SEIU ranks reject Oregon merger

By ANN MONTAGUE

 Oregon saw a rank-and-file victory on Feb. 1 when members of SEIU 503 organized to reject a top-down merger with SEIU 49. The merger would have eliminated both locals and created one new mega-local composed of 55,000 members from Local 503 and 10,000 members from Local 49.

When the initial exploration was launched by the board Of directors, most Local 503 members thought it was a good idea to look at formalizing our ongoing relationship with our sister local. After all, there had been discussions with Local 49 about affiliating with Local 503 since the 1980s. But as members of joint committees looked at various aspects of issues like vision, finances, and governance, individuals were told that they would not be discussing any specifics—only a “framework.” Also, at the statewide informational meetings, there were no answers to members’ questions. By this time, the leadership had strongly pushed a “yes” vote for nearly a year, using union resources and staff organizers to promote a pro-merger vote.

Questions started to arise as it became clear that the plan was to unite and create an entirely new union. The union leadership had posed the question: “Do you want a bigger, stronger union?” The major argument was that the only way to fight upcoming anti-union ballot measures aimed at the public sector was to join with a predominately private-sector local. This made no sense, as the two unions always coordinated work on ballot measures.

But everything became clearer when, just 24 hours before a board of directors’ conference call, the new “draft” Constitution and By-laws were sent out. They turned the governance structure on its head and eliminated the Local 503 governing documents that had meticulously enshrined our local as a member-run union.

As numerous members noted, they were truly imposing a corporate structure on this new union. It restricted General Council—the supreme governing body—to every three years. And the board of directors, which was an interim body that governs in between General Councils, would have been a bloated 80-plus members, meeting only four times a year. The rest of the year, a tiny Executive Committee, dominated by executive staff would be set to govern the union.

As the new C and B’s were released, members were suddenly told there would be no opportunity to amend them. The only options were voting “yes” or “no.” All the staff were sent out to deluge the member leaders and were expected to deliver a “yes” vote.

 Committee For A Strong Union

The linchpin of organizing to oppose the proposed merger was the Committee For A Strong Union (CFSU). They began as a Facebook group for members to freely discuss and organize against a concession contract bargained by the state worker arm of the union three years ago. One year ago, different “sub-local” presidents and other officers organized themselves under the grouping Committee for a Strong Union [CFSU], to educate General Council delegates about the merger, with the aim of winning a “no” vote. The retirees local of SEIU 503 was against the merger, and the CFSU worked with the retirees to release a statement signed by two SEIU 503 past presidents, as well as the current retirees local officers.

A section of the statement reads: “We [retirees] spent years writing, amending and voting on our Constitution and By-Laws that protect and define us as a member-run union. This is our legacy to future union members. Vote NO for this proposal [merger] to make our union strong!”

A crucial point in the campaign occurred when the immediate past president of the union, Linda Burgin, came out strongly against the merger in a Board of Directors meeting leading up to General Council. Burgin participated in some of the appointed committees that were planning the merger, and came out fiercely against it.

Burgin’s statement at the Board of Directors includes: “When [merger] committee members raised issues, we were told to trust our leaders, who would “fix things later … The [new] Constitution and Bylaws were written not by our General Council, but by Locals 49 and 503 staff. Committee members suggested changes, but they were clearly not welcome suggestions, and most were not incorporated in the document.  The Unified Constitution and Bylaws totally changed our union structure.”

Social media and traditional union organizing

The use of social media was able to bring members in a large statewide union together. About 10 years ago, there was an organizational change in the union that eliminated Districts. These monthly District Meetings were places where members from all the employment groups in a geographical area could meet with each other and their representative on the Board of Directors. Now many workers feel like they are in separate silos, isolated from their fellow union members. This was broken down through the use of social media. Now state workers from different agencies and county workers and home care workers were all coming together.

Once it was clear they needed to organize to defeat the merger proposal traditional organizing clicked in. They knew the only way to win was to engage members one on one. The CFSU organized phone banks and members created talking points to engage delegates in discussion well before General Council. They were listening to workers and answering questions. On the day of General Council, the CFSU prepared by putting together a packet of information that was written to combat the main pro-unification arguments put forth by the union leadership. Many delegates were still undecided when they arrived.

The vote

The union staff had been using hyperbolic and false statements to pressure “yes” votes. On the day of General Council, the only members engaging members were the advocates for “no” votes. They were organized with rational arguments and documentation showing not only the other members opinions about unification but side by side comparisons of the current and proposed by-laws.

But the staff was still trying to pressure votes. The arguments they used included ludicrous attacks on the opposition. They said that the opposition had fear of change, and that state workers did not want to be in a union with custodians and security guards.

One home care worker was still being bombarded by staff right before the vote but her “no” vote did not change. When discussion of the resolution began, the CFSU had organized many ‘no’ vote speakers so that a diversity of arguments were expressed. They also encouraged many other members who were voting ‘no’ to speak out against the resolution on the floor. The number of “no” speakers outnumbered the “yes” speakers three to one. The final vote was 118 “no” votes, 75 “yes” votes, and three abstentions.

After the “no” vote was announced, the member organizers were ecstatic. The two most common statements were, “We out organized the staff organizers” and “We got our union back.”

This attempt at creating a mega-local with a corporate-style governance is something that has occurred before. It was definitely more of a softball approach than the travesty in California when Andy Stern was International president. Local 790 was told that the international could “impose” a merger on the locals without a vote. But the end result could have been the same. It wasn’t the same because there was already a rank-and-file organization in existence that had stated goals that included increasing union transparency and union democracy.

The CFSU is moving forward by increasing its numbers and running candidates in upcoming elections. General Council, the unique democratic institution that was saved by the “no” vote, will be meeting in August, and members can submit new resolutions to steer the union’s policies towards transparency and democracy. But first on the agenda must be to watch for the signs of a push for a revote. Just three days after the vote, the current leadership was already trumpeting, “We are getting calls from ‘no’ voters who say they want ‘unification’ (merger).”

Photo: The Oregonian