stillman $210,000 (over four years) to help Stern write his own 2006 memoir-cum-policy tract, A Country That Works, and knock out another SEIU-subsidized collection called Since Sliced Bread: Common Sense Ideas From America’s Working Families in 2007. Stronger Together draws heavily on “Organizational Change at SEIU: 1996-2009,” a yet-to-be-released report by three Rutgers University academics and a Washington, D.C. labor consultant. Don describes their document as an “independent study,” even though the authors (or their institutions) received about $650,000 for this and other SEIU-related work between 2005 and 2008.

 

Yet no two defenders of the union have received as much total SEIU funding as Don and Judy Scott, his spouse. Judy was a key legal architect of the UHW take-over, and related litigation, that Don describes so dispassionately in Stronger Together. (In footnote #168, we are assured that “Scott recused herself” from any involvement with the book and had attorneys who report to her conduct an arms length “legal review” of it.) As a Washington, D.C., power couple (in labor circles at least), their joint journalistic and legal endeavors on behalf of SEIU leaders are a marvel of inside-the-Beltway synergy. Once the salaried head of the union’s legal department, she now works far more lucratively as an “outside” general counsel for SEIU and partner in the Washington, D.C. firm of “super lawyers” known as James & Hoffman.

 

Scott’s firm was one of four involved in the controversial lawsuit against NUHW and its founders, which has cost SEIU members nearly $10 million so far but produced a damage award of only $1.5 million (now being appealed). For its invaluable work on that case and other SEIU matters, James & Hoffman received more than $2 million last year (and, as of December 31, was still owed another half million); Scott’s personal salary and benefits in 2009, for her SEIU work alone, was more than $240,000. Her share of the firm’s profits added nearly $90,000 to that. And then we also have a more cryptic SEIU LM-2 report entry for 2009 indicating that the author in the Scott-Stillman household was paid more than $90,000 by SEIU for “Support for Organizing.”

 

In other words, Don and Judy are definitely among those who, as the back cover of Stronger Together proclaims, “have won a better future for themselves and their family through SEIU.” The economic condition of many SEIU dues-payers in California is far more precarious, which is why putting a convincing shine on all things Pantone 268c is not easy here – on screen or in a book.

 

 

Steve Early got his start in labor journalism as a staff member of the United Mine Workers Journal. He later worked for 27 years as an organizer for the Communications Workers of America. He is the author of two books: Embedded with Organized Labor  (Monthly Review Press, 2009) and the The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (forthcoming from Haymarket Books next year).

Leave a comment