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April 05, 2005

SEIU - The Return of Bold Labor

The Labor Movement, like the Democratic Party, is struggling with how to be effective in a world framed by Republicans and big business.  The AFL-CIO has been around in its present form since 1955 and has historically been an important balance to business interests.  In the mid-fifties, 36% of private-sector workers were union members.  Today, labor’s share of the workforce is about 8%.

National labor leaders are split as to how to respond to that declining strength and regain clout.  John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO, and his allies contend that the only way to fight the decline is to win back Democratic control of the Congress and the White House and beat back the hostile Republican-backed labor-busting businesses.  Andy Stern, the dynamic and confrontational national President of SEIU, insists that the Labor Movement needs both new leadership and structural reform.  He wants the AFL-CIO to use its resources to build up its membership through organizing drives in order to have real political muscle.

SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, whose members work as health care providers, janitors, and public service employees, is one of the few unions that is growing.  With dynamic leadership and 1.8 million members, SEIU has created political muscle through its aggressive organizing efforts and its leaders’ willingness to boldly confront both Democratic politicians and other labor leaders whom it believes are stuck in the past. Stern wants to build a grassroots, democratic Labor Movement that will unite a pro-worker majority in this country, take on large employers and unite with workers internationally to build a Global Labor Movement.  Along with a couple of other union leaders, Stern has put out a 10-point program called “Unite to Win”.

There are 4 major SEIU locals in Washington State.  David Rolf is President of Local 775, which counts among its members almost 30,000 home care and nursing home workers.  Rolf was raised in a union family and fits the Andy Stern mold.  He is bright, aggressive and bold and gets up every day planning how to help workers win more power and more control over their lives.  He is ferocious about helping workers lead the way toward a more just society.

Rolf, like Stern, is thinking in creative ways about the politics of our time.  We need to listen and get how important this is for everyone in the progressive movement.  Here’s an interview with David Rolf. 

Interview with David Rolf, President of SEIU Local 775

Q:  How do you see your job?

DR: We are here to help workers unite for more power in their lives.  We help them organize to get the changes they need to lead the way toward a more just and humane society.

Q:  SEIU is seen as being a very aggressive labor organization, both by other Labor Unions and by the press.  How do you respond to that?

DR: Working people deserve to have organizations that are effective and operate in a manner that makes sense in the 21st century.  The press talks about SEIU being demanding.  We believe that too much of Labor is not innovative.  Too many of the Labor Unions do things in the same way they did it in 1955.  A company that hadn’t changed the way they functioned since the mid-fifties, would have gone bankrupt a long time ago.

The Labor movement has to decide – “Are we on the side of relevance and effectiveness or on the side of irrelevance?”  In terms of its membership strength, Labor has been headed downhill for the last thirty years.  There is a lower percentage of workers who belong to Labor Unions that any time since the beginning of the Great Depression.  SEIU is growing.  Our #1 goal is to grow unions to include more of those workers who currently have no voice at work through a strong, united organization of workers. 

Local 775 has close to 30,000 members who are long-term care workers, up from about 2000 three years ago.  SEIU has more than 1.8 Million members, up from 1 Million just 12 years ago.  So clearly, unions can still grow, and workers still have a hunger for unity and strength.  So the question is: how can the labor movement reinvigorate itself to grow to meet that demand?

Q:  How do you work in the political realm in this state?

DR:  We hold politicians accountable for supporting the values that honor workers – like living wages and affordable health care for all.  We work to help our members build power and hold politicians accountable 24 by 7, 365 days a year, not just prior to elections.   

There is a benchmarking problem in politics.  We assume that organizations are being effective if the organization’s leaders have good relationships with politicians.  But I see our first job as being effective.  It sometimes means we are ruthless.  But we are effective.  Our members won $120 million from the state and federal governments in new funding for improved wages and benefits.  And home care workers have moved from making $7.18/hr with no benefits to almost $9/hr with health benefits and L&I coverage – and within a couple years with the new contract it will be over $10/hr for some workers with dental and vision coverage and paid vacations for the first time.

Q:  What is your current focus politically?

DR:  Our primary focus is bringing healthcare insurance to uninsured workers.  The failure of this Legislature to act on that is their biggest failure.  Wal-Mart shouldn’t be counting on the taxpayers to cover healthcare for their workers.

This is the problem with Democrats being too beholden to big business.  Some Democrats can’t decide who they are for.

In traditional terms, we want to move politics to the left.  But that doesn’t mean to go back to 1935.  The Democrats will fail if they don’t make it their job to be effective. 

Q:  What’s your analysis of what’s been going on politically?

DR:  People my age, I’m in my mid-30’s, can’t remember a time when government did something major and good.  Things like putting a man on the moon or Civil Rights legislation or Social Security all happened before the living memory of all young people.  For the anti-government people that’s a victory.  The less that people see a reason for government, the less they will support it.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy and it has happened because the Democrats have been running the wrong way. 

At this point it is not clear who wants to lead the Democratic Party forward and who doesn’t.  We can’t let our assumptions about who are allies are go unexamined.

Fifty years ago, workers knew who stood up for them.  Spiritually, the church was on their side and met their spiritual needs.  Their families were on their side and met their emotional and personal needs.  The Democrats and the Labor Movement were on their side and met their economic needs. 

There is no data to suggest that anything has gotten better for workers in 30 years and they’ve given up hope that anything can change.  People are working harder.  Productivity is rising for corporations but workers’ wages are no longer rising and their defined benefit programs are nearly gone.  CEO’s earn 500 times the average wage of workers.  Some say that corporations have to do that kind of thing to be economically competitive in the new world economy

Q:  I am guessing you have another point of view.

DR:  What if we decided to lift everyone up in the world, in Indonesia and Taiwan and Mexico.  We are all interconnected.  What if we decided to lift up working wages and benefits for everyone? 

SEIU is leading a very public conversation about all this.  People need to be able to pick up the paper and read about this.  On his blog, Andy Stern talks about the time when another labor leader came up to him and asked, “When are you going to quit talking about all this labor shit?”   If you get confused about who and what you are fighting for, you don’t belong in this business.

Every Democratic politician should wake up every morning asking how to create more labor voters.  Our power and theirs are intertwined.  But there is very little understanding of that in this state.  It is a difficult education process.

Too many labor leaders and Democratic politicians think of labor as a group to be appeased.  They sell workers short and don’t help unions develop a strong presence.  There has been a wholesale disloyalty on the part of too many Democratic politicians to workers and the values of labor. 

That’s one reason that SEIU no longer pursues a strategy of endorsing only Democrats.

Q: How did this come about?

DR: There was a thirty year economic expansion between World War II and the late sixties when it worked.  We had strong healthy growing companies and a strong labor movement.  Workers were paid good wages and received good benefits.  But the rich folks and large corporations didn’t like the way things were going and they decided to actively change things.  As a result, government is no longer effective and the babble from the far right is now mainstream.

The change is bigger than politics.  I don’t think that peoples’ values are wrong.  I think that people don’t connect their values to what goes on in the economy because we’ve been convinced that we can’t impact things.  Fewer Americans are trying to apply their values to the economy.  So, good people who are executives of companies focus on their bottom line and don’t look at the situation from the viewpoint of the worker.

Q:  How is Labor responding?

DR: Some parts of the Labor Movement seem to have a complete commitment to being irrelevant.  However, finally, there is a national conversation about changing the AFL-CIO. 

And Labor is educating their members.  We vote in disproportionate numbers and tend to vote for Democrats.  SEIU was the biggest contributor nationally and locally to ACT (America Coming Together) and to America Votes, two of the new organizations to get involved in the political process.  Labor has also run a number of smart programs like “Labor to Neighbor” which focus on talking with neighbors and other non-unionized votes about the importance of political issues and voting for the best candidates.

Q:  And what about what is going on here in Washington State?

DR:  Fewer than half the politicians in this state get the importance of standing up for workers.  Let’s look at the state budget.  It is the Mission Statement for us as a state.  It’s how you decide to spend resources.  Not solving the structural problems of state revenue is unsound.  We need to change the way we spend our dollars and too many politicians are cowards when it comes to revenue. 

This is one reason we don’t have a single party strategy.  For example, we have supported a handful of Republicans who have helped SEIU do the right thing for workers.

Labor can’t simply depend on Democrats. We need to start looking at other institutions, other structures, other ways to mobilize workers and the community to elect pro-worker candidates, hold politicians accountable and win progressive social change.

Thank you. 

Posted by Lynn Allen on April 5, 2005 at 10:25 PM in Interviews | Permalink


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Thanks for publishing this interview. I was a COPES caregiver 1990-2001 and learned more than I wanted to know about how DSHS treats their workers and clients.

In my opinion, DSHS cut the authorized hours fo care when the workers got a raise intentionally, with the hopes that clients would say "My healthcare worker got a raise and I got fewer hours of care". This is the kind of thing you end up thinking if you have very much contact with upper management at DSHS.

Since 2000, DSHS has cut the amount of funding a COPES recipient can receive by over $1000- and the funding wasn't very generous to start with.

So, thanks for the blog- I'm pretty sure that none of the "Culture of Life" blogs will be covering this issue.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 15, 2005 6:51:07 AM

It's a good argument for strong Unions, isn't it?

Posted by: Lynn | Apr 15, 2005 8:03:35 AM

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference SEIU - The Return of Bold Labor:

» SEIU - The Return of Bold Labor from BetterDonkey.org

Evergreen Politics has a great interview with David Rolf, President of one of Washington State’s SEIU Locals (775). If organized labor is going to have a future, SEIU wil [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 9, 2005 8:48:19 AM

» SEIU - The Return of Bold Labor from BetterDonkey.org

Evergreen Politics has a great interview with David Rolf, President of one of Washington State’s SEIU Locals (775). If organized labor is going to have a future, SEIU wil [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 9, 2005 9:59:53 AM

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