Labor War in Illinois

For a while last week, Illinois was home to the kind of union-against-union labor war that America hasn't seen since American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions used to clobber each other while fighting for new members, in the days before the two federations merged 50 years ago.

Hundreds of organizers from both the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) were pounding on doors in rival efforts to persuade the state's 48,000 child-care workers to vote to join their respective unions. What made the campaign exceptional, however, was that the SEIU was able to enlist hundreds of additional organizers from other unions to pound the pavement on its behalf.

“We had almost 200 organizers today from the UFCW [United Food and Commercial Workers], the Teamsters, and UNITE HERE [formerly the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, which merged last year],” Tom Balanoff, the head of the SEIU's Illinois State Council, said last week. “That was a first for Chicago.”

And not just Chicago. Unions hardly ever send other unions their own organizers to help out in union-versus-union conflicts; the precedent that such side-taking could set and the relationships it could sever would normally deter union leaders from that kind of intervention. The UFCW, Teamster, and UNITE-HERE interventions are even more extraordinary considering that they weren't intended to help a small union but, rather, the AFL-CIO's largest, the SEIU, which has more organizers and organizing victories than any other union (and which was widely expected to win the recognition vote in any event).

Indeed, the unions' interventions only make sense in the context of the civil war now enveloping American labor. The unions that sided with the SEIU in Chicago are the same unions that sided with the SEIU at the AFL-CIO executive-council meeting in Las Vegas earlier this month in its battle against the administration of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Conversely, AFSCME is Sweeney's biggest supporter. The relationships among AFSCME and the SEIU and its allies were already strained before AFSCME's late-in-the-game decision to contest SEIU's multiyear campaign for the right to represent the child-care workers. Coming as it did less than three weeks before workers were to start voting, and on the eve of what was clearly going to be a highly contentious executive-council meeting in any event, AFSCME's entry to the fray set off fireworks in Vegas, with SEIU President Andy Stern and AFSCME President Gerald McEntee engaging in several shouting matches and with Stern trying to get Sweeney to persuade the federation to call AFSCME off.

This past Friday, the federation did just that. Acting with unprecedented speed -- the SEIU requested on March 21 that the AFL-CIO hold an “Article 21” jurisdictional hearing to determine whether AFSCME had a right under the federation's constitution to intervene at this late date, the hearing was held on March 24, and the decision was rendered the following day -- former United Steelworkers of America President Lynn Williams, serving as a federation umpire, ruled that only the SEIU could legitimately seek the child-care workers' votes. The SEIU, wrote Williams, had been organizing those workers long before AFSCME came in, which meant that AFSCME's bid ran counter to Article 21.

McEntee immediately announced that AFSCME would abide by the decision. “At AFSCME, we believe in a trade-union center, and in these times of crisis for American workers, that center must be the AFL-CIO -- and the Federation must be as united and strong as possible,” he wrote in a letter released to the press. “We will continue to remain in the Federation and support it vigorously, regardless of whether particular decisions or debates over reform proposals go our way.”

McEntee was using the occasion of AFSCME's defeat, that is, to score some polemical points against the SEIU, which has threatened to pull out of the AFL-CIO unless it is reshaped along lines that the SEIU has laid out. Had the SEIU already disaffiliated, of course, it could not have appealed to the federation to get AFSCME out of the race. SEIU officials argue that the federation should have blocked AFSCME from the first day Stern asked Sweeney to intervene.

“We worked for years to build” this campaign, Balanoff said on the evening before Williams' decision. “Before this is over, SEIU and AFSCME will each spend over a million dollars on something that shouldn't be happening.” But Williams himself, in his decision favoring the SEIU, noted with incredulity that the SEIU had not asked for a jurisdictional hearing until last Monday. Once the SEIU asked, it received in record time. “Andy may criticize the federation, but the system worked,” one AFL-CIO official said on Friday afternoon.

Williams' decision makes an SEIU victory -- highly likely in any case -- a done deal. And a huge victory it is: The unionization of 48,000 child-care workers will be the biggest labor organizing victory since 1999, when the SEIU organized 74,000 home-care workers in Los Angeles. And both victories were a vindication of the SEIU's strategy of using politics to bolster organizing.

Both home-care workers and child-care workers inhabit a fuzzy terrain in American employment and labor law. Though employed by individual patients and parents, their payment (when they have clients of modest means) comes from a combination of state and federal funds, at a rate usually set by the state. Until the late '90s, however, state and local governments refused to acknowledge that the workers, in matters of payment, had a common employer. In Los Angeles, the SEIU spent years trying to persuade state government to authorize counties to set up boards that would act as employers for purposes of setting pay and benefit scales. After delivering massive support to Gray Davis in his successful 1998 campaign for governor, the union finally prevailed.

A similar process was in play in Illinois, a state where the SEIU lacked the clout that it had built in California. To build the strength it needed, the SEIU restructured itself after Stern became president in 1996, a controversial project that the successes in Illinois have vindicated. Where once the SEIU had had numerous small and disconnected locals in state, today, after a number of mergers, it has a few large ones -- one for each sector in which the union is active. “We told our members we had to build up our political arm in order to grow, so we increased the locals payments to the state council,” says Balanoff. “And we took a huge risk with Blagojevich.”

In 2002, Congressman Rod Blagojevich ran in a hotly contested Democratic primary for governor of Illinois. Unions were all over the map during the primary, but the SEIU joined AFSCME in supporting Blagojevich, not only with money but, for the first time in an Illinois election, with large numbers of ground troops. The union provided roughly 1,000 precinct walkers in the primary campaign's final weeks, with an estimated 400 coming in from Wisconsin and Ohio, and Blagojevich eked out a 1-percent victory over his rivals. (The Democratic primary was decisive; state Republicans were too damaged by scandal to mount a serious candidacy of their own.)

In exchange for its support, the SEIU won a specific commitment from Blagojevich: an executive order that created collective bargaining rights for the state's 25,000 home-care workers. For a number of years, the SEIU's Local 880 had been a legislative advocate for those workers, though it could not represent them in a collective-bargaining relationship absent a legal process to do so. With his executive order, Blagojevich removed those workers from legal limbo, and the SEIU won the vote of the members to represent them at the bargaining table.

On February 18 of this year, Blagojevich signed an equivalent order for the state's 48,000 child-care workers, decreeing that a representation election be held within 42 days. The SEIU had already collected many thousands of signature cards from those workers (it had 24 organizers collecting those cards since last year), enough to ensure its presence on the ballot. Within a couple of days, AFSCME also assigned organizers -- hundreds of them, from across the nation -- to collect such cards, too.

AFSCME criticized the SEIU -- indeed, it was part of the former's Article 21 argument in opposing the SEIU's Article 21 petition -- for obtaining contracts for the home-care workers, and seeking contracts for the child-care workers, that would undercut the standards of other public employees by having no health coverage, no pension benefits, and no workers' compensation coverage. AFSCME represents state employees who do enjoy such coverage. “We've been representing state employees for 30 years,” Illinois AFSCME Executive Director Henry Bayer said last Thursday, “and now SEIU has created a class of employees and signed away their benefits. And Andy Stern says that the AFL-CIO has to enforce contract standards, that that should be a new Article 21 criterion? They came in here and cut our standards!”

Under reforms proposed by the SEIU, and backed by AFSCME, Article 21 would be amended so that an umpire such as Williams would have to take contract standards into consideration when judging whether a union should have exclusive rights to organize workers. But even if that change passed, argues the SEIU's Balanoff, it wouldn't pertain to the home-care and child-care workers given the current finances of state governments. “The reality is that the current struggle is to get them collective-bargaining rights,” he argues. “Once we got that [for home-care workers], we got them a 34-percent raise. And we got a committee to explore ways to get health insurance; we need to find a way politically to get the money. But the immediate opportunity is for those workers to have bargaining rights.”

Ironically, Illinois is one place where AFSCME and the SEIU have often enjoyed a decent relationship, where both unions are known for having progressive leaders and a good deal of organizing smarts (it's no accident that both backed Blagojevich). Even more ironically, many of the SEIU's greatest successes -- most certainly, in organizing child-care and home-care workers -- are the result of its learning to play politics in the manner of AFSCME, which has long used its election-day clout to elect governors who'd recognize public-sector unions. In the past decade, under Stern's leadership, the SEIU has played the politics-to-organize card expertly, and nowhere more so than in Illinois.

All of which makes the debate that roiled the labor movement in Vegas more ironic still. There, the SEIU and its allies argued that organizing needed to take precedence over politics and that the AFL-CIO needed to rebate dues to unions with viable organizing programs, while AFSCME and other unions argued that the federation's politics budget should take precedence over organizing. The success of the SEIU, and AFSCME before it, is proof positive, however, that union growth is likely to happen when unions have a vibrant political and organizing program and a strategy that consistently combines the two.

In an odd way, then, the Illinois episode undercuts two of the arguments that the SEIU has been making in the current debate roiling labor: that organizing trumps politics and that it could do better outside the AFL-CIO than inside. Score two polemical points for AFSCME -- and 48,000 new members for the SEIU.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.

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