The SEIU's Nasty Fight With Its Own Staff Union

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Illustration: Jim Cooke

Unions are employers too. And the people who work at the headquarters of SEIU, America’s most politically active union, have their own union contract. That contract expired well over a year ago. They’re very, very unhappy about it. And if something doesn’t change, SEIU could have a strike right in its own building during an election year.

The SEIU is not just any old union. It has two million members, ranging from healthcare workers to janitors to adjunct professors; it runs the Fight for $15; and it has, for years, been a major power player in the Democratic Party and in progressive politics in general. The (non-supervisor, non-lawyer) employees who work at SEIU’s Washington headquarters are themselves union members, represented by OPEIU Local 2. Their last union contract expired in August of 2018. Frustrated with a lack of progress in bargaining, Local 2 members held a successful strike authorization vote in March of this year; after that failed to move SEIU, staffers held another strike authorization vote in May; since then, they have started a strike fund, dropped a banner from the SEIU headquarters building, and in September, they staged a walkout. Though the internecine union strife has been covered in earnest by labor reporters at liberal outlets like HuffPost—and with an implied sneer by right-wing outlets like the Washington Examiner and the Wall Street Journal editorial page—it still, incredibly, drags on with no end in sight. Both the SEIU and its staffers in Local 2 refuse to budge. Soon, something has to give.


At the heart of this dispute lies the concept of “layoff protection,” an important part of Local 2's contract—and one the SEIU would like to see disappear. Currently, if there are layoffs, the SEIU is obligated to find Local 2 members with at least five years of service another job within the organization. Their position can be eliminated, in other words, but the people cannot. Outside of the union world, this provision is sometimes derided as a “job for life,” a relic of over-entitlement in the workplace. But the reality is that for those working at SEIU, layoff protection is more a basic survival staple than a luxury. That’s because, unlike in standard private sector jobs, the SEIU has a convention every four years, which inevitably results in new plans, new campaigns, and a reorganization of the union’s goals. “As a result of that, like clockwork, you can count on massive layoffs,” says David Hoskins, an SEIU research analyst who serves as the chief shop steward for Local 2. “This provision is rooted in that history, and is a way to ensure that people... are not just tossed aside.” Without layoff protections, the idea of building a full career at SEIU headquarters is hopeless.

In fact, SEIU has been putting the squeeze on Local 2 for years. A decade ago, in 2009, the union says it represented 133 staffers at headquarters; today, that number is 59. (SEIU organizers who work in the field away from headquarters are members of a different union, the Union of Union Representatives. They have seen a steep decline in membership over the same time period as well.) Even with layoff protection, its membership has been slashed by more than half. That has not been an accident. It’s happened through a combination of employees taking buyout packages and early retirements; staffers being reclassified as supervisors; and due to the outsourcing of a huge amount of work that used to be done in-house at headquarters—the SEIU spends millions annually with outside contractors who do IT, communications, and other work. Unionized staffers see the outsourcing as a direct attack on their membership. “It’s a temporary, short term workforce who are not Local 2, who are not union,” says Andy Bonior, a communications specialist who’s spent 15 years at SEIU. “They want Local 2 as small as humanly possible.” David Hoskins agrees: “They want to have a workforce that is as at-will as possible, like managers everywhere.”


In the last contract, in 2015, Local 2 agreed not only to relax layoff protections (moving the trigger from three years of service up to five), but also found itself losing annual raises in favor of “wage reopeners,” which mean sitting down with the bosses every year to try to negotiate a raise. And now, SEIU has said that its final offer is to grandfather in layoff protections for current employees, but not offer the benefit to new employees. In time, as employees leave, this would do away with the benefit altogether. It would also have the effect of creating a dreaded “two-tier” contract, one that is significantly worse for new employees—something that labor unions of all types routinely fight hard against. “It’s a terrible thing that an employer who is also a labor movement to ask its workers to do, to sell out future workers in order to preserve its own benefits,” Hoskins says. (In response to a list of questions for this story, SEIU would only refer me to a press release they issued last May, which said, “Despite our efforts to come to the best agreement with our OPEIU Local 2 unionized staff, there are situations when what we see as in the best interest of our members does not match certain demands made by unionized staff.”)

Now, the members of Local 2 find themselves facing an extremely uncomfortable choice: to allow themselves to be squeezed past the point of reason by their employer or to play hardball, and risk damaging the reputation of an organization that they all believe in. Christi Fanelli, a program specialist and active Local 2 member who’s been with SEIU for nearly 12 years, has seen the relationship in the workplace devolve over the past decade, as countless colleagues have taken early retirement or been promoted to management only to be fired in the next reorganization—and then, in some cases, to be rehired as outside consultants. She has seen her own job eliminated twice, and so knows what the layoff protections are worth. She finds it painful that SEIU does not seem to respect the value of her experience, and feels that morale in headquarters is declining the longer the fight drags on. “It’s very embarrassing to me, for an organization that I have given so much of my life to, and that I believe in so much,” she says. “We thought at a certain point they would feel some shame within the labor community. And we tried starting this out within the labor community. But they seem to be proud almost at this point of breaking their staff union.”


The long contract fight has made headquarter staffers bitter with SEIU’s leadership—particularly with the union’s president, Mary Kay Henry, who enjoyed much internal popularity when she took over as the union’s first female president in 2010. Staffers find it almost bizarre how contentious things have gotten. Andy Bonior calls SEIU’s hard line negotiations “irrational.” David Hoskins speculates that Henry is getting bad advice, and that she has “surrounded herself with a group of folks who are advising her that the way to win in this moment is to adopt the tactics of the bosses that we fight rather than to build solidarity within the building.” And Christi Fanelli, who remembers the “great hope” that permeated the union when Henry was elected, now finds herself on the opposite side of an existential labor fight.

The SEIU says that it has already made its best offer. Local 2 members say that they absolutely will not sign a contract that doesn’t offer new employees the same layoff protections that current employees have. A strike authorization is already in hand. The last contract is long expired, all of the modest escalations have been exhausted, and people are growing more fed up by the day. Next year, there is an SEIU convention, and there is a presidential election in which SEIU hopes to play an influential role. Both of those things can be leveraged by Local 2 if they so choose. But they are still struggling with the quandary of advocating for their own union without damaging the union they work for. Meanwhile, the SEIU is busily promoting its new election year agenda. Title: “Unions For All.”


Except, perhaps, for their own workers.