Is SEIU in need of reform?

Absolutely. 503 is one of the better locals in SEIU, but I see reform as an ongoing process, something that must never end. The news doesn't get better. There's only one person that can keep your union on track. You. That is you, if you are a member. Staff cannot do it. They have a job description. Keeping the union on track is not part of it. Our elected leaders cannot do it. We are supposed to be a bottom up organization. That means that you are directing them. So, the responsibility for keeping our union on the straight and narrow is yours... and mine.
Only the members can do this. We are footing the bill, and we call the shots. Not so? Well, then, we have to take back some lost ground.
First, you need to be committed to it. That means you have to be engaged. Not necessarily an officer or steward if those aren't your things, but to be involved and informed. Attend meetings, treat yourself to a Board of Directors and/or an Executive Board Meeting or even the Finance Committee for a wild Friday night experience. Join CAPE. Vote in the elections. I don't care how busy you are. You have time for this. Your future and your famlies future will be impacted for good or ill based on your participation.
Participate in discussions with others who are active. Talk about the sensitive issues. Read up about them. Get all the perspectives you can. Let your leaders know how you feel. Be thoughtful, be constructive, but be honest. Never think that union loyalty involves becoming a rubber stamp for staff or elected leaders. It's quite the opposite in fact. Be respectful, be kind. Your staff and leaders are on your side, but there are forces constantly at work that try to tear away at the democracy of our union. The law of expediencey cries out to become a top down rather than bottom up organization. These forces are always at play. You and I, the members, need to keep them in check, or the beauty of our bottom up organization is nothing more than a fond memory of days gone by. When we become critical of our leaders, let's first ask ourselves if we have provided them the honest input they need to properly lead. Is it possible that we may have ceded our authority to leadership, leaving top-down action the default setting?
Please think about it, honestly and carefully. Our unions future weighs in the balance of how we act, or fail to act. Before we point our fingers at others, let's examine ourselves. We hold the key.

Scott's picture

Re: Is SEIU in need of reform?

I have to agree with all of the key points you made. I did want to expand on one area.

You mentioned that expediency forces us towards a top-down organization rather than the bottom-up organization we are meant to be. There's another force at work that pushes us in this direction as well. It's the sense of entitlement that the leadership feels.

This is not to say that all of our leadership feels this. It's not to say that the leadership that does feel this way started out with those intentions. (I could make arguments about some leadership starting that way, but that seems like a different discussion). And where does this sense of entitlement come from? It comes from a lack of participation by our members!

The leadership tries to do the right thing. The members don't participate (as you outlined). The leadership starts making decisions because they have been forced to do so. Over time, that attitude becomes second-nature to them. They've worked for so long without any member guidance that they have forgotten that the words "member-run" are more than just sounds to be uttered at appropriate times.

My biggest question right now is, "How drastic are the measures we will have to take to put our union back in the hands of the members?" The evidence is all around. We only have to look to see the rising tide of problems. Now we need a plan to reverse that flow.


"An intractable problem can only be resolved by stepping beyond conventional solutions." — Ozymandias

Re: Is SEIU in need of reform?

Excellent point, Scott, and true. We do have some staff and leaders who have, for one reason or another, moved toward the traditional corporate org chart if not in official structure, at least in function.
Looking at it from another angle, some staff and leaders are focused around the efficient operation of the union, with as little difficulty as possible. Such people tend to ignore or be dismissive of the sincere questions of members. Some treat us as unsophisticated working stiffs who cannot comprehend the beauty and magnitude of their big picture.
Staff typically throw their support behind members running for office who defer to them. This "staff support" is improper. Staff provide opportunity for member involvement, but often shepard those committees, summits, etc. so closely that any decisions made by members are nearly always in agreement with staff's pretermined expectations.
It is sad when union loyalty becomes defined as being a rubber stamp for staff expecations.
This is some of the ugliness. We have moved close enough to watch how the sausage is made, and it isn't always pretty. Your question is mine as well. How do we change it?
I am of the hope that we can change it with constructive, rather than militant action. Militancy poses big risks, and big risks are ok, but what are the chances of success? I can only think of militant efforts that have largely failed. We still have some very good leaders and staff. There are many of them who really "get it".
The thing we need is members, and specifically members who will commit themselves to a long range action plan to reform our union, and in the process, commit to establishing better methods to help insure that we can stay in a constant state of reform, being careful to evaluate our plans and actions in light of our purpose and philosophy.
For instance, we need to insure that when our peers are being organized that they are truly being respected. We can't sell them "respect in the workplace" than fail to respect their situation during campaigns. That component is simply walking our talk.
Political expediency dictates we use whatever playbook works, but that is a good plan for winning the battle and losing the war, IMO.