Workers at the Washington headquarters of the Service Employees International Union held a vote March 12 to determine whether they would be willing to go on strike. After months of negotiations, SEIU and its staff union still hadn’t reached a new collective bargaining agreement, creating the real possibility of a work stoppage inside one of the country’s largest labor unions.
Most employees found management’s final contract offer unacceptable, fearing it would weaken their job security and the viability of their own union. But they knew management planned to stand firm ― especially when they found printouts of management’s talking points in copiers around the building.
The document made clear in bold that management would budge no more at the table. It also included what some employees considered an ominous warning if they chose to walk out due to the impasse: SEIU “will be well prepared to conduct the business of our members without interruption in the event of a strike.”
Translation: We can get by without you.
In a sign of the staff discontent, 92 percent of those who cast ballots voted in favor of the strike authorization, meaning leaders of the staff union could declare a stoppage if and when they saw fit.
“I like my job. I like my boss. I like SEIU. But there’s something wrong going on here,” said Andy Bonior, a communications specialist who has worked for the organization for 15 years. He said of the strike threat, “The union busting has forced us to do this.”
SEIU, which is headed by its international president, Mary Kay Henry, is one of the most powerful advocates for service and health care workers in the country, representing 2 million members and leading the Fight for $15 campaign in the fast food industry. But while SEIU has been working to promote collective bargaining rights, it has overseen the erosion of its own staff union at its headquarters, which is part of the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 2.
The staff union says SEIU has misclassified employees in order to keep them out of the bargaining unit, leading it to file a grievance. They say management’s proposed contract would diminish the staff union even further by eliminating a key layoff protection for new hires. Management also wants to reserve the right to bargain with employees in two separate groups ― a move staffers say would reduce their clout.
“The union busting has forced us to do this.”
As the two sides head to mediation, the contract fight has turned into an emotional clash over SEIU’s core values.
Dan O’Sullivan, an SEIU spokesman, said management welcomes the staff flexing its muscle with a strike authorization vote, calling it a show of the collective power they champion at the organization. O’Sullivan also called SEIU’s offer “an excellent contract.”
“What they have ― the ability to negotiate a contract and go through a process where their voices are heard ― that’s what we want for the 89 percent of workers out there who don’t have a union,” he said.
A Shrinking Staff Union
SEIU employees do enjoy strong job security. Under the terms of the contract that expired last August, if a worker has at least five years of service at SEIU, management cannot eliminate that person’s position without offering another job. While management is willing to let current workers keep that valuable safeguard, its proposal would eliminate it for any future employees.
If staffers were to agree to that, time and turnover would eventually leave no one with the protection.
SEIU has argued that with the attacks on unions and their funding around the country, it can no longer afford to guarantee workers a “job for life.” But what management is proposing is the kind of two-tier system that labor groups like SEIU regularly fight on principle. Unions can foster resentment and fray over time when legacy employees have it better than those who come in the door after them.
Some employees bristled at an email recently sent by Deedee Fitzpatrick, SEIU’s chief of staff, making the case for management’s “last best and final offer.” The note included the same kind of messaging on two-tier proposals that typically comes from the employers SEIU does battle with, reassuring current workers that they won’t lose anything ― only their future colleagues will.
“Under SEIU’s offer, SEIU is honoring the commitment it made to all current employees. Each of you will continue to enjoy that benefit,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “The area of disagreement is around new hires who were never promised this benefit.”
Employees of both SEIU and its pension fund have traditionally bargained side by side in past contracts. The staff union has asked SEIU to commit to that arrangement ― something management so far has declined to do. O’Sullivan, the SEIU spokesman, said management doesn’t want to be locked into bargaining a certain way in its next contract.
Staffers say they worry that negotiating separately in two groups would weaken their leverage in negotiations or strikes.
“If we were to accept that, that means a fraction of our strength,” said David Hoskins, a shop steward for Local 2 and a research analyst at SEIU.
The drop in Local 2 membership inside SEIU might explain why Hoskins and others are so opposed to management’s offer. The staff union was 138 strong in 2014. Now it’s down to just 83, according to Local 2. The numbers have held relatively steady within the pension fund, but the drop-off has been startling for the rest of the unionized headquarters staff: from 109 members to just 52 in about five years.
SEIU made significant budget cuts in the wake of the 2016 elections, to prepare for the legal headwinds organized labor would face after Trump’s victory. As expected, last year the conservative majority of the Supreme Court issued a sweeping ruling saying public-sector workers cannot be required to pay fees to the unions that represent them. SEIU says it lost roughly 100,000 fee-payers after the decision.
O’Sullivan said the staff union’s attrition can also be partly explained by a shift in strategy, away from headquarters-based staff and toward SEIU’s local unions and operations outside Washington.
“Our focus has been more about putting people in the field,” he said. “That was a decision that was made a number of years ago. That’s a big reason why there are less headquarters staff now.”
Some staffers say they can understand the belt-tightening, but have a harder time accepting the money SEIU has steered to outside contractors with nonunion workforces. Aside from information technology work, the two largest beneficiaries of SEIU contracts in 2017 were the public relations firms SKDKnickerbocker and BerlinRosen, according to financial disclosures with the Labor Department. Together the two firms alone accounted for $4.6 million in SEIU spending.
Salaries for all Local 2 members, by comparison, amounted to $6.5 million in 2017, according to Local 2. It is now down to just $4.5 million.
“That could be money spent on people in-house who care more for our members and for the labor movement than outside contractors,” said Bonior.
Managers, Managers, Managers
SEIU employees say there’s another reason their staff union has become so small: worker misclassification.
Under labor law, supervisors are not eligible to be in a union ― only rank-and-file employees are. In general, to qualify as a supervisor someone should be able to hire, fire or direct other employees in their work. But employers sometimes try to categorize workers as managers in order to keep the bargaining unit small.
At SEIU, the staff union filed a grievance claiming 48 managers should actually be classified as union-eligible employees.
Omar Martinez, a communications staffer at SEIU and a Local 2 member, said he believed he was improperly classified as a supervisor when he accepted a job at SEIU in Washington last year. Despite the designation, he didn’t seem to have anyone to manage.
Martinez and the staff union moved to have him added to the bargaining unit, and SEIU did not object, he said. But according to Local 2, there are still more than two managers for every employee covered by a union contract.
“There are some people who are literally managing no one,” said Martinez. “So how are you a manager?”
The grievance alleging misclassification is now headed to mediation, like the contract dispute, according to Martinez. Staffers said they hope to avoid the spectacle of a work stoppage, fearing it could inflict reputational damage on a union that battles powerful employers and conservative groups. Companies that SEIU has pilloried, such as McDonald’s, would certainly relish the sight of picket lines outside the organization’s doors.
Martinez said it’s awkward to be publicly criticizing an employer whose mission he believes in, but he feels compelled to, for the sake of SEIU’s members and would-be members.
“Not to get all romantic about the values of the labor movement, but I talk to workers every day. It’s hard for me to tell them, ‘Oh, you should stick your neck out there when you have zero job protection because you’re fighting for a union,’” he said. “How could I do that without feeling like the biggest hypocrite?”