Health & Human Services

Solidarity Forgotten

What started as a rift in the AFL-CIO has intensified into a fervent contest between the public employee unions over new recruits.
by | June 2006

As he headed off to the state mediator's office last January, Kevin Concannon, Iowa's secretary of human services, knew he wouldn't be sitting down for high tea. Still, when he arrived at the meeting between representatives of the state's two biggest public employee unions, Concannon was taken aback by just how unruly the scene actually was. "There were about 35 people in green T-shirts and 35 people in purple T-shirts," he recalls. "It was like the Bloods versus the Crips."

The purpose of the meeting was to hammer out ground rules in a simmering competition over who would win the right to organize and represent 6,000 registered child care providers. Iowa doesn't employ the child care workers but largely pays for their services with money flowing through Concannon's agency. And neither the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees nor the Service Employees International Union was giving up the potential to gain so many new members without a fight.

The battle had already spilled onto the streets, during a binding paper poll of the child care workers. SEIU parachuted in more than 300 purple-clad organizers to go toe-to-toe with AFSCME's green shirts in a competition to see who could get the most union cards signed. From Sioux City to Dubuque, union reps hammered on doors in an effort to swing the election. They even raided sandboxes. "They were actually accosting providers in public parks," says Debbie Moore, director of public policy for the National Association for Family Child Care. "One of our members was with a kid in a sandbox when organizers came after him. He couldn't convince the organizer that at that particular moment watching the four-year-old he was with was more important than discussing joining a union."

When the dust--or the sand--finally settled, AFSCME prevailed. But labor insiders and outside observers alike wondered at the amount of time, energy and money spent on what should have been a much simpler organizing drive. After all, Iowa's child care providers had uniformly expressed interest in being represented by a union. "It probably cost us two to three times what it would have otherwise," says the gravel- voiced state president of AFSCME, Danny Homan. The fight in Iowa, Homan says, is just the sort of self-destructive, internecine warfare that threatens the broader cause of organized labor nationwide.

What Iowa's street fight represents, many in organized labor fear, is the tenor of public-sector organizing for the foreseeable future. The major public employee unions are at war with each other. While the fight is primarily over child care workers and other new members, AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers (which represents some public employees outside of schools) have accused SEIU of also raiding their ranks--a charge that SEIU flatly denies. Growing disunion threatens to divert precious resources from what all unions say is a fundamental goal of the labor movement today: building up the number of dues-paying union members. "To me, this is the worst possible thing that could happen to organized labor at the worst possible time," Homan says.

The fight in Iowa is a direct result of the much-heralded split in organized labor that occurred last July. That's when SEIU president Andy Stern took his union, along with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and five other national unions, and walked away from the AFL-CIO to form a new labor republic known as "Change to Win." The basic reason for the split was straightforward. Leaders of the AFL- CIO, which still includes AFSCME and AFT, believe that lavishing large sums of campaign money on friendly candidates is important to union strength. Stern's camp, on the other hand, believes that strength comes from union membership numbers and that resources ought to flow first to aggressive organizing.

It may be too early to predict what labor's rift means for state and local government managers. If labor emerges weakened by self-inflicted wounds, then managers in some states may enjoy a stronger hand in crucial negotiations over employee salaries, pensions and health care costs. Then again, if the unions succeed, despite their infighting, at pulling in new classes of members such as child care workers, it could raise government's bill for social services and increase labor's sway in state legislatures.

LABOR'S LAST BASTION

The current tumult follows a 30-year push for public-sector organizing. Union clout in states, cities and counties has been steadily growing, particularly in the Northeast, Midwest and far western parts of the country. With the decline of private-sector unions over the same time, state and local government stands as the last bastion of labor power in the United States. If one were to plot the rise and fall of union membership, the result would approximate an X, with state and local sector numbers edging up from left to right and the private sector heading down. Unions now represent 6.5 million, or 38 percent, of all state and local employees, including teachers. By contrast, just 8 percent of the private-sector workforce is unionized.

At present, though, just about all public-sector employees who possess the legal right to join a union have done so. Unions have tried to win the right to collective bargaining in the 27 states that don't allow it for public employees. But that hasn't proved to be a very effective strategy for expanding membership. Sympathetic Democratic governors in Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri have in the past authorized collective bargaining through executive orders, only to see those orders rescinded by their Republican successors.

This is why public-sector unions are turning their attention to a new class of employee: those who don't work for government but whose salaries are largely reimbursed by government. That includes child care providers, home health aides and other health care workers. These could be fertile fields for labor: The child care industry alone employs 1.1 million workers in center- or family-based care. With average annual salaries below $20,000, virtually all child care providers see themselves as underpaid and underappreciated. So getting them interested in joining a union is pretty easy. The hard part for them is figuring out which one to join.

SEIU has campaigns to organize child care providers underway or planned in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington. The Communications Workers of America, in cooperation with AFSCME, is going after the same workers in New Jersey. And in Michigan, AFSCME teamed up with the United Auto Workers in hopes of adding child care providers to the UAW's dwindling ranks of auto factory workers. Not all of these drives are creating friction between the unions, but many of them are.

For example, in Maryland this spring, AFSCME and SEIU fought bitterly over the right to organize child care workers. The battle carried into the state legislature, where lawmakers, whipsawed by lobbyists from both sides, failed to pass a bill that would have authorized collective bargaining for child care providers. Everyone involved expects the fight to kick up again next year, when the legislature reconvenes. Clinton Macsherry, who heads a child care advocacy organization in Baltimore, says, "It's been bloody, and it's going to get bloodier."

In Iowa, the battle took place in the governor's office. In January, Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack signed an executive order allowing home-based child care workers to organize. AFSCME officials contend that they negotiated the issue with Vilsack. Gerald W. McEntee, AFSCME's national president, complained at a press conference in February that SEIU's Iowa organizing was gumming up AFSCME's attempts to claim the spoils of its victory. "When it became clear in January that the governor would issue an executive order, all of a sudden SEIU got involved," McEntee said. In turn, SEIU officials argued that they're the ones who, in fact, started the conversation with Vilsack and that SEIU's organizers were on the ground in Iowa a month before AFSCME's. (A senior policy adviser for Governor Vilsack, declining to pick sides, says, "Both groups approached us immediately after we did the E.O. on home care workers. I don't think that either one could claim to be first.")

While AFSCME came out on top in Iowa, SEIU won the right to organize 49,000 child care workers in Illinois. The union also succeeded in hammering out the nation's first bargaining agreement for child care providers--a contract that may set an example for similar deals in other states. SEIU's $250 million pact with the state pays the workers pretty decent dividends over the 39-month life of the contract. That includes a 35 percent boost in the workers' reimbursements and a $27 million state contribution toward their health insurance. The contract also creates a system for the new union members to file grievances.

From the state's standpoint, the bargaining went smoothly enough, says Linda Saterfield, child care chief for the Human Services Department. Both Rod Blagojevich, Illinois' Democratic governor, and the Democrat-controlled legislature supported the organizing effort. How to pay for the workers' new benefits is another matter. Saterfield says the cost will most likely have to come from state general revenues, although the department still hopes to find offsetting budget savings elsewhere. Meanwhile, SEIU won a contract requirement that Illinois withhold roughly 2 percent of its collective monthly payment to providers for union dues. On a $250 million contract, that adds up to about a $5 million boost to SEIU's organizing war chest.

OUT WITH THE OLD RULES

Strife within the public-sector labor movement is certainly nothing new. Back in 1991, there was an infamous summit meeting between the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and AFSCME Local 47 in Philadelphia. The meeting, regarding the organizing of court clerks, degenerated into a chair-throwing brawl. More recently, at an AFL-CIO meeting six months before the Change to Win divorce, AFSCME's McEntee and SEIU's Stern had an open screaming match over the simmering competition to organize the child care providers in Illinois.

But in the old days, there were at least some ground rules when it came to inter-union competition. Under the AFL-CIO constitution, there was a procedure for arbitrating disputes over who would be allowed to colonize new territory--even if the occasional chair found its way into the fight, or if union brass aired it out in public. In Illinois, in fact, AFSCME and SEIU took their disagreement to a labor adjudicating panel, which ruled that SEIU had first dibs on the child care providers. AFSCME immediately backed off.

When SEIU walked out of the AFL-CIO, however, the rule book was torn in half. Unions that once viewed each other as brothers and sisters began competing head-to-head for members. Within months of the split, officials at AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers complained that Change to Win unions were moving in on their established territories. Allegedly, the tussle wasn't just over child care providers and other new members. Officials from the two unions say that Change to Win unions were also breaking the cardinal rule of labor organizing--they were raiding their counterparts, trying to steal away existing members.

Colorado may be the state where old-fashioned solidarity has descended most dramatically into acrimony. The state's two major public-employee unions--AFSCME and the Colorado Federation of Public Employees, an AFT affiliate--used to get along with SEIU's local, which represents private-sector workers. "It's a strange thing," says Jo Romero, the president of CEA, whose members include state and Denver city employees. "We've had SEIU Local 105 here in Colorado for a long time, and we've worked well together. They don't represent public sector employees, and we all stayed out of each other's hair."

Relations went downhill fast after Change to Win walked out of the AFL-CIO. And it's happened at a bad time for labor: Infighting could spoil a political climate that has been growing increasingly favorable for the unions. Both houses of the state legislature turned Democratic in 2004, and Governor Bill Owens, a staunch anti-union Republican, is about to be term-limited out of office. Were Bill Ritter, a former Denver district attorney and labor-friendly Democrat, to win election in November, the state's public-employee unions would almost certainly get the right to collective bargaining. But that would still require a significant cooperative effort on the part of organized labor statewide.

Cooperation, however, has been in short supply. According to Romero, the problems locally began shortly after labor's national split last summer. "One of the first things that happened was that the Teamsters showed up to organize social service workers in Denver," Romero says. "They drove these big semi-trucks down in front of City Hall. They were bulls in the china shop." In a state where bare-knuckle tactics don't play well, Romero says, the show of force was a bad public relations move.

Then SEIU cut a secret deal with an independent union known as the Colorado Association of Public Employees. Previously, CAPE was in the midst of a steady decline and had been losing members to Romero's shop and to AFSCME. Once CAPE and SEIU joined forces, Romero says, the raiding began. "We were watching CAPE disappear. And then suddenly SEIU steps in with a five-year affiliation agreement. Somehow CAPE/SEIU is able to get a list of all state employees' home addresses, and they start going to town on our members." Romero says SEIU has been bombarding her members with "robo" phone calls, personal calls and monthly mailings.

Part of SEIU's pitch, according to an AFT official in Washington, D.C., preyed on a predicament facing Colorado's pension fund. As lawmakers were grappling with the politically dicey question of how to fund a $12 billion shortfall in the pension system, AFT and AFSCME weighed concessions that included reducing benefits for retirees. According to the official in Washington, who requested anonymity, SEIU has been accusing AFT and AFSCME of selling out their members. "So SEIU comes in and says, 'AFT wants to cut your benefits,' when the union is really just trying to solve a problem."

Loretta Kane, deputy communications director for SEIU in Washington, admits that SEIU entered a "confidential" marriage with CAPE but denies that the purpose was to raid AFT and AFSCME. Kane says SEIU hasn't said "anything bad about" AFSCME or AFT in Colorado, and that SEIU is part of the coalition that worked through the Colorado pension issue. (The legislature, governor and labor hammered out a last-minute agreement on fixing the pension problem in early May.) "They have their facts muddled," Kane says. "We did a mailing to 40,000 state workers, but we contacted AFSCME and AFT and asked them to send their member lists to our mailing house beforehand so their members could be removed from the list. They chose not to respond."

Kane adds that SEIU has entered a national "no-raid" agreement with AFL affiliates. "More broadly, it's not part of our philosophy to focus on the public employees who are organized and already have a voice. We want to organize the rest."

Mark Schwane, executive director of Colorado AFSCME Council 76, doesn't believe it. Schwane is particularly concerned that labor's fractured face in Colorado may hinder efforts to get out the union vote for the governor's race in November. "After a long and grueling ground war, we may be about to see the light at the end of the tunnel and SEIU comes in and says to public employees that CEA and AFSCME haven't done anything for you," says Schwane. "And so now instead of spending all our efforts on organizing, we're having a big fight over Coke versus Pepsi."

If the latest street fight sounds devastating to Schwane and to his AFSCME colleague in Iowa, Danny Homan, there are also those who think it's possible that labor could emerge from the scrap even stronger. Peter Francia, assistant professor of political science at East Carolina University, and author of "The Future of Organized Labor in American Politics," is one of them. Francia notes that labor's last great growth spurt in the 1930s and '40s occurred in the aftermath of the last labor schism, when the American Federation of Labor formed one camp and the Congress of Industrial Organizations formed the other. "During the last major split in organized labor, union density numbers went way up," Francia says, "and that's when the movement was supposedly divided."

Conversely, it was only after the AFL and CIO merged in the 1950s that labor's long, steady withering in membership and influence began. "Maybe it's coincidence," Francia says, "but the decline started right around 1955 when the AFL and CIO merged." Francia doesn't dismiss the myriad other factors involved in the rise and fall of organized labor, including tectonic shifts in economics and politics, both domestically and internationally. But his analysis suggests that union officials and government managers alike may do well to take the long view.

"A little competition," Francia says, "never hurt anybody."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Health & Human Services