The Truth About SEIU’s 21st Century Company Unionism – A View from the Inside

A friend of mine who is also a long time trade unionist drew my attention to a series of posts on Talking Union, the labor blog of the Democratic Socialists of America, to which we both belong.

Leaders of the rebel SEIU union local United Health Care Workers West – a good and militant democratic union – have been debating with fake-leftist posers who are cronies of the corrupt Andy Stern clique that runs the international SEIU. The dueling posts can be found here:

The two fake leftists responding from the Stern side are Eliseo Medina, who is unfortunately is an honorary chair of DSA, and Gerry Hudson. The honest trade unionist Paul Kumar (who also has a history with DSA) responds from the UHW side.

The debates were prompted by the Stern gang’s moves to put the rebels under trusteeship (with Stern puppet Ray Marshall pretending to offer a fair and balanced opinion after being put in place as the judge by Andy Stern).

DSA leader Paul Garver has also written some posts on the issues, attempting to take a mediating position between both sides.

My friend, Andy English, did a 2 and a half year stint working for the SEIU purple plague and he described his sojourn with the Stern cult in horrifying terms.

I left another union to work for SEIU international, in the South-Southwest region over which Medina presides. I was shocked and disillusioned by what I discovered.

What I discovered is an organization that has institutionalized (and centralized) hypocrisy, cynicism and dishonesty to a degree unprededented in the American labor movement. The closest comparison I can think of is to the old stalinist ruling parties of the Soviet bloc. And SEIU is run on the same “principle” of “democratic centralism.” The slightest deviation from the “party line” of Andy Stern leads to retaliation. There is an atmosphere throughout the organization that is intolerant of dissent, and a culture of fear and intimidation among the frontline staff. The personality cult of Stern is pervasive (and supplemented in the south-southwest region by the lesser personality cult of Medina).

SEIU poses to outsiders as the most progressive left-wing union in the USA. Internally what they tell staff is much different.

First of all, they dismiss all other unions as irrelevant, bad, out-dated, stuck in the past, and just horrible. They tell staff that nothing can be learned from other unions, that only Andy Stern and the leadership around him knows what to do. This includes the other Change to Win unions. They make fun especially of UFCW and the Teamsters.

They tell SEIU staff that “we don’t do representation”, that workers’ grievances are unimportant, that “disgruntled” workers with grievances are probably guilty of something and the union should “add value” by helping the boss get rid of them. They accuse other unions of being “needlessly adversarial” and “against partnership”. Shop floor stewards are not needed and can be replaced with call centers. We don’t want militant workers in the leadership, we want “happy, shiny” workers who love their bosses to be the leaders. (The first time I heard this from my SEIU manager I was completely nauseated, as someone who’s actually worked in blue collar jobs. Only an obnoxious yuppie could even think this, much less utter these words.)

I was on one public sector campaign where we were directed to submit the text of a leaflet to the employer for his approval before we could print it, and not to agitate the workers over economic issues like pay and health insurance that they cared about, but to only talk about “partnership”. Behind the scenes they continued to beg the elected officials for recognition, but because of their weak-kneed brown-nosing approach, the organizing committee was tiny, and the employer just ignored the begging.

I saw SEIU continually seek to cut secret backroom deals with employers behind the backs of workers.

I saw them spin and exaggerate minor victories to the point of absurdity and try to steal credit for lobbying victories of other unions. I saw them blatantly lie to the press about membership figures.

I was in one meeting where they talked about positioning themselves to curry favor with local business leaders and the chamber of commerce by deliberately putting forward the most conservative state health care “reform” plan, and where they disparaged singlepayer advocates as “silly leftists.”

While Medina has an admirable history, its clear that long ago he sold his soul to Andy Stern. The majority of managers I met in SEIU international never worked a blue collar job or any kind of working class job, and had no interest in listening to workers (polls and focus groups were all they cared about). They were arrogant, conceited, obnoxious, convinced they were right about everything, and that they were the “cool kids” that everyone else had to bow down to. Anyone with experience in another union, and with working class experience outside of SEIU was considered suspect, and if they showed the slightest hesitation about drinking the purple kool-aid, they were marked for elimination. SEIU prefers to hire and promote people who know nothing about unionism besides the SEIU line and will drink the kool-aid because they don’t know any better.

So if anyone reading this is thinking about going to work for SEIU international, be prepared to conform and sell your soul too or they will find a way to get rid of you.

I am sure there are good locals of SEIU that still abide the traditional principles of trade unionism. But the locals in Colorado were completely under the thumb of the international union. And they would hold membership meetings once every 2 or 3 years. They are completely staff-driven, not worker-driven. The workers are only called upon to ratify what the “cool kids” have already decided. Everything is staged, scripted and faked.

With regard to Medina’s role in DSA – as a DSA member I think he should be disqualified from serving as an honorary chair or any other kind of officer in a democratic socialist organization. To me a union is not just an institution – the union is the unity of the workers in the shop, be it a factory, a hospital, a nursing home or whatever. UHW members are clearly united behind their leadership. By attacking UHW to crush dissent within the organization, SEIU international is attacking the workers and engaging in union-busting. By backing this union-busting as the top leader of SEIU in California, Medina is scabbing on the working class movement. His loyalty is to Stern, not to the working class.

If this is 21st century unionism, then leave me back in the 20th century when unions acted like unions. If old-fashioned militance was good enough for Walter Reuther, Harry Bridges, the original Jimmy Hoffa and Jerry Wurf, then it is good enough for me. Eliseo Medina, Gerry Hudson, Anna Burger and Andy Stern aren’t worthy of wiping the feet of those great unionists.


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