Labor Leaders, Have You Lost Your Damn Mind? 

The civil wars dividing two promising labor unions could not have happened at a worse time.

One thing you have to say about today's labor movement — it is not dull. And like a capricious lover, it will always break your heart.

Civil wars have broken out in two unions — the SEIU and UNITE HERE — which many consider to have the best chance to lead a revival in the union movement. The Service Employees Union (SEIU) battle involves its former affiliate, now known as the National United Healthcare Workers (NUHW), while the UNITE HERE battle features the former head of UNITE against his counterpart in HERE. Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times has noted an interesting similarity in the two struggles. In both, the leaders of one union accused their opponents of focusing too much on "good wages and benefits" for current members while paying too little attention to organizing nonunion workers. Meanwhile, their critics accuse them of being "too willing to trade gains for current union members" in exchange for concessions that make it easier to organize nonunion employees.

These are important strategic considerations, and to the extent that these two struggles actually revolve around these issues, they might make some sense. But while the folks at Oakland's NUHW fervently believe their fight is about these issues, only the most committed can believe that this is all that's at stake in either battle. Ego and unwillingness to compromise play too great a role.

Consider recent events. After months of loud posturing featuring lawsuits, demonstrations, and open letters, the SEIU has placed in trusteeship its local affiliate, the progressive and popular United Health Care Workers West (UHW). Each side has articulate friends. Writers Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Mike Davis weighed in for the UHW in an open letter in The New York Times. SEIU President Andy Stern countered by securing the services of two lions of the labor movement, Leonard Page, a former General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, and Ray Marshall, former Secretary of Labor. These two men, both Democrats, conducted hearings for the SEIU which in the end justified Stern's trusteeship of UHW.

Meanwhile, Harold Meyerson of The American Prospect wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Stern, the most well-known of the protagonists, is "the most articulate and heterodox union leader in American labor today, the union leader best able to establish a rapport with non-union liberals and intellectuals. ... Stern and his lieutenants have built the SEIU into the most successful army that the union movement has just now, but that transformation has come at the expense of some traditional elements of union democracy." In response, labor journalist and former union official Steve Early excoriated Stern's boosters on the blog Talking Union, claiming they were influenced by a desire to stay in Stern's favor. Their "pink champagne will always will be on ice," he wrote, "as long they keep praising their benefactor or, at the very least, don't sign any 'open letters' in The New York Times criticizing SEIU trusteeships."

In the wake of this trusteeship, the former leadership of the UHW is trying to resurrect its old style and bargaining posture with a new union, the National United Healthcare Workers. The new union faces enormous obstacles. Its leaders will have to work with no money for salaries or expenses unless they can find a rich angel to fund them. While the NUHW prepared as well as it could for this battle by enlisting allies and trying to sequester resources, labor law favors the larger union, limiting the ability of NUHW to secure contracts for workers who would like to join its ranks. The NUHW is now attempting to help California's unionized health care workers revoke their SEIU dues — probably in the hope that the SEIU will not service these workers and they will be forced to turn to the NUHW. Although this battle will be with us for some time, the history of such splits has seldom ended well for the smaller unit.

At the same time, the hotel and garment workers unions that merged in 2004 to form UNITE HERE are involved in a civil war featuring clashes and legal confrontations. Bruce Raynor, the leader of UNITE, is pushing to undo the UNITE HERE merger and is resorting to all manner of legal and procedural devices to do so. This union represents many Bay Area workers, from laundry workers in Oakland to hotel workers in San Francisco. It has a glorious history of fighting for the least advantaged in our society, from Norma Rae to immigrant hotel maids. UNITE, the former garment workers union, is short on members but has a healthy financial position, while HERE is an opposite position. Each side claims the leader of the other faction is a dictator.

Like any movement long in the wilderness — as the labor movement has been since the Reagan years — structure, tactics, and ideology can become somewhat skewed. For this reason alone, these disputes should have been expected. What is sad and demoralizing, however, is that despite the near-daily recitation of progressive ideas to their members and the media, many of these union leaders have been unable to practice what they preach in their daily work. While this unfortunate posture is rampant in society as a whole, it is always painful to see it in a movement trying to do good. Too much of these two disputes revolve around ego, a shameful reality for a movement based on solidarity. The result is that the potential for labor to be a leading force for social good is being compromised. These events come even as it was just announced that, for the first time in many years, labor membership increased in the country, growing by 428,000 in 2008. Surely this is the wrong time for factionalism.

On the year's funniest new TV show, David Alan Grier's Chocolate News on Comedy Central, Grier begins his show with a monologue about some topical and over-the-top issue. His sign-off line — presented with his eyes raised and face hilariously contorted — is always, "_____ have you lost your damn mind?" Filling in that blank with "Labor leadership," would make sense today. Except it isn't very funny.

Jay Youngdahl is a distant cousin to SEIU political director Jon Youngdahl.

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