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What’s Next for SEIU?

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Mary Kay Henry stepping down as head of the Service Employees International Union is huge news, not just because she is the head of one of the nation’s largest labor unions, but because is the most important organizing union in this country, the future of the union is that of the labor movement’s future. In short, no one is going to care when the Plumbers and Pipefitters president steps down outside of the trades because no one knows who it is (I myself have no idea and I literally wrote the book on strikes in this country). But SEIU? On its purple shoulders rides much of the movement’s future. Harold Meyerson has more on this:

In a sense, then, Henry both inherited and herself devised a work-around for how to grow the union and also produce significant gains for non-union workers, at a time when traditional bottom-up organizing of nonprofessional workers was nearly impossible. Within SEIU, there were critics of the Fight for $15 campaign, in which the union invested tens of millions of dollars without getting a single dues-paying fast-food union member in return. Some, like the late Hector Figueroa, who headed the massive East Coast building service local, 32BJ (janitors, doormen, and such), argued that more resources be put into traditional organizing. During nearly all of Henry’s 14 years at the helm, however, the threadbare state of labor law’s protection of workers seeking unionization made that the steepest of uphill climbs. Her plan B—securing raises for low-wage workers and helping push Democratic economic discourse leftward—was, within its limits, a winning strategy and will surely be her legacy.

But should that be the course for a post-Henry SEIU, and more generally, for American unions going forward? The present lay of the land for unions is not what it was when Henry assumed the presidency in 2010, nor what it was ten or five years ago, or even last year. Concern over economic inequality and the central role that union decline has played in creating it has spread from academic circles to a sizable share of the public. More than two-thirds of our divided nation now approves of unions, with particularly high levels of support among the young.

How much support among the young? The NLRB has recently released the vote totals of all the unionization elections it held at private colleges and universities (public colleges and universities are outside the NLRB’s jurisdiction) for graduate student teaching and research assistants, postdoc employees, and undergraduate dining hall and resident hall workers during 2022 and 2023. At every one of the 37 colleges and universities where those elections were held, the students voted to form or join a union. Out of the 23,898 students who voted in those elections, 21,613—an amazing 90.5 percent—voted yes on unionizing. (In the new year of 2024, the grad student TA and RA and postdoc employees of Caltech have also voted overwhelmingly to unionize. The next generation of Richard Feynmans, it turns out, will belong to the UAW.)

As teaching and research assistants, or even undergraduate dining hall workers, all these employees fell under the category of workers who couldn’t readily be replaced, or, therefore, fired. That may well suggest that their fellow 20-somethings across the entire American workforce are inclined to form and join unions, too, if only it weren’t so risky. That the largely young baristas at more than 300 Starbucks outlets have taken that step also suggests there may be more of an opportunity for large-scale unionization than we’ve seen in a very long time.

As events would have it, the union with which those baristas have voted to affiliate is Workers United, which is a division of SEIU. In the face of Starbucks’s refusal to bargain with those baristas, and the inability of labor law to compel the company to bargain, SEIU has devised, characteristically, another line of attack. At Starbucks’s annual shareholder meeting next month, it has helped put together a slate of worker-friendly candidates (including Wilma Liebman, who chaired the NLRB during Barack Obama’s presidency) for three seats on Starbucks’s board, and gathered some institutional shareholder support for them.

Still, there’s more that labor can be doing to ride the current wave of pro-union sentiment. Two years ago, former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse and I jointly authored a piece for the Prospect arguing that no union was doing what John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman had done in the mid-1930s: investing nearly their entire union treasuries in organizing the nation’s then-unorganized autoworkers, steelworkers, electrical workers, and rubber workers. Millions of workers responded to those campaigns by joining and forming the unions that were to provide the basis for America’s mass prosperity in the decades following World War II.

In short, can SEIU move beyond what has already made it the nation’s most powerful and politically important union and organize the masses? I think one has to be skeptical, just based on the politics of the nation. Still, now is the time to try, since unions, at least in the abstract, are more popular in polling than they ever have been since the question was first polled.

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