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The Black Commentator - SEIU Officials Have a Blast

[A few people have asked for the real deal on the disruption at the Labor Notes conference by a group of SEIU officials and members. Here it is, for those interested...]

It was a weird scene: busloads of SEIU officials and members trying to bust into a conference of labor progressives - bullying, punching and chanting in a scene that gave me flashbacks to the Teamster officialdom of yesteryear.

I had heard that SEIU officials would storm the Labor Notes conference at its Saturday evening banquet, which would be packed, long sold-out. It was also the big fundraising event for Labor Notes, something that the organizers were no doubt quite concerned about. The SEIU picked that time because Rose Ann DeMoro, head of C.N.A. had been slated to speak at the banquet.

I told a few friends, including a Labor Notes staffer, that the reports were probably exaggerated. But the Labor Notes staff took it seriously, and made a statement at the Saturday morning session, before Anita Chan and Baldemar Velásquez spoke, that there could be problems, and appealed to all to debate and discuss contentious issues, but that no disruptions would be tolerated.

I knew there were about 13 SEIU officials who arrived as a group on Friday and registered. Two friends of mine had experienced in workshops the obnoxious participation of these folks. One co-worker told me they were rude disrespectful, but not at the level of real disruption. I figured if they disrupted the banquet, the crowd would spontaneously holler “respect” or “let her speak” and they would be embarrassed and subdued. Was I wrong.

When the invasion occurred, I was far from the action. I was peacefully eating my salad with 900 others (there were 1100 at the conference but the banquet hall couldn’t hold all of them so they didn’t sell banquets past the limit.) I was near the podium and far from the doors where the confrontation took place.

My reports below are based on hearing from careful observers on the spot; where they conflict with press releases, consider the source. At least 3 buses of SEIU officials and members arrived, either all or mostly from 1199 Ohio. Some SEIU reps and organizers were recognized by participants. A few in the advance line, at the point of confrontation, wore bandana masks to avoid ID or pictures, but in at least one case, an LN participant pulled the mask off the SEIU official. There were 200 at most. The C.N.A. press release said 500, and the SEIU press release said 800; so the C.N.A. exaggerated, and the SEIU (they surely knew the number) simply multiplied by four.

They arrived at exterior glass hotel doors near the banquet hall. They beat on the glass and chanted while hotel staff eyed them from inside, a bit removed from Labor Notes participants, who were in the banquet room or still streaming into it.

One of their inside people slipped past the hotel staff and opened the door from the inside, and they flooded in.

The delay there gave some participants time to organize a thin line of defense across the three sets of double doors leading into the banquet hall. The doors were closed and volunteer participants stood guard at them, some with locked arms. The Labor Notes staff had recruited a number of these people, including several long time Teamsters who have seen duty with Teamster thugs.

The advance line of SEIU staffers led the chanting group forward and pushed and punched and tried to break in, and almost did. My friend Dan Campbell had his glasses broken from a glancing punch.

Several Teamsters and others who remember “BLAST,” the “Brotherhood of Loyal Americans and Strong Teamsters” of the mid-1980s, inevitably discussed the scene by way of compare-and-contrast with that Teamster goon squad.

Campbell told me that they were a light-weight version of BLAST. The conference volunteers managed to hold their ground, although they were vastly outnumbered. Jim West, now a professional photographer and formerly a Labor Notes editor, said they were determined to break in and disrupt, and almost succeeded.

Several Labor Notes participants were assaulted or injured. One was Dianne Feeley, a retired Detroit auto worker. She was assaulted and knocked down, leaving her face covered in blood. She was taken to the ER, but was able to come back to the conference the next day. She seems an unlikely target for SEIU officials chanting about union busters, since Dianne had helped organize a couple hundred participants to go to the American Axle strike line earlier that day. She retired from American Axle a few years ago and has been on their picket line regularly over the past 7 weeks.

Another BLAST parallel was the composition of the SEIU force. It was led by officials, but many behind them were rank and file members who had been “mobilized.” A friend talked to some of them and found out they didn’t know that they were brought to invade a national (and international) labor event. One said they were told it was a meeting of union busters. A few had children with them, so they were hardly prepared for a confrontation. Minus the children, this was generally the BLAST composition: the well-organized union staff up front, and behind were rank and filers who may or may not know who or why they were attacking.

I became aware of what was happening when I saw from across the hall, the doors closed, but one came open and SEIU signs and a loud commotion were at the opening. Simultaneously, one of their insiders sneaked on the podium, grabbed the mike and started yelling about union busters. A retired Teamster, Gary Brooks, who films for Labor Beat, was up front and I heard him startle her by telling her to put down his personal mike “before you break it.” Two Labor Notes staffers escorted her off the stage. The hotel wait staff passed the “assemble” signal and abruptly left the hall, retreating to the kitchen area to avoid any potential violence.

It was clear that they intended to muscle their way into the crowded room and disrupt by marching, chanting, encircling, taking over the podium, etc. In that, they failed. Within minutes they left, chanting “We’ll be back.”

The SEIU press release on this disgraceful disruption was other-worldly. Has Leebove gone back to work for them? It states that “Open debate serves an important role as we work to strengthen our movement. The Labor Notes Conference is the right time and place to discuss our differences.” Say what?

Were they bussing in confused (a.k.a. “mobilized”) members led by staffers to bust into a full banquet, to “discuss and debate?”

They easily could have “discussed and debated,” and their inside group did just that, though apparently not in a way designed to convince, more to show how verbally tough they are. The SEIU International could have asked to lead a workshop or send a speaker.

The Teamster BLAST squad, which in 1983 did break into a TDU convention and disrupt and delay it, also issued a press release from Leebove saying they were there to debate.

Here’s who they were going to disrupt and silence, had they succeeded:

First, De Moro wasn’t there. She didn’t show, apparently anticipating some kind of problem. The Labor Notes staff showed a 4-5 minute video of her giving greetings to the event. The SEIU officials knew this long in advance, as it was announced in the morning session, presumably with their inside force listening.

The speakers that evening were assembled next to the podium at the time of the disruption. They were:

  • A disabled (due to lung disease) building trades unionist, a 9-11 rescue volunteer, who has devoted himself to winning benefits and recognition for the 9-11 rescue workers and those in other disasters
  • The Local 235 American Axle & Manufacturing strikers. Three strike leaders and activists took the stage for a short and rousing speech
  • The workers at the Baltimore Camden Yards who are part of United Workers of Baltimore. who won a living wage for the stadium cleaners
  • Three members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

If only those “mobilized” SEIU rank and filers could have heard these folks, they might have found they had a whole lot in common with the speakers and the conference attendees.

I thought the conference was terrific. I wasn’t there most of Friday, but attended all three main sessions and three excellent workshop sessions and was able to meet and make contacts with some impressive people.

I know almost nothing of the flash point of the C.N.A. / SEIU dispute in Ohio. I certainly know the unions have been at odds off and on for years. Whatever the merits of the SEIU International’s viewpoint, sending a squad to disrupt a labor conference for the “crime” of having the head of C.N.A. speak there wa s a disgusting move, and a dangerous one if it continues to happen.

I can’t help but think there was something about the gathering itself that seemed threatening to the SEIU International. I think De Moro is on the AFLCIO Executive Council, but I doubt the SEIU will be disrupting there, chanting that John Sweeney is a union buster for sitting with De Moro. The C.N.A. is on good terms with the Teamster leadership in Northern California. Will the SEIU International be busting up any meetings they may hold with De Moro present?

Their press release was headed “SEIU Members Stand Up for the Future of the Labor Movement.” Doesn’t seem like a future that I’m interested in. I saw it in the past, and would like to keep it there. Guest Commentator, Ken Paff, the leader of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, witnessed the SEIU attack at the recent Labor Notes conference. Click here to contact Mr. Paff at Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

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April 24, 2008
Issue 274

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Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Peter Gamble
Est. April 5, 2002
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