When unions bust unions

The Service Employees International Union is getting lots of attention for its battle with Media Matters for America over the left-leaning watchdog group’s effort to stop the union from organizing its workers. That Media Matters has been a recipient of SEIU’s largesse, and has said unions are great for the country, makes the sparring especially entertaining.

Yet it turns out SEIU is as much a union-buster as Media Matters is. And it has a long and tawdry history of battles with its own staffers over workplace conditions.

Last year, SEIU’s Local 1021 faced the prospect of a work stoppage after its staffers, represented by a branch of the Communications Workers of America, authorized a strike after working without a contract for six months.

The strike vote came just as Local 1021 was fighting San Francisco city officials over plans to reduce salaries for 40 or so job classifications. SEIU staffers complained the union wanted to cut healthcare benefits and eliminate its contribution to their 401-K retirement plans even as it stashed away $11 million in reserves. Only the embarrassing prospect of its own organizers carrying picket signs in front of the building forced the SEIU local to negotiate a contract.

Three years earlier, SEIU Local 221 in San Diego faced its own troubles after 92 percent of its staffers voted to authorize a strike over “unbearable working conditions.” The local’s staffers were so disgruntled over their dealings with the union that they held a protest outside an SEIU board meeting.

SEIU’s national leadership has become infamous for its willingness to squelch dissent from its own staffers. In 2010, SEIU was brought before the National Labor Relations Board by the Union of Union Representatives, which represents the union’s staffers, for engaging in “Bad Faith” bargaining and threatening staffers with loss of benefits.

The suit came a year after another NLRB complaint was filed against SEIU by UUR over alleged union-busting. The staff union further embarrassed SEIU by staging a series of protests – including one at an annual Big Labor confab held in Philadelphia by the Peggy Browning Fund – over the union’s move to lay off 75 of its 210 organizers and use of non-unionized labor in its organizing efforts.

SEIU isn’t alone in engaging in the kind of union-busting it decries. When it comes to employee-management relations, unions are as avid as companies and state governments in freeing themselves from collective bargaining.

One such union-busting union is the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, which has fought zealously to stop school reformers from eliminating the seniority-based compensation packages and last in-first out (or “last hired-first fired”) layoff rules that benefit Baby Boomers within its rank-and-file.

Over the past three years, NEA affiliates in Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia and Idaho were sanctioned by the National Staff Organization, which represents the teachers union’s staffers, for, yes, violating seniority rules in layoff decisions, unfairly targeting and threatening the staff union’s leaders with job losses, and other forms of union-busting.

Another NEA affiliate, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, ran afoul of its contract with NSO three years ago when it began recruiting NEA staffers in other states in order to replace some of the 42 workers it laid off instead of rehiring them.

This move came as the WEAC saw revenues decline after Gov. Scott Walker (R) successfully ended the union’s ability to force teachers to pay dues to its coffer. Declared then-NSO President Chuck Agerstrand: “WEAC management is taking a page out of Gov.Walker’s playbook.”

The NEA’s national office acts just as corporate as the companies it often warns against in its efforts to oppose school reform. Two years ago, it laid off and forced into early retirement 10 percent of its workforce – including 68 staffers earning six-figure sums – then went out and posted want ads for 11 executive-level spots.

At the same time, NEA found itself embarrassed by the NSO, which held protests outside the union’s tony Washington, D.C., headquarters, over its practice of terminating temporary workers, then hiring them as full-time workers in order to avoid granting them seniority — and the higher costs associated with it.

Two years ago, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters ran afoul of the National Labor Relations Board after the Federation of Agents and International Representatives complained to the agency that the Teamsters were trying to thwart its efforts to formally become a union.

FAIR accused the Teamsters of meeting one-on-one with organizers in which they were accused of being disloyal to the union, and were warned that local leaders would not welcome their presence during organizing campaigns. The agency forced the Teamsters to post notices telling workers that it wouldn’t interfere with their union-formation activities.

Union-busting efforts by unions don’t get much public attention. This isn’t because unions are less likely to rack up NLRB complaints than the companies and governments whose labor practices they rail against. SEIU’s national headquarters, for example, has faced 22 complaints since 2009.

Unions have managed to keep most of these disputes swept under the rug. How? Thanks to their experience in filing NLRB complaints, along with their deep pockets and armies of labor attorneys working on their behalf, unions have the resources needed to fend off pesky staff union complaints.

Tactics include dragging out arbitration hearings, which immediately stops the NLRB from investigating accusations of unfair labor practices. Because such Collyer Deferrals, as they are called, can make it difficult for NLRB investigators to gather evidence, unions will often use the arbitration process to stall. Staff unions, with their much-smaller coffers, don’t have as many resources to grind out a win.

Union leaders also have another tool at their disposal: fear among union staffers of being blackballed by their peers. Many union organizers started out as rank-and-file members and still have friends in union locals. That unions are the biggest financiers of progressive groups who are the natural landing spots for former organizers – and can pull strings to keep gadflies out of jobs – sure doesn’t hurt.

It is perhaps understandable why unions want the same flexibility to structure working conditions that they try to deny to businesses and governments. The decades-long decline in membership is now forcing private-sector unions to trim payrolls and generous benefits packages.

Public-sector unions are similarly struggling. Cost-conscious governors are cutting payrolls, and states such Wisconsin and Tennessee won’t let NEA and AFT affiliates from force teachers to pay union dues. The NEA’s revenue and membership numbers have declined over the past two years.

Given the kind of existential struggles unions are facing, expect more of them to embrace the kind of tactics they would surely decry if done by the Man.


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