5/18, SEIU: Secret pacts pit growth against workers' rights

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May 30 2008 06:22
5/18, SEIU: Secret pacts pit growth against workers' rights,0,639669.story

chicago tribune

Members question backdoor union deals
Secret pacts pit growth against workers' rights
By Stephen Franklin

May 18, 2008

Sal Rosselli was bargaining with a company that provides food service
workers to a small California hospital several years ago when he
threatened to picket on their behalf.

To his surprise, officials from Compass USA told Rosselli that his
union, the Service Employees International Union, had a secret deal
that barred him from picketing.

More than ever unions are making secret deals as a way to get their
foot in the door at companies because without such deals they would
not make much organizing headway. Boosting their membership numbers,
they add, is a matter of survival.

But such backdoor deals are causing an uproar within the unions
themselves. Some unionists believe that the pacts take away workers'
rights to strike, picket or even exercise their freedom of speech and
doubt that unions can grow when their hands are tied."The fundamental
dispute is about some leaders making top-down, secret deals that
affect workers' future," said Rosselli, head of a 150,000-member SEIU
local, which is embroiled in a bitter squabble with the leadership of
the 1.7 million-member national union.

That this dispute is taking place within the SEIU has some special
irony. The union has acted as organized labor's maverick, criticizing
others for falling behind the times while boasting about its ability
to sign up members. It led the drive that broke the AFL-CIO into two

Labor experts and veteran union organizers say secret contracts are
becoming more common as unions have seen little, if any, gain from
strikes or long-term legal battles. The biggest question unions have
to ask themselves, they suggest, is what price they are willing to pay
for such accommodations.

"You never want to eliminate the chance that the workers could
self-organize," said a veteran union organizer, who asked not to be
named. A union drive can quickly evaporate if workers do not feel
committed, he added.

Yet some unions seem to have benefited from such pacts. Thanks to a
neutrality agreement reached with AT&T Inc. a decade ago, the
Communications Workers of America have added over 40,000 workers, CWA
officials said.

Winning a neutrality agreement is a major victory for a union since it
mutes any opposition from the company to its organizing.

So, too, Unite Here's hotel workers division has reached neutrality
agreements at certain hotels within the Hilton and Starwood chains
that have added union members, said Rick Hurd, a labor expert at
Cornell University.

While the CWA is public about its neutrality agreement, officials at
the hotel workers union declined to comment.

Avoiding lawsuits

The SEIU in recent years has signed confidential agreements with
janitorial firms in Houston and with the California Nursing Home
Alliance, said union spokesman Andrew McDonald. Usually companies want
the deals kept secret, he explained, out of fear that it will "put
them in a competitive disadvantage with anti-union firms."

Hurd added that unions also like to keep a lid on such agreements to
avoid embarrassment if they don't succeed. Plus, they are concerned
that other unions might want to join the bandwagon if they learn that
the company has signed on to a neutrality agreement. And they want to
avoid lawsuits from right-to-work groups challenging the agreements,
he added.

"These agreements are the proven model for how workers gain a voice,"
McDonald declared. "There is no other model."

In 2005 the SEIU and the 465,000-member Unite Here reached
confidential deals with Sodexho Inc., Compass Group USA and Aramark
Corp., allowing the unions to organize a limited number of food
service, housekeeping and laundry workers. The agreement with Aramark
collapsed late last year, union officials said.

In the Sodexho and Compass deals both the unions and companies made
sacrifices, according to a union outline of the agreement obtained by
the Tribune. The unions agreed to drop any "comprehensive" campaigns
or organizing efforts outside their deal and to block any strikes or
public actions until the unions and companies dealt with the issues.

The companies won the right to say where the unions could organize,
and the unions also agreed to bargain from one job site to another.
That meant wages could vary for similar jobs across the same company.

In Chicago, for example, the starting wage for a food service worker
at a Sodexho facility at DePaul University is $8.50 an hour. The same
worker at a Sodexho facility at Northwestern University earns $7.40 an
hour, according to a copy of the contracts obtained by the Tribune.
(The median wage for Chicago-area food service workers, from the
lowest to the highest paying job, is $8.37 an hour, government figures

As their part of the deal the firms agreed to allow a certain number
of workers to join the new union through so-called card checks, a
process where workers can join a union if a majority signs the cards.
The other option is to take part in a secret election.

The agreement called for up to 11,000 workers at Sodexho and more than
12,500 at Compass to become union members. The unions now have about
15,000 members divided evenly among the three companies, though they
no longer have a deal with Aramark, union officials said.

Andrew Kramer, a management attorney in Washington, D.C., said such
agreements "raise questions about employees' rights." The union is
almost assured an election victory if the company vows not to oppose
the union and accepts a card check, he said.

What's important about such deals, said Bruce Raynor, president of
Unite Here, is that "thousands of low-wage workers are getting unions
and they are winning substantially reduced health-care costs. … They
are winning defined-benefit plans in almost 100 percent of the

'Second class' workers
But officials at United Healthcare West—the local headed by Rosselli—disagree.

A starting food service worker in California under the special
agreement with Sodexho gets $8.30 an hour, compared with union members
who earn between $12 and $13.50 in contracts with hospital chains,
according to the local's officials.

Such deals lock workers "into a second class" and become an incentive
for a business to outsource work to one of the large service companies
that signed the deal with the unions, said John Borsos, a vice
president with the local. But the SEIU's McDonald said that were it
not for their deal with Sodexho those workers would not have a union.

"The real secret deal that needs to be exposed is the deal that union
leaders have made not to organize, and to allow non-union workers for
the same employer just to protect a business relationship," he said.

Zeev Kvitky, president of SEIU Local 2007, is one of those with
complaints about how Service Workers United, the new organization
created for workers at the three companies by the two unions, has
helped workers.

About 100 food service workers at Santa Clara and Stanford
Universities were moved two years ago from an SEIU local to the new
Service Workers United, Kvitky said. They were not given the chance to
vote on the move, and later didn't know whom to go to for help, he

They were told to call an 800 number that would connect them to an
official at the new organization's offices back east, he said. "But
they didn't get any calls returned," he said, adding that he decided
to begin helping them. SEIU officials said the workers should have
been able to rely on one of the locals.

Kvitky disagrees: "I don't like saying it, but they weren't represented."

That's not a problem for Sodexho's food service workers at
Northwestern University's Evanston campus, said Rafael Marquez, a shop
steward with the Service Workers United local and a cook. The union's
telephone number is an option if the workers can't reach him or
another union official, he said.

As for his own livelihood, the union contract with Sodexho brought
seniority to the job and has allowed him to move from an $8.50-an-hour
job to an $11.40-an-hour position, the highest-paying job for the

"Before the union came, it never seemed possible to sit down with the
bigwigs," Marquez said. "And if we talked to managers they pretty much
told us, 'We'll see.' "