Solis for Labor: SEIU Gets Pay Off, Blago Under Arrest

SEIU Official (but not apparently that SEIU Official) Andy Stern is “thrilled” at the appointment of Cong. Hilda Solis of LA for Sec’y of Labor. Perhaps this appointment is the pay-off that the actual SEIU Official was discussing with Illinois Rod Blagojevich. If so, the good Governor from my home town must be royally peeved to be left out in the cold (or is that “on ice”?)
Given SEIU’s heavy financial backing of Solis over the years in southern California that’s no surprise. And given how quickly the SEIU website celebrated the moment, methinks they had advance notice from their friends in the Obama campaign.
That’s Solis above speaking at an event organized by SEIU as part of their phony effort to organize workers at WalMart. SEIU later tried cutting a back room deal with WalMart that angered the other unions involved.
Of course, it is no surprise that Solis is an advocate for labor’s top agenda item: the so-called Employee Free Choice Act, the attempt by desperate union officials to by pass democratic union elections as a short cut to unionization. 
If labor did not like the union election process, they should have listened to the ACLU when in the 1930s they pointed out that the Wagner Act would bog labor down in a bureaucratic nightmare.
Si, Se Puede?
But Solis’ real claim to fame probably lies in her interest in immigration issues and that’s likely why she and Andy Stern of SEIU are so cozy. SEIU has used a low wage immigrant organizing strategy over the last two decades. 
As detailed at some interesting posts at GangBox, a rank and file website run by a construction worker, SEIU was unable or unwilling to stop the shift in their industry from highly skilled service workers at apartment and office buildings when those buildings put in place modern HVAC equipment and displaced largely African American union members. This was part of the battle to defeat construction workers, too. 
Instead they began to orient towards much lower paid hispanic, largely immigrant janitors who were brought in to replace those displaced black workers through outsourcing and SEIU was willing to offer cut rate contracts to secure employer contracts for them.  
This sad defeat – where the wage rates were cut in half – was then rewritten as a great victory heralding the return of the heyday of the CIO by various academic apologists for Andy Stern and SEIU and Change To Win. 
In fact, the one real highlight of that latter day movement was Justice for Janitors which ran a social movement style campaign later made famous in a film starring Adrien Brody called Bread and Roses.  
The only problem? 
That rank and file energy led to an electoral takeover of SEIU Local 399 that upset the International so they put the local into trusteeship and then shoved LA’s janitors into a new statewide local with janitors 500 miles away in the Bay Area under International-friendly management.
The academic and left allies of Stern and Sweeney (who was heading up SEIU during the Local 399 trusteeship) were strangely silent about that top down move.
[Details on the Local 399 tragedy are below in another selection from GangBox.]
There are two problems with this low wage strategy: 
  • one, workers in low profit margin service industries rarely become high wage workers and no matter how many of them one organizes they do not have the leverage to put pressure on the wider society for progressive political change; and 
  • two, much of the upswing in organizable low wage workers has been driven by a one time jump up in illegal immigration from Mexico due to NAFTA type restructuring there, but that trend is set to reverse now with a slowdown in the U.S. economy and then the immigration flow tends to reverse.
Of course, the big picture is that Solis will be a lightweight in this Administration, stuck overseeing the DOL bureaucracy while the big guns like Summers, Volker and Geithner continue the crushing restructuring that is killing the once proud American worker and their labor movement.
……The defeat of the building trades would have been bad enough if it had only been a loss for construction workers.

However it had a ripple effect that went across the entire American working class.

The weakening of the construction unions severely hurt the building maintenance trades as well.

Companies that had dispensed with contractors that used union construction labor certainly didn’t want to have union labor cleaning their offices either.

So they went on the offensive against their janitors, firemen, oilers and stationary engineers.

Hardest hit was the Service Employees International Union (”Building” was dropped from the name in 1968 – because by that point the vast majority of their members were hospital workers or civil service employees).

In pretty much every major city except for Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Boston and Chicago’s Loop, SEIU janitors directly employed by building owners were laid off and replaced by non union minimum wage workers employed by cleaning contractors.

The pay drop was drastic – in Los Angeles, janitor wages fell overnight from $ 13/hr to minimum wage – $ 3.35 – with no pension or health insurance.

And even the cities that survived the unionbusting the union only remained in the downtown office buildings – the suburbs were as agressively deunionized as any other area.

And the downtown workers in those few highly unionized cities may have stayed union but, like every other janitor in America, they now worked for cleaning contractors, rather than directly for the owners of the buildings.

Like the new breed of construction contractors, these firms were almost always double breasted.

Unlike the construction contractors, many cleaning firms were national and even international in scope.

The biggest, Copenhagen, Denmark-based ISS, operated on 3 continents – 100% union back home in Copenhagen but agressively anti union everywhere else in the world.

But most of the cleaning contractors that came to dominate property services were US based firms like American Building Maintenance (ABM) and OneSource. They were very much double breasted – like ISS they were union in some areas, and ferociously scab in others, deending on the strength of a given area’s labor movement.

There was also an ugly racial aspect – many of the SEIU janitors were African American – most of their replacements were undocumented Latino immigrants.

The SEIU did nothing to resist the attack.

And they had their reasons.

After all, they were adding tens of thousands of hospital workers and civil servants every year, often organized thanks to backroom patronage deals with Democratic Party controlled local governments (which often involved Democratic Party controlled public worker company unions being absorbed into the SEIU as a body).

Those arraingements had made the SEIU the fastest growing union in America – from 480,000 in 1975 to over 688,000 a decade later, at a time when most American unions were rapidly shrinking.

In light of all that easy growth in the public sector, why on earth would the SEIU chiefs want to go to war with these agressive multinational cleaning contractors on behalf of a few thousand Black janitors?

It would be another decade before the SEIU leadership even so much as lifted a finger for the janitors.


….XI. “!Si, Se Puede!”

Meanwhile, out in California, the building trades were presented with yet another opportunity to reunionize the industry – this time, in the state’s Southland.

In the spring of 1990, Los Angeles local 399 of the Service Employees International Union launched an organizing drive among janitors working for ISS in the Century City office building complex.

This campaign was part of the “Justice 4 Janitors” project that the international leadership of the SEIU had launched 5 years earlier, to try and reunionize the office building janitors who’d been deunionized back in the late 1970’s.

Officially, the SEIU leaders never talked about that deunionization – or the ethnic cleansing replace-Black-Americans-with-Latino-immigrants aspects of it.

SEIU propaganda presented the industry as if it had never ever been unionized at all, like this was a first time organizing drive, rather than bringing the SEIU back to a business that had been union for over 50 years at the time the unions had been broken just 11 years earlier.

There were some other disturbing aspects – like the union’s very patronizing view of the janitors as victims, or the focus on getting white collar professionals to pity the janitors rather than trying to build solidarity with their fellow building workers, or the utter recklessness with which janitors were marched into a confrontation with the Los Angeles Police Department during a rally in a basement parking lot at Century City.

25 workers got hurt in that latter episode – including a pregnant janitor who was kicked in the stomach by an LAPD officer and lost her baby – and many arrested janitors got deported back to Mexico or Central America.

But, the strike was the first major building worker walkout in California in 20 years.

And they succeeded in getting a union contract at Century City and a number of other major office buildings in downtown LA.

A near minimum wage union contract that was almost $ 8/hr less than 1979 union scale – but a union contract nonetheless!

And it had caught the imagination of workers all over Southern California – and not just the White professionals and clericals that the SEIU wanted to pity the janitors, but the blue collar Latinos who had come to be a majority of LA’s private sector workforce in the previous decade.

Justice 4 Janitors also gave the American labor movement the opportunity to take advantage of the heroism, street smarts and activism skills of the many Salvadoran and Guatemalan communist political refugees among the janitors.

Incidentally, those aforementioned revolutionary Central Americans had tried to take their rightful place in local 399’s leadership after the strike. They, along with White, Black and Mexican American LA municipal worker activists in local 399, had run a slate of candidates in the local 399 executive board elections right after the strike.

That wasn’t part of the plan – janitors (and LA County clerical and service workers, for that matter) were supposed to be voiceless faceless victims, not active participants in the political life of their own union.

So, the SEIU international blocked the new local 399 officers from taking office, and the militant newly organized janitors were removed from local 399 and attached to local 1877, a local run by conservative Chicano officers and, more importantly, based 400 miles away from Los Angeles, up in San Jose (the better to keep LA janitors from participating in the political life of the local!)