[Contribution by Mari Martens] - “Hi Mari, how are things going” - “Fine Andy, thank you for asking”. Shaking hands with president Andy Stern was not the highlight of my visit to the SEIU convention: there were various highlights.
The convention started with the signing of the global agreement with cleaning company ISS. Along with other leaders of trade unions from around the world, I got to stand at the stage when the agreement was signed. We were given a thunderous applause by two thousand people who heartily thanked us for this show of international solidarity and collaboration.
ISS recognises trade unions across the world. Grants them access to the workplaces of cleaners and contributes 100,000 euro to the organising fund of international services union Uni. Afterwards, people spontaneously thanked me: “thank you brother”. How warmly people receive and approach you has been the most beautiful experience as far as I am concerned.
Of course, we Dutch are critical. Yes, there was a debate about how democratic the SEIU is. A trade union that consists of locals with considerable autonomy, a lot of money and a lot of scope. They have to spend twenty percent of their budgets on growing the union through organising. There is increasing demand for co-ordination, for national or even global agreements with companies and yes, therefore more money must be assigned to national, international and global activities.
A large local from Los Angeles dedicated itself to the preservation of democracy or autonomy. They asked for things that have already been addressed, they suppose there will be less autonomy. ‘No’, all the others say, ‘You have become strong through the SEIU, you more than anyone have benefited from the union’s organising campaigns, you will keep participating like we once decided and will decide’. One black woman delegate summarised this as follows: ‘It’s not about us, it’s about we, Majority Rules’.
All delegates are proud of their union. Decisions are taken almost unanimously. They are introduced by delegates with their own stories to tell, well prepared. Little is left to chance. That can be overwhelming: is there any room left for critical remarks?
Andy Stern explicitly asked for people who vote against. They get to speak first. Anyone with a question or a proposal is given the floor and does not have to wait. Even if it is completely out of order, they will be listened to, given an answer and things move on.
The SEIU says: ‘anyone can join, wherever they’re from, documented or undocumented, whatever their race or sexual preference’. ‘Justice for all pass it on’ means that any kind of union is supported by the SEIU.
The SEIU supports Barack Obama, money is being raised, and it is decided that all members will contribute $20. That money is also used to elect city council members and senators and to hold elected politicians accountable. Eighty million dollar is involved.
It was a very emotional moment when Barack Obama addressed the convention on video. He was received by thunderous applause and the slogan ‘we’re fired up and ready to go’.
The final issue raised at the convention was ‘Take back the economy, crush the greed’. This regards the owners of private equity firms who shamelessly enrich themselves. It was decided to organise a global day of action.
National board member Anja Jongbloed of FNV Bondgenoten was part of the show, she said on behalf of Europe that we will join on 17 July in taking on private equity firm KKR.
We have been among delegates for four days; we ate, drank, debated and partied with them. It was an honour to spend time with the proud activists of the SEIU.
Mari Martens is a FNV Bondgenoten official in the cleaning sector. Photo: SEIU