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Behind the crisis in SEIU Local 250

November 5, 2004 | Page 11

SERVICE EMPLOYEES International Union Local 250 in Northern California has recently been shaken by workers' efforts to form independent unions. LARRY BRADSHAW, chief steward of the Paramedic Chapter of SEIU Local 790 in the Bay Area, and LORRIE BETH SLONSKY, a member of the same chapter and editor of the Gurney Gazette, look at the roots of the controversy.

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PARAMEDICS AND other medical care workers in Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 250 are challenging and contesting their union representation.

In September, the local narrowly averted decertification by paramedics, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), dispatchers and critical care nurses. The decertification effort involved nearly 2,400 employees of American Medical Response (AMR), the large national ambulance conglomerate, and pitted Local 250 with its 100,000 members against a newly formed independent union called the National Emergency Medical Services Association (NEMSA).

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election resulted in a draw, with the 660 workers voting to stay with Local 250, and 604 voting to go with NEMSA. In addition, 30 voted for no representation and another 38 ballots were challenged. The result means that neither union reached the "50 percent plus one" threshold. Torren Colcord, an official with NEMSA, predicts a second runoff vote.

This latest setback for the SEIU in Northern California comes on the heels of an earlier defection by San Francisco janitors. In August, the janitors voted 947 to 573 to leave SEIU Local 1877 and joined the newly formed United Service Workers for Democracy (USWD) Local 87--the number of their old SEIU local before it was merged into the larger Local 1877. Some 139 ballots were challenged or declared void, but the lopsided margin of victory makes a challenge or appeal by SEIU unlikely.

In the case of both the janitors and the ambulance workers, rank-and-file anger and dissatisfaction with the SEIU prompted efforts to leave the larger union and form smaller, more responsive independent unions. "We have been dissatisfied with Local 250 for years," one veteran EMT from AMR told a reporter. "They are not responsive. They collected our dues and you don't see them for years."

In a similar vein, a janitor at San Francisco's Moscone Center added, "After the merger, SEIU 1877 sold us out by signing a sweetheart contract that allows management to replace workers making $17 an hour and earning full benefits with workers making only $9 an hour with no benefits." The janitor continued, "Now our work hours are being cut and our workload increased. That is why we want to join Local 87 members in forming a new independent union for janitors in San Francisco."

The challenge posed to SEIU by the new unions is threatening to spread. Some San Francisco janitors continue to be represented by SEIU Local 1877 because certain units of janitors did not initially petition the NLRB for a vote or did not meet the 30 percent signature threshold to qualify for a vote. Given the large margin of victory, however, those units may yet choose to join USWD Local 87.

Meanwhile, paramedics in San Mateo County voted by 83 percent to leave the SEIU and opt for NEMSA--and they've negotiated the first NEMSA contract. NEMSA is also challenging the SEIU in Oak Valley and in Sacramento.

Socialist Worker spoke with Arnie, an EMT at AMR for 15 years, and a Local 250 shop steward, about why workers voted to leave SEIU. "My main motivation was change," explained Arnie, "I thought NEMSA could breath some new life into the industry."

Arnie reported that almost all the Local 250 shop stewards in Alameda County supported NEMSA--and that Local 250 officials challenged her and other shop stewards' votes in the election. Torren Colcord confirms that most of the challenged votes were NEMSA supporters. The NLRB has yet to rule on the challenged votes, declare a winner or decide whether to schedule a runoff vote between Local 250 and NEMSA.

For their part, the janitors' defection was prompted in part by recent concessionary contracts and by the heavy-handed intervention of the international union. In the last two years, the SEIU has removed the elected leadership of the janitors' local, fired the staff, placed the local in trusteeship and forced the local into a merger into the statewide janitors' Local 1877--all over the objections of the membership of Local 87 and without a vote by the rank and file.

SEIU Local 87 began with 600 members in 1936 and through aggressive organizing became one of the strongest janitor's locals in the county. All janitors in San Francisco were union members. The union had the right to strike at any time and the local controlled hiring and job assignments through the union hiring hall. Union power produced high wages, good pensions and full family health benefits.

During the 1970s and the 1980s, however, Local 87 officials consolidated power by demobilizing rank-and-file participation through a series of bylaw changes. The local's officials relied more and more on deals with the employers and the local Democratic Party establishment. Charges of corruption and misuse of the hiring hall flourished. In 1988, the employers, sensing a much weaker union, went on the offensive, hiring a notorious union-busting firm and provoking a strike--and the settlement wiped out 35 years of union gains.

SEIU Local 87officials--who in the past had presided over the decline in pay, benefits, and working conditions--revolted when the international moved to merge Local 87 into the statewide janitor's Local 1877. "Yet in three short months after SEIU took control, it has reduced our drug benefits, increased our workload by pushing gang cleaning in buildings and most recently, allowed companies to take control of hiring," a member complained. "Soon the union hiring hall--and/or our job security--will be gone!"

Sensing the loss of their position, Local 87 officials joined with the rank-and-file opposition and were removed from office. Local 87 members, who had a long history of reform movements, staged a dues boycott. When that failed, they launched USWD Local 87. Despite personal appearances and lobbying by SEIU International President Andrew Stern, the janitors opted for the new union by a large margin.

The rank-and-file revolts by janitors and ambulance workers do not bode well for Stern and the SEIU leadership. The SEIU has a strategy of pushing large statewide locals of tens and hundreds of thousands of workers who have no control over their union representatives, who are all appointed by the local president.

The International is supporting the merger of many health care locals in California into SEIU Local 250 and has forced other local janitors' unions into the huge statewide Local 1877. Janitors in Los Angeles Local 399 were also put into trusteeship and merged into Local 1877 despite massive resistance, including a sit-in and hunger strike at the union offices.

The SEIU proposes a similar strategy for the national labor movement. Stern is one of five national union leaders who are the architects of the New Unity Partnership (NUP). The NUP argues unions will never be successful until we get rid of the old all-purpose unions and replace them with 15 big centralized unions that have clear jurisdictional authority and clout within their respective industries.

The NUP plan calls for lots of centralization, lots of streamlining, lots of appointments from above--and it consciously advocates less union democracy. Stern recently wrote, "The purpose of union structures is for workers to be able to unite, fight and win together, not make it easier or harder (to) elect or reelect the leaders."

Stern ignores the obvious--that when members have the ability to elect their leaders, it makes it more likely that these leaders will represent their members. Union democracy creates stronger, not weaker, unions.

Ironically, the SEIU survived the ambulance decertification vote by promising more local autonomy to the paramedics and EMTs. But the recent votes by San Francisco janitors and Northern California emergency care workers indicate that significant sections of the SEIU's membership value and prefer local autonomy and membership control to large, centralized, bureaucratic locals.

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