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
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 the economy.
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.