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​Students who believe in unions should vote 'no'

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It needs to be emphasized that the choice Duke graduate students face in the upcoming NLRB election is not between “union” and “no union,” but whether to affiliate with a specific organization: SEIU. Even students who believe in the promise of unionization should vote “no.” I am from a proud union family and study labor history because I believe in that promise. SEIU is an organization that has perverted this promise.

When Beverly Griffith, a longtime union activist who has worked as a janitor in the California health care industry for 40 years, heard that SEIU was enrolling Duke graduate students, she immediately rattled off a message to us: “I never thought I would ever say this but I feel it is my moral duty to do so: Workers are better off with no union than to be with SEIU.” Griffith is well-situated to speak to the ways in which SEIU “is a mistake—a big mistake for workers.” According to Griffith, over time, SEIU “began to represent the interests of management instead of the interests of workers” and “bargain away our hard-earned benefits.” When SEIU schemed to dismantle her local union and, after the membership objected, placed the local in a “trusteeship” (a takeover from the top that involved removing elected local officers and stewards), Griffith decided that it was time to fight back. She began organizing her co-workers to disaffiliate from SEIU and join a newly created, democratic alternative, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). In response, SEIU colluded with her boss to have her fired.

Fortunately for Griffith, a federal administrator ordered that she be rehired with back pay. Yet others fleeing SEIU were not so lucky. The union sued 28 of the founders of NUHW for breach of “fiduciary duty,” originally seeking $25 million but eventually settling for less. All told, journalist Cal Winslow estimates that SEIU spent at least $50 million trying to stop its members from disaffiliating and retaliating against those who did. In response to SEIU’s attacks, 300 labor historians, scholars and activists wrote an open letter to the union warning that it was sending a “very troubling message…viewed, by many, as a sign that internal democracy is not valued or tolerated within SEIU.” But this message—that internal democracy would not tolerated—was precisely what SEIU meant to convey.

SEIU is on the cutting edge of everything that is wrong with the labor movement. It is exceedingly centralized, overwhelmingly bureaucratized and, not coincidentally, riddled with corruption. It proffers a model of a union that resembles a corporation—replete with highly compensated executives, a rigid internal hierarchy and a one-way flow of policy, from the top-down. It does not wish to build power from below. It scoops up members in mass—often through deals struck with employers or government agencies. It absolutely does not care what workers think a union ought to be. It enrolls; it does not organize.

SEIU is structured in a way that makes it very difficult for members to exert local autonomy, much less challenge decisions made at the top. SEIU grants itself the constitutional authority to merge members with any other workers it chooses at any time, with or without their consent; to force its staff—even staff which work with local unions—to follow dictates from the top; to place recalcitrant local unions in trusteeship—and the proclivity to exert it; and to tax its members for political purposes without giving them a say in how the money is spent. In 2016, such money was spent to defeat Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries.

What’s worse, SEIU’s policy of lumping members into “megalocals” means that if Duke students join SEIU, we will not be able to elect our own officers, elect our own convention delegates, decide how to spend any portion of our own dues, or have any meaningful mechanism to communicate our needs to our parent union. And that is precisely why SEIU refuses to give us our own local.

Having local autonomy is not just a matter of principle. SEIU has negotiated away its members’ benefits—even when there was no compelling economic reason to do so. We should not be comforted by the fact that dues paying members can vote on whatever contract SEIU negotiates with Duke. Because SEIU controls the lines of communication, it is very hard to organize an opposition vote. And, not surprisingly, SEIU has relied on dirty tricks to compel its members to ratify, such as scheduling a ratification vote with only 9 hours advanced notice on a contract that eliminated pensions and raised health care premiums.

It needs to be added that when a few students reached out to the United Auto Workers (a union that has experience representing graduate students) so that we would have more than one option on the ballot, SEIU executives contacted the regional director of UAW and warned him to back off "or be dealt with." Given SEIU’s sordid history of bullying, it is no wonder UAW did not push the issue. Other unions which have gotten in SEIU’s way, such as UNITE HERE, have been mercilessly raided. SEIU even hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on UNITE HERE’s president.

All of this is not to say that Duke students do not have legitimate grievances. But affiliating with SEIU will most likely make problems worse, and in ways that are unforeseen. The organizational and personal interests of SEIU officials do not align with our own. We want flexible contracts that are fine-tuned to meet our group and individual needs. They want standardized, boilerplate contracts that may or may not reduce our benefits to the lowest common denominator. For a union that has never represented graduate students, too many questions remain. What sort of megalocal will we end up stuck in? What happens if the workers we are lumped with have different, or even contradictory interests, than ours? One thing is for sure: students like myself who believe in democratic unionism won’t get it with SEIU.

Brad Wood is a 5th year Ph.D. student in the History department. Additional sources can be found here:


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