Mr. Hudson is Executive Vice President, Service
Employees International Union (SEIU)
I was glad to see The Black Commentator covering the
historic debate going on in the nation’s unions about how to rebuild
workers’ strength in America (February
3, 2005 “Black Unionists Warn ‘Don’t Restructure Us Out’”).
Your editorial was correct in advocating that meaningful changes
in the union movement must involve people of color in the process
and result in greater empowerment at the local level.
But the commentary was not correct in its characterization
of that debate, nor its description of the role of the Service Employees
International Union (SEIU), which with 1.8 million members the AFL-CIO’s
largest and fastest growing union.
I have been active all my life both in the movement
for black empowerment and in the union movement. I served as an
elected executive vice president of 1199, the health care union
that has been one of the leading examples of progressive unionism
in the United States and is now the largest local affiliate of SEIU.
I share Black Commentator’s concern that labor has
often not done enough to include people of color in its leadership
at all levels, and I agree that the union movement cannot help millions
more workers organize and challenge the corporate agenda in America
unless it empowers Black, Latino, and Asian-American workers and
communities. But that is exactly what SEIU has been doing and what
its proposal, Unite
To Win, is designed to bring about.
Most people of color in America are facing a deepening
crisis with regard to jobs, wages, health care, education, housing,
and other living standards – a crisis made worse by policies of
global corporations and their political allies. We cannot expect
to fight back effectively as long as the union movement continues
to decline in size, strength, and vitality. In the 1950s, when
the AFL-CIO was founded, 1 in 3 workers had a union. Today, it
is down to 1 in 12 in the private sector, and falling further every
The percentage of workers who have a union has declined
in virtually every industry, to the point that increasingly it is
nonunion companies’ low wages and lack of benefits that set the
standard in our economy instead of union employers. To make matters
worse, the sectors that are growing – especially the huge, expanding
service sector led by Wal-Mart – are almost entirely nonunion and
follow a business model of low wages and few benefits, while what
union membership remains is concentrated in industries that are
declining in employment.
SEIU’s Unite To Win proposal calls for dramatic changes
in labor’s strategy, priorities, culture, and structure to once
again give working people a fighting chance:
1. Every worker would have the right to belong
to a union that unites all workers in his or her industry or sector
– instead of the current situation where labor’s traditions keep
transportation workers divided into 15 different unions, construction
workers divided into another 15, and so on through each sector of
Employers increasingly are regional, national, or
global – but labor’s balkanized structure often keeps workers
from developing strategies that match the corporations they deal
with. At best, this means workers’ strength is divided. At
worst, it means unions often see each other as competitors and work
at cross purposes.
More people are flying on airplanes in America today
than before September 11th happened. Yet, many airline workers
are losing their pensions, health care, and a quarter or even a
third of their wages. Incredibly, there is no strategy that unites
the strength of all airline workers, backed by the entire union
movement. Workers at each airline are divided into many different
unions, and even people who do the same job are not in the same
union from airline to airline.
The same problem hurts workers in my own industry.
As the son of a nursing home worker and a former nursing home worker
myself, I am in charge of SEIU’s long-term care sector. Our mission
is to unite millions of nursing home workers and home care workers
- many of them women and people of color - to fight for themselves
and the communities they provide care for.
We have learned that it is extremely difficult to
help workers organize and win improvements at one nursing home at
a time. We have to deal with large national and regional chains.
We have to raise pay and benefits in whole states at a time so unionized
companies will be able to compete for business. We also have to
work with employers to win adequate state and federal funding that
will support quality jobs and quality care.
Strategies like that work best if we can unite the
strength of all the nursing home workers in that state, chain, or
market. Yet, we find that when we are working that strategy, it
is not unusual that locals of another union will conspire with individual
employers to divide the workers and saddle them with lower wages
than the standard we have established. Current AFL-CIO rules do
nothing to stop that, and that has to change.
2. Members’ money and time would be concentrated
on helping millions more workers join in each industry, instead
of on maintaining the current bureaucracy. We have proposed
to cut in half the money that flows to the national AFL-CIO and
instead use it for specific strategic plans to unite millions more
workers in each industry and build workers’ strength. Each national
and local union would also reorder its priorities to contribute
more to rebuilding workers’ strength in numbers.
3. The role of local labor councils would be strengthened.
Each council would develop and be held accountable to a strategic
plan for building community alliances and coordinating political
action to support national strategies to build workers’ strength
in each industry. Local labor bodies - which sometimes divide workers
in the same metropolitan area into many separate councils - would
be restructured to unite workers’ strength in the appropriate area
and media market.
4. For the first time, clear standards and accountability
would be established for full participation at all levels of the
union movement regardless of the color of your skin, the language
that you speak, or your age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation,
disability, or immigration status.
We need leaders and activists at all levels of the
union movement who reflect the membership in terms of race, gender,
and other factors. We also need leaders who are as committed to
new strategies to build new strength as the membership is. As a
result of a conscious policy, SEIU’s international executive board
today is 40 percent female and 33 percent people of color – not
good enough yet, but significant progress nonetheless. It is no
accident that SEIU’s more diverse team has dramatically changed
our union and refocused our priorities to help three-quarters of
a million more health care employees, janitors, security officers,
and other workers – many of them women and people of color – to
join us and improve their lives.
There is more to SEIU’s Unite To Win proposal than
there is space for here, and I invite readers to review the complete
text at UniteToWin.org, where you will also find proposals from
other unions and local labor councils, plus a blog where you can
add your own comments.
The outcome of the debate about labor’s future is
far from certain. But no matter how it turns out, SEIU members
are committed to working with allies across the nation and around
the world to rebuild the strength of working people, give our families
new hope, and empower our communities.