Stanford Office Workers Reject Union

Article by Processed World analysing the vote of Stanford University office workers against joining the SEIU union.

Submitted by ludd on January 22, 2010

On May 7, 1981, office workers at Stanford voted nearly 2-to-1 against joining the United Stanford Employees (USE), an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The unionization drive was launched in August, 1979, when the University refused to recognize the independent Office Staff Organizing Committee as a bargaining agent for Stanford office workers. As a result of this rebuff by the Stanford Administration, the organizers felt they had no other recourse but to turn to an established union.

During the months of intensive campaigning that preceded the election, the Stanford administration issued a series of Election Bulletins warning office workers (often in a patronizing and condescending manner) about the authoritarianism of the union. They claimed that the good relations between office staff and management would be disrupted by the union's adversary role. Using endless misleading statistics they argued that clerical workers at Stanford enjoy relatively high wages, and that the University's own grievance procedure adequately responded to the needs of employees. In fact, as one worker who had attempted to use this recourse described in a letter to the Stanford Daily, a student newspaper, the University administration can (and does) easily dismiss grievances at any point in the process without legal repercussions.

For its part, SEW, which currently represents 1,400 technicians and maintenance workers at Stanford, made exaggerated claims about the prospects of improving wages and working conditions through collective bargaining. Surveys published in the Stanford Daily indicated that, although a large percentage of workers were dissatisfied with their jobs (belying the image of harmonious worker/management relations publicized by the University) many were also skeptical about the extent to which a union would improve their overall job satisfaction.

The apparent reluctance of most office workers at Stanford to stand up to management as an organized group with collective demands and common interest is a serious obstacle to any attempts to improve their conditions. On the other hand, the office workers were probably right in believing that the union wouldn't have been able to deliver on promises made during the campaign.

Legal recognition for collective bargaining units is no guarantee that workers will get what they want. The recent settlement of unionized office workers at Blue Shield is a painful reminder of the constraints of the traditional collective bargaining process.

While affiliation with a union offers some advantages to organizers (protection from management retaliation, monetary and legal assistance) it also imposes strict limitations on the form and nature of organized resistance. Union-approved strikes are the only legal means available to workers to assert their power, and this only during actual contract negotiations, since most unions, including the SEW, pledge not to strike for the duration of the contract. The only recourse for workers who want to protest management practices on the job is the grievance procedure, which is notorious for delays and overall ineffectiveness.

(Sometimes even union approval doesn't guarantee legal sanction, e.g. SEW local 715 was found in contempt of court on May 22, '81 for allowing the Santa Clara County special education teaching aides to continue their strike in spite of an injunction against it. The local president has been sentenced to 30 days in jail and the union has been fined $3,000. The sentence has been suspended for 90 days so workers can show "good faith" by going back to work.)

If they are to make any lasting and significant changes, working people will have to find different ways of organizing which rely less on the traditional legal institutions and union bureaucrats and more on their own willingness and determination to act for themselves. The energy and time spent on seeking official recognition could be directed instead toward developing communications between workers. For example, during the months of the union campaign, the workers at Stanford aired their views and attitudes toward their jobs, and discussed problems and dissatisfactions with others in similar situations. Instead of directing this communication and informal networking toward establishing a union (or now, making a second try to win a union election campaign using essentially the same arguments and methods) the dialogue begun in such cases could be extended to address questions beyond the traditional wages and working conditions issues. The nature of the University in modem capitalism, and questions of qualitative changes in society could be raised. New tactics could be discussed and crystallized into direct, on-the-job actions. Links to dissatisfied students could be established and the separations between workers, students, administration and society-at-large could be confronted. The immediate risk of retaliation by management may be greater, but so are the chances of success. Maybe it's time to raise the stakes.