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SF Janitor's Decert Battle Threatens SEIU Stern's Game Plan

By Steve Zeltzer

HUNDREDS OF SAN FRANCISCO janitors rallied at two separate meetings in San Francisco today to discuss the possible decertification from SEIU Local 1877. On August 5, 2004 over 2,000 janitors will be voting on whether they want to leave the SEIU and join the United Service Worker For Democracy Local 87. If they vote to decertify and remove the SEIU as the bargaining agent, this would be a major embarrassment to President Stern as he attempts to "reform the AFL-CIO".

Fearing a loss in this important election, SEIU president Andy Stern rushed to San Francisco to personally lobby janitors to vote to continue to be represented by the SEIU. He and his supporters warned San Francisco janitors that if they voted to decertify SEIU Local 1877 no other AFL-CIO unions would support them and also they could lose their pension and healthcare benefits.

Behind the move to decertify is a long time battle between the SEIU international and the membership of the San Francisco janitor's local which was one of the most important locals of the SEIU. It was founded by George Hardy, one of the most important leaders of the SEIU and it has had a strong independent role in the SEIU. The drive by the International to merge various janitor's locals did not begin in San Francisco. Janitors Local 399 in Los Angeles was also put in trusteeship despite massive resistance by the membership and after a sit-in at their union offices by the rank and file.

At the time. then SEIU President John Sweeney sent Bill Fletcher, his personal assistant to Los Angeles and he persuaded the janitors to call off their sit-in in return for local control by the membership of the local. Instead, after the sit-in and hunger strike was called off, Sweeney put the local in trusteeship and then split the local into two with 399 becoming the hospital section of the union and 1877 becoming the janitor section of the union. Rank and file janitors had won the majority of positions on the SEIU 399 executive board and wanted to end the business unionism of the local. Once contracts are signed in the Local the International pushes collaboration with the employers and in many cases refuses to back up militant action to defend workers' rights.

Presently, the International is supporting the merger of all healthcare locals in California into SEIU Local 250. SEIU 250 with the encouragement of former President John Sweeney had supported the labor-management "partnerships" at Kaiser and other healthcare facilities. This led at Kaiser to contracts that provided bonuses to phone call workers who turned away patients from Doctors.


It also recently led to SEIU 250 uniting with convalescent home bosses to support legislation that would limit elderly and disabled patients suing from being neglected, sexually abused or killed.


The battle in San Francisco over local autonomy was not limited to Local 87 and Local 1877. Local 14 representing apartment building doormen and others was also merged with many members in opposition to their loss of autonomy and local control.

Janitors at the meeting of the United Service Workers For Democracy meeting reported that their wage increases had declined while janitors in Oakland and other areas received larger increases. Many argued that janitors in San Francisco under the leadership of President Mike Garcia, Vice President Tom Csekey and International Vice President Eliseo Medina had allowed wages and benefits to decline as they increased wages and benefits outside San Francisco. In 2002 Medina under the direction of Andy Stern put the local in trusteeship and promised "We will absolutely not cut benefits," Medina said after taking the over, "We will not cut pay."

They also were angry that building managers had been allowed to replace long-term workers with new workers and thereby violated their seniority rights. The meeting was attended by hundreds of janitors.

Janitors also complained that the union hiring hall had been eliminated by the previous administration led by President Richard Leung. Leung who now works for the California Nurses Association (CNA) had resisted the trusteeship according to many union members only when he discovered that he would not be running the Northern California region of the janitors.

He then helped initiate the formation of United Service Workers For Democracy but did not attend the convention held by the local this weekend. The meeting was also attended by members of the independent union Public Workers Local 1 who represent 15,000 workers in Northern California. They congratulated the janitors for their fight for independence and declared that they would help them in their efforts. The newly organized union is represented by Dan Siegle who was formerly the president of the Oakland Board of Education. He and his associates spoke at the meeting about the what would happen to the worker's pensions if they voted to decertify.

Historically, ethnic divisions have also dominated Local 87. Feuding between Latino, Arabs and Chinese within the local had brought literally hundreds of picket lines over the last 5 years. One result however of the forced merger of Local 87 into SEIU Local 1877 is that for the first time in many years janitors from every nationality have united to bring back local autonomy from the International.

The recent national convention of the SEIU also held in San Francisco was leafleted by these same San Francisco janitors. At the convention, the Stern administration pushed through a further centralization of their apparatus. Arguing that the administration needs more control of the locals in order to bargain with multi-national corporations. They prevented a debate at the convention on regional bargaining bodies representing tens of thousands of janitors and healthcare workers that would be handpicked by the management of the union. Many delegates at the national convention were concerned that the railroading of these structural changes were preventing the voice of the rank and file from being heard.

In fact when SEIU Local 415 delegates from Santa Cruz sought to allow a debate on the this resolution, they were prevented from having a voice on the issue and a number felt like walking out of the convention. The convention for many seemed like a virtual "coronation" of the Stern presidency. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on corporate video PR and entertainment lauding the achievements of the international officers in increasing the membership of the International. San Francisco janitors and other SEIU members around the country were also enraged by the massive increase in the dues without vote of the local membership by $6 to $7 a month. Janitors outside San Francisco earn close to minimum wages yet their dues have had major increases. Stern plans to spend $65 million dollars in supporting Kerry in this election cycle.

Janitors however seemed to have very little interest in the election. They do not see Kerry or any of the politicians solving or even addressing their struggle for survival as their cost of living increases while their real wages and healthcare benefits decline.

Steven Lerner, an appointee of President Andy Stern who is the SEIU Director of Building Services has argued that labor's "structure" stands in the way of organizing and that the centralized "restructuring" of labor is necessary to organize the mass of unorganized workers. Rather than gaining power on the shop floor through struggle with the employers and a more democratic structure in the union, Lerner argues that unions must stop organizing the same industries, trade members and get even bigger so that they can be competitive with the power of the corporations.

The growing anger and frustration among the rank and file however of many SEIU Locals and their feeling that they have been disenfanchized from any control in these forced "corporate" mergers is a growing danger for many AFL-CIO unions. Workers in many "statewide" locals of tens and hundreds of thousands of workers have no control of their business agents since they are all appointed by the President and since they have no local autonomy they have been excised out of any serious imput in the union policies.

This corporatization of the unions and labor-management "partnerships" has led to decertifications in many other unions as well. 17,000 University of California clerical workers left AFSCME and formed an independent union called the Coalition Of University Employees (CUE) and most recently, thousands of mechanics left the IAM at United Airlines and Northwest Airlines for a craft union called AMFA.

This growing threat has led to the AFL-CIO establishing a special committee to stop these decertifications but the failure to defend their members against take-backs and concessions combined with the total lack of democratic control is only adding fuel to fire within the membership.


The recent attack on the ILUW Local 10 initiated Million Worker March in Washington D.C. by the President John Sweeney and the AFL-CIO for being a "diversion" and a threat to the "grassroots" campaign for Kerry has also angered many unionists throughout the country. The fear by top AFL-CIO officials of a mass independent workers mobilization could only further their growing crisis and paralysis in the face of the economic and political attack working people face in the US.

A vote on August 5 in San Francisco for the decertification of the SEIU and the victory of United Service Workers For Democracy would not only be a critical defeat for the plans for statewide janitor's Local 1877 but would represent a threat to the continued centralization and forced mergers within the SEIU.


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