Money in the name of justice

The Unions

Perhaps I should get a medal for being the ten billionth person to bash the purple bastards at SEIU, but it still needs to be done because too many people haven't seen their true face. The Service Employees International Union is known for a number of things to activists, including raiding smaller unions, cutting shady deals with management to the detriment of the workers and workplace democracy, and screwing over their own staff. Unfortunately, such abhorrent practices aren't limited to SEIU or the labor movement alone, but the purple shysters sure are good example.

In 2008, after the Puerto Rican teachers' union (FMPR) lost its recognition from the Puerto Rican government, SEIU attempted to raid the island and take over as the representative of the teachers. They attempted to act as a yellow union (one that colludes with management) and were very close to the island's corrupt governor, Anibal Acevedo Vila. FMPR still had 12,000 dues paying members and wasn't willing to let SEIU come in and be a puppet union. A campaign ensued, but SEIU was the only union on the ballot. The teachers' of Puerto Rico voted "no" and stuck with FMPR. SEIU also attempted to stifle and intimidate dissenters within their own ranks when their own members spoke out against the attempted raid on FMPR (Early, 2008).

Let me take a second here to point out that union bureaucrats intimidating their own members for dissenting is nothing new. Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States that “AFL officials drew large salaries, hobnobbed with employers, even moved in high society…The well-paid leaders of the AFL were protected from criticism by tightly controlled meetings and by ‘goon’ squads - hired toughs originally used against strikebreakers but after a while used to intimidate and beat up opponents inside the union” (Zinn, 1980, p. 304) This intimidation, though much less violent today, still goes on inside the major unions when the rank-and-file dare to dissent and work for change within their union.

SEIU also attacked a Labor Notes conference in 2008 because they were angry that the head of the rival California Nurses Association would be speaking. Injuries were reported as SEIU heavies rushed the doors, body slammed people, and physically beat people (including women). All over a bitter rivalry started by SEIU's attacks on CNA (“Labor Notes Staff” source). The rivalry between the two unions has some history, and getting into it here would go beyond the scope of this essay. Much of it has to do with SEIU making a deal with hospital management and California politicians on hospital staffing ratios. SEIU sided with those that would decrease the number of hospital staff (decrease nurse to patient ratios) just so they could get preferential treatment. Every good capitalist knows that one good way to make a profit is to squeeze more labor out of fewer workers, and SEIU showed its true colors when it sided against the interests of nurses (Shaw, 2012).

So why would SEIU serve as the schoolyard bullies of the labor movement? Because there is money in it. If they can take over a bargaining unit from another union, then they will get more dues money and their overpaid officials like Mary Kay Henry can get a bigger house. If they can become close to management and business owners, they will have an easier time in their campaigns to represent (or steal) a bargaining unit. That, again, means more dues money for pigs at the trough such as Henry, Sterns, and so on. Again, SEIU isn't the only union to carry out such abhorrent strategies. Raids are quite common throughout the labor movement because the overpaid leaders are putting money before the interests of the workers.

Another example comes from community organizer Michael Gecan's book Going Public. Gecan is an organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation. In his book, he describes how his organization was building affordable homes for low-income residents in Brooklyn. He describes how a construction union (which he left unnamed) attempted to intimidate his organization into paying money into the pensions of imaginary workers! Not only that, the homes being built had nothing to do with the union that was threatening the IAF project with "accidents" for not giving them money for non-existent workers. Fortunately, the authorities had already been investigating this union for its intimidation of others in the city (Gecan, 2002, ps. 104-106).

Unions vs. staff unions.

On multiple occasions, union staffers have unionized themselves and gone on strike against union bosses who emulate the hierarchy, culture, and practices of the business world.

Union salesmen, or “organizers” as liberals still claim they are, are required to sell membership to a certain number of workers each week or be fired. These quotas aren’t determined practically, but rather by bosses far removed from the workplaces and communities that their staff is working in. One organizer from the Fight for 15 campaign was arbitrarily fired around Christmas by SEIU despite having a family to support (Forman, 2013).

A good example, seeing as how I’ve already beat the SEIU horse to death, is the state chapters of the National Education Association (NEA is a union for anyone in the education industry). On multiple occasions the state associations have broke out the old union-busting techniques on their staff union. For example, Oregon Education Association offices were closed as retaliation for a lawsuit filed by the staff union against the OEA. The OEA had terminated secretaries in various offices, and the union demanded the secretaries get their jobs back. Instead of talking it out with their own employees, the OEA closed the offices of the former secretaries. It is also worth mentioning that OEA staff members went on strike in 2008 (Kullgren, 2014). In Virginia in 2012, there was talk of a possible lockout of, or strike by, VEA staff members (see the “Virginia Professional Staff Association” Facebook page). I was present at a staff meeting when someone brought up how VEA had hired what he described as “a union-busting lawyer” to deal with the internal labor dispute. In 2014, the staff union took the VEA to court over breaches of the collective bargaining agreement (“Virginia Professional Staff Association et al vs. VEA” source).

Community and Advocacy Organizations

Everyone remembers ACORN. In 2004, ACORN campaigned to raise the minimum wage in Florida. Considering the language and campaigns coming from today's labor movement, it is ironic that the AFL-CIO didn't support ACORN's campaign to raise the minimum wage (Rathke, 2005, ps. 59-61). Unions aren't the only ones betraying the interests of working-class people and putting money and politics before justice. ACORN itself is guilty of this as well.

In the documentary Battle for Brooklyn (2011), there is footage of ACORN holding demonstrations in support of the Atlantic Yards Project. This project was put forth by wealthy real estate developer Bruce Ratner in order to build a basketball stadium by kicking the residents of Prospect Heights out of their homes. Many underhanded tactics were used, including falsely declaring the neighborhood as "blighted" and using private security goons to intimidate residents who refused to move. ACORN, along with various unions, is shown supporting the gentrification of this neighborhood and supporting Ratner the real estate tycoon. The documentary ends with the residents being defeated, but still getting some hollow justice. Most of the development Ratner promised to carry out was never done, and the majority of the jobs he claimed the Atlantic Yards Project would create were never created. ACORN and the unions just sided with Ratner in hopes that he would hire their people. They didn't have a contract or any sort of agreement, not even a pinky-promise. ACORN just blindly sided against the interests of working-class residents and took the word of a wealthy capitalist without question (Galinsky & Hawley, 2011).

Many organizations claiming to work for justice, such as the PIRG-affiliated Fund for the Public Interest, act in manners contradictory to their progressive message. In These Times reported on the plight of one Fund employee, David Neel, who was fired for his union activism. 12 other Fund workers were also fired due to their efforts to unionize the Fund’s call center in Portland. Neel’s story gained the attention it did because he was able to prove to National Labor Relations Board officials and a federal judge that he was illegally fired for his work in the union. The courts ordered the Fund for the Public Interest to give Neel his job back with back pay, but they continued to try and weasel out of respecting this worker’s rights. In the end, he caved in
and accepted a settlement of over $26,000 from the Fund after a car accident left him and his fiancée severely injured (McIntosh, 2014).

Many progressive organizations contract out their organizing and fundraising work to staffing agencies like Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. and Work for Progress. These agencies treat their workers just as bad as any fast food chain or Amazon warehouse. Sometimes they outdo them when it comes to exploiting and cheating their employees.

As a former Amazon worker myself, I would like to compare GCI to Amazon. I don’t mention my time at Amazon to defend its management practices or its exploitation. On the contrary, working at Amazon is like working in prison. The reason I make this comparison is to show the reader just how awful of a workplace GCI and its counterparts are. If places like GCI, SEIU, and others are comparable to, or worse than, a sweatshop with a high turnover rate like the Amazon warehouses, then what does that say about the state of organizing? What does that tell you about the organizations influencing, and in some instances guiding, grassroots activists, workers, and various movements? Think what you want, but it doesn’t tell me anything good.

Amazon’s temp workers are given at least six weeks to try and meet their impossible scanning rates (basically quotas). They’re verbally abused and forced to work ridiculous hours in the process. Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., on the other hand, gives its new hires three days to meet the impossible fundraising quota. If they fail to meet the quota, they are fired within their first week or two. GCI has a turnover rate that would make any fast food manager cringe. The majority of workers are terminated within the first week. A GCI employee in Portland, Oregon told In These Times, “I’ve been in the office about three weeks; I’m one of the longest-term employees there now. I have seen over 70 [to] 80 percent of the people working there when I was hired be fired since then” (Burley, 2014).

GCI workers were also told that they had to opt out of the company healthcare plan if they wanted to be hired. Amazon and its temp agency Integrity Staffing never made me opt out of the health plan. Instead, they neglected to make an effort to inform me about it outside of a page or two in the new employee handbook (Burley, 2014).

Things became so bad at GCI and other “progressive and grassroots” contractors that workers sought to unionize as part of the Industrial Workers of the World. Unsurprisingly, management broke out all traditional anti-union techniques that you will find at fast food chains, warehouses, factories, and elsewhere. They refused to recognize and negotiate with the union (Burley, 2014). This is the true face of liberalism, and, as I hope you can see, it resembles its twin brother on the right