Sunday, 15 June 2008

SEIU-convention: Power to the people

[Contribution by Edith Snoey] - Recently, I left for Puerto Rico, to attend the convention of the American union SEIU. Our own union, the ABVAKABO FNV, has had frequent contacts with the SEIU over the past years since they brought us into contact with the organising approach.
I travelled with colleague Xander and Gery, our manager of the Exploration Department. Exploration basically develops all new aspects related to our strategy. This includes new products and services, member involvement, but also organising.
On Monday morning at 9.00 am the convention is finally opened. Not by the chairman, as we are used to, but by a regular member. Well, perhaps not exactly a regular member. It is an elderly black man wearing an SEIU outfit with many badges and a cap. He looks more like a paramilitary man than an activist. But his speech is impressive.
The programme is really overwhelming. The way in which the union’s successes are celebrated cannot be described on a weblog. Recurrent themes are Power to the people by John Lennon and Justice for all, the convention’s motto. All speakers are talented speakers who do not need more than three minutes to get their message across.
After a while, the board is introduced. It enters the stage like a popular rock band. I find it fascinating and time flies. I try to imagine us doing the same and I realise how awkward that would be. Still, there is much to learn for us. The confidence, pride and belief in yourself.
The SEIU now has 1.9 million members, but during the convention it is announced that the 2 million-member barrier has been crossed. The enthusiasm is boundless. Growth plans are discussed and agreed upon. The screaming and applause is indescribable. I really cannot remember how often I have risen for a standing ovation today.
But there is also substantive debate. There is a lot of discussion on Resolution 205. It addresses the board’s wish to have more centralised control. For example, there should be one union in the health care sector with national negotiating teams and agreements on growth and on how to spend the budgets. Especially the Californian unions are less than enthusiastic and they have proposed an amendment. Again, all speakers manage to make their statements within three minutes. The amendment is rejected. However, the board is going to involve more local representatives in the negotiations by assigning them to the negotiation delegations.
The union has recently set up a call-centre. Not one like ours, which is open five days per week, but 24/7. There is debate, since some activists are concerned that their jobs will be eroded. It was launched in Chicago and the speaker from Chicago is very enthusiastic and asks the others what they are talking about.
All pros and cons that played a role in our own union too are being discussed. One critic is upset because people answer the telephone saying ‘Hello, I am from the union. Can I help you?’ What are they thinking, she says: ‘What do you mean? We [the members] are the union’.
In the end, it is decided almost unanimously to make funds available to further develop this.
Then the last day of the convention. The days have raced by. Today, there is a direct video link with Barack Obama. There was talk of him visiting the convention, but that turned out not to be possible. Almost everybody is wearing a t-shirt saying ‘SEIU for Obama’. Back home it would be inconceivable to have all participants in the convention wearing a t-shirt with the same name of the person they would vote for. Not here.
Then Obama addresses the convention. He talks for about fifteen minutes. The enthusiasm of the attendees is boundless. People rise, applaud and cheer; at times it is completely impossible to hear what Obama is saying. But that is not the point.
After his speech, very American, confetti canons start shooting. The hall turns into a party.
Everything has been thought through. The colour of the SEIU is purple. During the entire convention, every board member wears something purple. That might be a jacket, a stripe on a shirt or a tie. Great!
We are full of ideas for our own union. We are going to write that all down and discuss it with our board. Very satisfied, we leave Puerto Rico.
Edith Snoey is chairwoman of the ABVAKABO FNV. The above text is a summary of the report she published at her own weblog (in Dutch)


Peter Waterman, The Hague said...

I am somewhat shocked at the gushing and uncritical account of the SEIU Conference in the US recently. This because of critical accounts by the much-respected and long-established Labor Notes.

Moreover, LN reports - as do many others - of the physically violent invasion, by SEIU thugs, of the annual LN Conference this year. Similar accounts can be found from US left and socialist media elsewhere on the web.

However positive one might be about SEIU's international organising strategy (and I have witnessed such in the Netherlands), this surely does not mean that one has to therefore decide that SEIU is therefore 'good' and its boss, Andy Stern, 'God'. Whatever it might have achieved, SEIU and its boss are profoundly marked by the extremely problematic traditions of business unionism in the USA.

From the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis of Western unionism, we should surely have learned to abandon the categorical good and well as the worship of the TU God. Online reviews of Stern's autobiographical work throw serious doubts on this leader and his strategies. I am travelling, so cannot give reference to such a review by former IUF-leader, Dan Gallin. But writers of such celebratory pieces should seek this out before they are surprised by another strategy with limits and another God who has Failed.

Peter Waterman
International Labour Researcher
Den Haag

Dirkk said...

Hi Peter, I thought the reports on the convention are very interesting in conveying an idea of the atmosphere among the participants. Of course you’re absolutely right in pointing out that there’s controversy over the role of the SEIU (see also Anyway you look at it, the SEIU does play an important role in shaping new developments in the trade union movement, so I think it’s good to have debate about this.