What union democracy means

Pub date April 15, 2008
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION The troubles in the Service Employees International Union, and within SEIU Local 1021 in San Francisco, share a similar theme. How much do individual locals direct their work in the face of the international’s set agenda? And more important, how do union members themselves direct the vision, use of resources, and work of both their local and international union? What is union democracy and how is it made real?

Active members in Local 1021 learned a painful lesson recently when we discovered that senior 1021 staff ran a clandestine campaign during a member election to choose delegates to SEIU’s quadrennial convention this June. These same senior staff demanded that their junior staff remain completely neutral and uninvolved in the election.

A key tenet of union democracy is recognition by all parties that the union staffers work for the members, whose dues pay for their salaries and benefits, their offices, and the programs run by the union.

Local 1021’s governing bodies were appointed by Andy Stern, president of the international, at the time of the merger of 10 locals into one. Next year, Local 1021 holds its first officer and executive board elections. It is essential that we lay out bylaws and an election process guaranteeing that the direction of our local union will be led by its members.

We are at a vital juncture. Do we allow the programs and process to be driven by the international, Stern, and his loyalist staff — or do we assert ourselves as members, examine the issues for ourselves, and choose how we prioritize the work to be done?

At stake is not just the true empowerment of our union, but its credibility. We demand a sense of fair play from the employers we bargain with and consistently take a hard line against managerial favoritism.

In practically every contract campaign, there is a battle over the definition of our union and our very identity. We put forth photographs of our members, use their quotes in the press, and otherwise say to the public, the press, and elected officials that “these people are the union — the nurses, transit workers, librarians, road crews and others who serve our community.”

Meanwhile, management — as well as anti-union lobbies, officials, and think tanks — speak in more pejorative terms of “union bosses” and “big labor,” conjuring images of bureaucrats who cut deals, make the real decisions, and are disconnected from their rank-and-file membership.

It is critical that we don’t prove our opponents right. If the boss-like behavior of our leaders and the manner in which they govern this union promotes double standards, favoritism, and a lack of local autonomy, we only make it easier for anti-union forces to drive a wedge between our members and their union.

Nobody has more at stake in SEIU than the members who pay the bills and whose wages, benefits, and working conditions are being negotiated. Without the international showing respect for local autonomy or democratic empowerment at the local and worksite levels, we cannot hope for existing members to feel like stakeholders in their union, or to inspire prospective members to join us in the future.

Mary C. Magee and Roxanne Sanchez

Mary C. Magee, RN, works at San Francisco General Hospital. Roxanne Sanchez works for Bay Area Rapid Transit. They are members of SEIU Local 1021.